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Impeachment Debate

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  • The '60s Culture Clash Underlies a New Crisis

    By Michael Powell
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, December 19, 1998; Page C01

    It's about the law, the law and nothing but the law. Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde commands the well of the House and, once more, attempts to exorcise all this talk of culture wars and the Revenge of Watergate.

    "The people's trust has been betrayed," Hyde insists. "That and nothing other than that is the issue before this House."

    Well, not really.

    Few are buying that argument. Not the Republicans and the Democrats, who even as they debate impeachment hearken again and again to that trinity of generational touchstones -- Watergate, Vietnam and the 1960s. Nor their conservative and liberal cheerleaders, who view presidential desire and perjury through a grand lens of generational and cultural conflict.

    "It would be an enormous emetic -- culturally, politically, morally -- for us to have an impeachment," says the Rev. John Neuhaus, who edits the conservative magazine First Things. "It would purge us."

    So impeachment informs the larger cultural war. The battle to dethrone Bill Clinton takes its place in the ongoing Boomer War, a three-decade struggle to define our culture and control our history and symbols.

    "The effort to exorcise the demons of the 1960s has been going on for 30 years," says Jackson Lears, a professor of history at Rutgers University. "The impeachment is the latest act of the psychodrama."

    "This cultural war is very much a boomer phenomenon," adds Neil Howe, who studies generational history and co-authored "Generations: The History of America's Future." "We've long held that we are holders of vision and values. So it's not surprising that we cast impeachment as about the soul and character of our leader."

    The boomers ever have walked loudly through the night. This generation fought pitched battles over Vietnam and civil rights, and its hormonal roilings effected a sexual revolution. Theirs was a revolution in social mores and in drugs, and their yearning to break every mold gave birth to a supercharged capitalism. Box suits go designer label; the hierarchical Power Elite of the 1950s -- the company men -- yield to the status-sniffing Cultural Elite of the 1980s and 1990s. And still the conflicts over values simmer, in battles over Supreme Court nominations -- Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas -- over masturbation and abortion, over record labels and gangsta rap.

    Neither side disguises its broader discontent with the other. And they share a cultural warrior's lust for control of language and symbol.

    Entire battles are fought over terms such as Watergate. This is not Watergate! The Democrats cry. Where's the subversion of law, the burglary, the misuse of FBI and CIA? To which Republicans reply: Nixon never lied under oath.

    The National Review, that conservative bible, attributes public indifference about impeachment to a womanly "sogginess" that pervades our culture and "undermines masculine intractability that serves as a bulwark for republicanism." Rep. Lamar Smith, a Republican from Texas, suggests on the floor of the House that we must impeach to "set an example for our children and grandchildren."

    And Bork, in defense of independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr, suggests this week it would not be a bad thing at all to "kill off the lax moral spirit of the sixties."

    The Democrats reply with their own narrative, of a Congress controlled by small-minded Babbitts who would transmogrify human failing into high crime and misdemeanor. Where in this impeachment muddle, they ask, is the moral urgency of the Watergate investigation and the struggle against the Vietnam War?

    "What began 25 years ago with Watergate as a solemn and necessary process . . . has grown beyond our control," Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said yesterday. "Now we are routinely using criminal accusations and scandal to win the political battles and ideological differences we cannot settle at the ballot box."

    Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) extends that cultural comparison. The president of her mind's eye is still pushing that 1960s revolution, still pounding on the Establishment's doors.

    "The president is guilty of being a populist leader who opened up government and access to the poor. . . . Bill Clinton is guilty of not being owned by the good ol' Southern boys, or the good ol' Eastern Establishment."

    Everyone talks and few listen.

    "Liberals and conservatives have talked past each other since the 1960s," says Leo Ribuffo, a history professor at George Washington University. "When Republicans say it's about sex and law, the Democrats don't get it. When the Democrats raise Iran-contra and the sale of arms to an enemy, the Republicans say, 'Well, that's about communism.' "

    All of this cultural warring tends to spin around Clinton, our changeling president. It is his genius, and lament, to embody every division of our era. The Boy from Hope who is really from Hot Springs. The Bubba become Oxford scholar. The anti-war marcher who joined ROTC and eluded the draft. The family man who can't stop straying.

