United States: After Monica

The World Today Updated 7 December 2018 Published 1 March 1998 5 minute READ

It is not clear what the outcome of the Monica Lewinsky flap will be. At one point, President Clinton’s presidency seemed to be in danger. Even impeachment was considered a serious possibility. But after the President’s (moderately) successful State of the Union speech and Mrs Clinton’s brilliant performance on NBC’s ‘To d a y ’ show, Bill Clinton’s popularity was at its highest level. So the President may have put the scandal behind him, especially as the Special Prosecutor, Judge Starr, has been unsuccessful in some of his moves. On the other hand, luck may turn against the President again. This therefore is a good moment to put aside the details, and look at the developments in American political culture that have made such an extraordinary episode possible, and make future episodes of more or less the same kind almost inevitable.

The most obvious development is a change in the status of the presidency. In the dying years of the Eisenhower Administration, a number of political scientists, mostly declared ‘liberals’, wrote books calling for an ‘activist’ presidency. The most famous and probably the most influential was Richard Neustadt’s Presidential Power, with its somewhat exaggerated account of presidential impotence. Yet in the forty years since, presidents have only succeeded in fulfiling this liberal dream of an activist presidency for two brief periods, both the direct consequences of assaults by madmen.

Between his arrival in the White House in late November 1963 after John Kennedy’s assassination, and the escalation of the Vietnam war in the spring and summer of 1965, Lyndon Johnson broke the congressional deadlock long enough to pass a major platform of reform legislation, including a civil rights bill, a voting rights bill, Medicare and Medicaid, the war on poverty programme, and a major measure of educational reform.

In the later months of 1981, after John Hinckley shot him outside the Washington Hilton, Ronald Reagan was able to pass a less dramatic but still significant number of important conservative measures, notably a tax cut.

More impotent

For most of the rest of the past four decades, presidents have largely failed to live up to the liberal prescription for presidential activism. To be sure, the President’s position as commander-in-chief, as master of the power to unleash nuclear armageddon, and as head of the national security state, has given him a great deal of power in restricted areas. To put the matter epigrammatically, he can incinerate the northern hemisphere, but he cannot pass a legislative programme. And Bill Clinton has been perhaps more impotent than most.

A Congress firmly controlled by highly partisan, strongly ideological Republican conservatives has frustrated almost all his policy moves, to the point where – on the eve of the Lewinsky allegations – the President seemed to be largely limited to chatting in a folksy manner to the press about his cat, his dog and his daughter.

In a sense, the presidency has still not fully recovered, in spite of all Ronald Reagan’s well-intentioned efforts, from the Watergate crisis almost a quarter of a century ago. And the Lewinsky affair has been largely reported by men and women who were drawn into journalism by the cachet Watergate gave to aggressive, investigative reporting. Many see their profession in terms of exposing malefactors of one stripe or another.

More specifically, the Watergate legacy has been institutionalised in the office of the Prosecutor. It is not necessary to feel that Judge Starr has stepped over the limits of propriety to believe that there is something worrying about a parallel criminal justice system for political celebrities, and one that can be used in a highly partisan spirit.

The media, too, have changed. One vignette from the fevered days of Lewinsky mania sticks in the memory. One moment we are watching James Rubin, the State Department spokesman, announcing the possibility of military action against Iraq to an audience of what looked like at most half a dozen bored reporters. The next, we cut to a White House lawn trampled by a race-track crowd of journalists including several dozen TV crews. It was as if war itself, in this instance, has come to be considered a bore in comparison with even an off-chance of allegations of sexual sleaze.

Before the fall, that is, in the far-off days before Watergate, and before the unfortunate Senator Gary Hart dared the Washington press corps to prove that he was an adulterer, those of us who covered the White House were aware, in general and sometimes in rather specific terms, of presidential frailty; but you did not report it. The changes in American public attitudes since then have been complex and problematic. Arguably, since feminism, AIDS, and the rise of a culture of health obsession, Americans are more puritan than they were; but poll data about the Lewinsky affair suggests that they are also more tolerant and more sophisticated.

Trash TV

What is beyond argument, it seems to me, is the coarsening of media agenda and attitudes. In the 1960s the American news media were deferential, mealymouthed, obsessed with their new-found respectability.

The American media critic Daniel Hallin has argued that this was a brief, atypical interval, associated with an oligopolistic period, when print reporting in Washington was dominated by two or three daily newspapers, the wire services, two leading news magazines, and three television networks with over ninety per cent of the market between them.

