Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) is a liberal's idea of an oxymoron: deeply conservative yet deeply thoughtful. When he spoke last week in favor of the doomed flag amendment, he told the truth. The amendment, he said, is just "one more struggle in the cultural war that has been raging since Vietnam." He named pornography, drugs, AIDS and abortion as part of that struggle. For cultural conservatives, Old Glory has become the banner of nostalgia.
Hyde's own convictions aside, he was right in implying that abortion is a cultural issue. The antiabortion movement, of which President Bush is titular leader, speaks reverentially but with great hypocrisy about the sanctity of human life -- "innocent life," as it is invariably called. But many abortion opponents, including the president, choose to exempt two categories of "innocent life": fetuses conceived out of rape or incest. It seems even the antiabortion movement is pro-choice.
Why is that? Not because the fetus produced by rape (the real issue) is any less innocent than one conceived in the usual manner. No. It's because the raped woman is blameless for her pregnancy. But women who engage in sex for sensual reasons are supposed to suffer the consequences -- pregnancy. H. L. Mencken's definition of a Puritan applies as well to many abortion opponents: they suspect that someone, somewhere, is having a good time.
Of course, some in the antiabortion movement sincerely believe that the fetus is a person and that terminating a pregnancy is murder. These so-called zealots are at least consistent. They would prohibit abortion, no matter what. This was the position of Ronald Reagan, and it was George Bush's, too until, not for the first time, he changed it -- again, irrevocably.
It's no coincidence that if you scratch an antiabortion activist you'll probably find someone opposed to sex education and birth control as well. That's because the real issue is Hyde's "cultural war." Had he not been speaking for the media, Hyde might well have used the term "modernity," which the dictionary defines as "the state or quality of being modern" but which, more vividly, can be summed up in the homoerotic photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe. Modernity sanctions governmental funding of such exhibits. Hyde's forces gag at the prospect.
Unfortunately for Hyde and his allies, his supreme commander in the cultural war is George Bush. This is the President of the Breeze, a weather-vane politician who on domestic (but not foreign) matters finds his deepest convictions buried in polling data. This not only explains Bush's various positions on abortion but also why after running the flag bill up the flagpole, he later found other things to do.
Such reticence was hardly typical behavior for a politician who, during the 1988 presidential campaign, famously visited a flag factory. Fool that I am, I momentarily thought Bush was having second thoughts about the flag amendment's propriety. But the President of the Breeze was, instead, doubting its popularity. On Capitol Hill, one vast polling enterprise, the phones were silent. The great issue of the summer solstice was not going to last the strawberry season. The President of the Breeze felt a chill. That's why he ducked into his limousine and, later, did not work the phones in advance of the House vote that killed the measure.
Hyde's misfortune is that Ronald Reagan, whose ideology was nostalgia, is president no more. Reagan somehow managed to stop the clock, or at least appeared to, and gave the country eight years of Andy Hardy time. But since then modernity has resumed its relentless march. The New York State GOP has junked its antiabortion platform. The national Republican Party proclaims itself a big tent on the issue, and Republican women, awakened with a start after eight years of Reagan, have recently formed pro-choice groups. The better-late-than-never battalions are making themselves heard.
The cultural war has been fought for generations. In 1953, the movie "The Moon Is Blue" was controversial for three words: "virgin," "seduction" and "mistress." Some 30 years later, cable television was bringing pornography into the rec rooms of middle America. Familiarity, even repeated television burnings of flags, brings more than contempt. It brings a weary acceptance as well. We learn that, somehow, life goes on. The first time we see a flag burn, we recoil. After a while, a Morton Downey Jr. syndrome sets in: even the outrageous becomes boring.
Hyde's territory is ever-shrinking, and his issues -- abortion, flag-burning, pornography -- are losing their punch. Bob Dylan could have told Hyde so. "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows," he wrote. Not anymore, anyway. All you have to do is look at George Bush.