    He's the first child of the 1960s to ascend to the presidency and he tugged the Democratic Party resolutely to the right; he's a man of the flesh comfortable with the soaring cadences of the church; and a lock-'em-up president beloved of liberal Hollywood and Jesse Jackson.

    "Clinton represents a morally slippery slope to many conservatives," says historian Michael Kazin of American University. "His very conservatism, and his religious language, reeks of hypocrisy to them."

    "Clinton's our Richard Nixon," says David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union. "Just as liberals knew that Nixon was bad, so we know in our bones that Clinton is bad. There is nothing honest about him."

    That Clinton-Nixon thing may seem a bit bizarre, this comparison between this most carnal president and a repressed 1950s stiff who walked the beach in his business suit. But Nixon is perhaps the grandest of cultural totems for this boomer generation, and conservatives long to paste his 5 o'clock shadow on a Democrat.

    "Bringing down Nixon was the liberals' great moment," says Howe, the generational historian. "And the Republicans know that and hate that."

    Culture wars, of course, have a long lineage in this nation's history. The Civil War stands still as the great divide, a fratricidal conflict whose echoes sounded still in the 1890s. Its soldiers gained grand pensions, its generals served as presidents, and one could define much about people by knowing only if they were Republican or Democrat, Yankee or Rebel. "As late as 1890, the Republicans were running campaigns labeling the Democrats as the party of rebellion," historian Ribuffo says. "It was cultural politics and interest politics wrapped into one."

    The 1920s represented another such surging, a river of American cultural conservatism washing against the changes wreaked by urban sophisticates and immigrants. This age, often recalled in a rosy amber glow of flappers and Fitzgerald and the Jazz Age, was a time, too, of Prohibition, the Scopes trial and bitterly divisive presidential campaigns. The Lost Generation couldn't wait to escape its parochial vale and decamp for Paris.

    "Cultural conflicts go very deep in this country," Howe says. "Our very character as the most modern and capitalist society means that culture looms greater for us."

    That said, the term "culture war" can prove problematic. For the most ferocious tribes of left and right have driven the impeachment battle, adversaries who share an addiction for creating enemies most savage.

    Randy Tate of the Christian Coalition talks of 2 million writing, calling, e-mailing members who desire nothing more than the downfall of this immoral president. On the left, Jesse Jackson promises to push back the forces of reaction, and Alec Baldwin affects his best passionara imitation on a late-night talk show.

    Each side hears in the poll numbers a comforting song: Liberals see support for Clinton; conservatives discern a weakening of resolve, as more Americans seem willing to consider a presidential resignation. But perhaps the real message is this: Far more Americans live in the cultural muddle of the middle than on the sure-fire edges.

    And from that vantage point, both sides look out of control.

    "Liberals are appalled at the forces they've unleashed, and they can't bring themselves to say, 'We need to redraw the line,' " says Jim Sleeper, a fellow at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University. "But conservatives have trouble reconciling their desire to draw firm moral distinctions with the amorality of the marketplace, and blame Clinton for the coarsening of society."

    Indeed, viewed in broader terms, this nation's culture wars, and the impeachment battle itself, register as a bit of a luxury, the chatter of those who have found, however briefly, a calm moment in the nation's historical passage. One hears often in this country a dismissive contempt for Europeans, who fail to understand American's preoccupation with matters of personal morality and sexuality.

    But it might be added that Europeans tend to labor with a far heavier historical ledger: Their nations were the battlegrounds in this bloodiest of human centuries. "I have toured through most of the 20th century without, I must add, suffering personal hardship," the late philosopher and historian Isaiah Berlin noted. "I remember it only as the most terrible century in Western history."

    Jackson Lears has tracked America's culture wars for several decades, in the academy and in politics. He discerns in the nattering about morality, and the hairsplitting distinctions, a certain frivolity.

    "I'm struck by the American insulation, its preoccupation with what is frivolous, by comparison with the century's bloody toll," Lears says. "It makes this impeachment drama both somewhat farcical and profoundly depressing."


    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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