Whether he is right or wrong, there has certainly been a vast increase in the number of news organisations competing for stories, and a sharpening of the competitive edge with which they pursue them. The result has been a down-market shift in the news agenda and a lowering of reporting standards. Competitive-once-again, the American news industry has been cutting corners.

US media critics have pointed out, for example, how quick newspapers and TV are to drop the saving adjective ‘alleged’ and to report allegations as facts. The Dallas paper, for example, ingloriously ‘withdrew’ a wholly unsupported story it had published that a Secret Service agent had walked in on the President and Ms. Lewinsky in an intimate embrace, but not before many outlets had reported it as fact.

Mrs Clinton has hinted that this feverishly competitive, careless reporting is the result of a right-wing conspiracy. It is perfectly true that the Special Prosecutor is a conservative Republican, that endless malicious gossip about the Clintons, including outrageous innuendoes up to and including charges of murder, have been recklessly circulated by small right-wing magazines, by the conservative ‘shock jocks’ of talk radio and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, which ought to know better but doesn’t.

The Internet, that wonderful source of information which is also a murky jungle, sheltering paranoids of every stamp, has supplied ‘respectable’ journalists with a rich stew of gossip, rumour and insinuation. The Lewinsky affair is a case study in what can happen when maniacally commercial media report the bitter feuds of a political system divided by ideological quarrels, and do so as a form of entertainment.

Firestorms to fight

That is disturbing enough. But this particular media feeding frenzy also raises questions about the conduct of American foreign policy, and about the future credibility of the Clinton presidency. The President faces extremely difficult decisions in relation to Iraq. If he should decide to take military action against Saddam Hussein again, many in Europe and Asia, and almost everyone in the Muslim world, will conclude that he has gone to war to distract attention from his own embarrassments.

That is bad enough. What would be worse, would be if a President of the United States were to be deterred from taking action he ought – in his own judgment – to take because it would look as if he were doing so for improper reasons.

That is only a special case of an even more worrying difficulty. One does not have to be a partisan of the cruder ‘last remaining superpower’ rhetoric to acknowledge that there are many situations where it will be harder to reach a resolution without the United States. The President of the United States ought to be thinking about the economic crisis in Asia; rescue for South Korea, Indonesia and elsewhere can hardly be arranged without presidential initiatives. If this or future presidents are absorbed in fighting firestorms over Trash TV stories, this would be a more dangerous world.

That said, one can hardly blame television or print reporters, trash or otherwise, for covering such an appetising story as the one Monica Lewinsky may or may not have told to Linda Tripp. One can, I think, fairly blame editors, gatekeepers and executives for allowing their boys and girls to go haring off with so little restraint and so little regard to the demands of evidence, fairness and truth.

But behind reporters and their bosses there stands that unpredictable monster, the American public. If the news media industry is in the business of selling eyes by the million to the advertisers, it has to be said that the owners of those eyes are volatile to an extraordinary degree. Nor can it be said with any confidence that viewers, consumers and citizens in Britain, so recently swept by media firestorms about the monarchy and sleaze, or those of any other country, for that matter, are so very different.

Polls suggest that Americans are pulled in several directions. A majority are conservative, and few like to be called liberal. At the same time, a large majority approves of a Democratic, moderately liberal President. They do not – again by significant majorities – take very seriously suggestions that their President is a serial philanderer; yet they feel it would be very bad if he were to lie about any philandering, even though he would have no particular reason to lie unless he thought they would be shocked if they knew he was involved with a woman under half his age.

That is by no means an end of the apparent contradictions in the American public’s attitude to this President and to the presidency. The runes of an electorate that can simultaneously return Bill Clinton to the White House, hand an overwhelming majority in Congress to Newt Gingrich, Trent Lott and their friends, and repeatedly express indifference tinged with hostility to the national government, are hard to read with any confidence.

One conclusion that can hardly be avoided is that if the powers and dignity of the presidency were enhanced by the long crisis of World War II and the Cold Wa r, now that the Cold War is over Americans simply care less about their President and his offic e . Such a shift of mood has many implications, including a great opportunity for the Congress. It does not bode well for those, in Britain and elsewhere, content to sit back and leave the White House to sort out the world’s problems.

We do not know what happened between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. We do know that the scandal has revealed a paradox. Never has the United States been more influential in the world; never have Americans been less interested in shouldering the responsibilities implied by that influence.