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Battle Over Morality

Clinton on Trial

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  • By Ken Ringle
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, January 20, 1999; Page C1

    Anyone who thinks the impeachment trial is just about William Jefferson Clinton, his behavior and his opponents should think again.

    For what is underway, according to a number of thinkers on language, ethics and history, is one of the great morality plays of our century: a contest for the very moral soul of the United States of America.

    It is not really about Monica Lewinsky or Linda Tripp or lying or perjury or thong underwear and cigars in the Oval Office. Nor has the controversy about it been just about partisan political gamesmanship between the president's Democratic supporters and the Republican forces on the other side.

    "It is about something far deeper and more basic to our culture," said Jan Shipps, a historian who's made a major study of Christian conservatism in America's cities. "It is about the behavioral boundaries once defined by class but increasingly in flux everywhere, not just since the 1960s but really ever since World War II."

    To George Lakoff, author of "Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don't," the key to understanding the impeachment battle is to ask why conservatives seem intent on suicidal politics – all the polls show Americans favor leaving Clinton in office.

    The answer, he says, is that accountability and punishment are fundamental to what conservatives see as the very structure of American society. It is the "stern father" model of an American family, according to Lakoff, with the president as a figure of moral authority.

    Clinton's liberal supporters, Lakoff says, model American society on the "nurturing parent" concept. To them, the presidency is less a figure of moral authority than a helpful and powerful friend. And the proper response to his transgressions in office is not punishment but retribution: having him do more "good deeds" for all the people he betrayed, like the list of social programs the president proposed in his State of the Union Address.

    At the annual meeting in Washington this month of the American Historical Association, historians from Notre Dame to the University of Texas echoed Shipps's and Lakoff's view of impeachment as a surrogate battleground for America's culture wars over issues from abortion and race to economics and gay rights. But these two go farther.

    The trial now taking place in the Senate "is about two very different but equally sincere ways, not only of looking at American society, but of thinking and talking about it," says Lakoff, a professor of linguistics and cognitive science at the University of California, Berkeley. And it is nowhere near as simple as it's often pictured: Clinton's baby boom generation against everybody else.

    "Are you kidding?" said Shipps, of Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. "The baby boomers are the very ones fueling the growth in fundamentalist churches!"

    The battle over perceptions and values, the academics agree, was underway long before Monica Lewinsky appeared on the scene.

    To Lakoff, the fundamental split works like this:

    Accountability and discipline are less important to liberals than nurturing is. But to conservatives they are the absolute foundation of American character: "To conservatives, without them the whole house of cards comes down."

    Lakoff, who considers himself a liberal, says liberals value morality no less than conservatives do, but for a number of reasons have enormous difficulty articulating their vision of what that morality is. They have had consequent problems in recent years in selling liberalism as a philosophy to the American people.

    The two groups "talk past each other" in their arguments over what's best for the country, he says. Often they use the same words, but those words often mean different things to each group. It was this difficulty in communication, says Lakoff, that first drew his interest in politics as a scientist who studies how people think and talk.

    His "Moral Politics" appeared in 1996, well before the current scandal broke. But during the House impeachment debate, "I was stunned," he said. Clinton's opponents argued for punishment of moral transgression. His defenders saw greater morality in leaving him in office to help the disadvantaged. "Both sides could have been reading from its pages," the author said.

    Shipps sees as much polarity in the impeachment debate as Lakoff does. But she approaches the battle slightly differently.

    To her, the roots of the nation's present political and cultural split lie not in the Woodstocks and riots of the 1960s blamed by many cultural historians, but in the 1944 passage of the GI Bill of Rights.

    It was the GI Bill, with its promise of college and home ownership for returning World War II veterans, she says, that "did what nothing else in history probably ever has. It transformed the class structure of an entire nation almost overnight."

    Sons and daughters of farmers and factory workers, often threadbare survivors of the Great Depression of the 1930s, whose lives might well have duplicated their parents', instead found themselves suburban college graduates in the 1950s, living a middle-class lifestyle for which they were often ill prepared.

    The structures of class and community, both urban and rural, "pretty much defined acceptable limits of behavior" in the 1930s, Shipps said. But the mobility and turmoil of World War II fractured all that, and the GI Bill boosted the majority of Americans into the middle class. As magnificent an achievement as that was, she says, "you see during the 1950s a major change in the way ordinary people spend their leisure time: a cocktail party culture at every level, a growing divorce rate and other signs of loosening behavioral boundaries you just didn't see widely before that outside the upper class."

    Shipps sees the turbulent 1960s and 1970s as an accelerated loosening of these bounds. Lakoff sees that era as a whole generation reacting against the "stern father" governmental model of the 1950s and earlier, which had served so well for the Depression and World War II. Baby boomers demanded a different, "nurturing" government in its place, a government that recognized that economic plenty alone was not enough. Their rebellion inevitably, in the '70s and '80s, triggered a backlash: a whole segment of America frightened by the eroding structures of family, community and nation, frantically reaching out for rules, both old and new.

    Shipps finds evidence of that backlash in the explosive growth of televangelism and the Religious Right, particularly in the South and West. Lakoff sees it in the philosophical regrouping of American conservatives following the debacle of Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential race.

    The moral high ground was held in the 1960s and early '70s by the pro-civil rights, anti-war left, Lakoff says. Conservatives, he says, were widely perceived "as not very bright": hawkish, penny-pinching, racist naysayers, opposing all governmental programs without any positive agenda of their own to advance.

    Liberals and conservatives "talk past each other" in their arguments over what's best for the country, author George Lakoff says. Often they use the same words, but those words often mean different things to each group.

    "To their great credit, they sat down and raised money and set up these think tanks to redefine conservatism in positive terms. And with Ronald Reagan you see it framed and advanced in terms of moral issues; with a family values metaphor that the American people understand and accept."

    Bill Clinton, Lakoff says, is anathema to conservatives on two counts: He views government as a "nurturing parent" like the liberal he truly is, but he talks the conservatives' family values talk in successfully selling his agenda.

    "To liberals, moral authority comes from a president's success in meeting public needs. This Clinton has done. Thus the public, being largely liberal by instinct, view him as a moral president, however they may view him as a man. To conservatives, on the other hand, moral authority is embodied in the presidency itself. They quite sincerely believe that if we all close our eyes to a lying, philandering president, the republic is going to crumble."

    And sex is the perfect issue on which to divide the two groups, Lakoff says: "Liberals see it as ultimately good, harming no one. Conservatives see it as something the strict father shouldn't be doing."

    Shipps says what few appreciate is the genuine fear and passion on both sides that underlie what appears on the surface as simple partisanship.

    "The liberals are saying Clinton's a good president because he does his job making life better for people," she says. But the conservatives want desperately to get what they see as an eroding society back under control. They want to reestablish boundaries. They are saying in a very loud voice, 'Look, we have to draw the line somewhere.'"

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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