As a president’s full two terms come to a close, it’s time for a retrospective. In this spirit, we often look for political or economic legacies. Both are quite easily identified and measured. But economic results are almost always evanescent, and political achievements, such as rushed last-minute peace deals, are often tenuous. It is on American culture and society that US chief executives normally have their most enduring influence, even if it is more difficult to assess. After all, US presidents are kings and first ministers, policy formulators and national symbols, all rolled into one. Moreover—by virtue of America’s economic, political and, above all, cultural power—they affect the lives of people the world around.
How deep does Bill Clinton’s influence go? How much did his presidency affect society, culture and (therefore) public policy-making? The argument presented here is not only that Clinton’s lasting legacy is social and cultural, but that it is profoundly negative and corrosive, a debilitating disease of the body politic: “Clintonosis.” Clintonosis is the degeneration of the moral faculties stemming from prolonged neglect and under-use. Its symptoms include feelings of enervation, torpor and confusion—morally, ethically, intellectually and aesthetically. To pin all this on Clinton the man is not fair, of course. But, as another southern governor become president said, “Life is not fair.” Those who court celebrity have to be prepared for the bandying about of their names for purposes of social commentary and satirical effect. By virtue of the man’s office, his generation, and his person, Clintonosis fits.
Part of Clinton’s presidential duty, whether he was aware of it or not, was to serve as an example. He has presided over the longest period of uninterrupted growth in economic history, but on his watch, we have also seen what is arguably the most precipitous slide in the past two centuries in public decorum, decency, ethics and morality. He has had at least as much influence on this latter trend as the former, and probably more.
No one would deny that the 1960s were a watershed, a line distinguishing “old world” from “new.” Clinton, the first baby-boomer president, came of age in this new world, and he and his contemporaries have passed on their unique values to younger generations of impressionable minds. And society has changed at speeds previously unknown; 1960s permissiveness and relativism mutated into more virulent strains. In the end, what is remarkable about Clinton’s generation is how it has proved to be so much about self-indulgence and so little about social activism, its supposed purpose.
Consider Clinton, the man. His hankering for fast-food is certainly no crime, but it is unfortunate symbolically. It suggests the image of a man who is but a digesting apparatus, indulging all appetites with the cheapest, most convenient “food.” Even his impressive—though overrated—intellectual skills are quick and easy; there is the impression he has never put—or wanted to put—much effort into anything, let alone self-control.
The tragic truth for mankind is that virtue has never been easy. But Clinton has demanded as much, consistently avoiding the difficulty of self-denial and right conduct, seemingly believing that his own bad conduct is somehow alright. Not only did he probably break several laws in his attempts to cover up his indiscretions with the now infamous Ms. Lewinsky, but he also cited the slimmest and silliest legal technicalities in claiming that ethics and morals were irrelevant. This is moral relativism of the worst, most diseased kind. The full extent of the atrophy of Clinton’s moral compass was clear when, finally forced to apologize, he took the opportunity mainly to blame Ken Starr, who may have been overly dogged in enumerating Clinton’s misdeeds, but was hardly responsible for them. His inability to feel shame was highlighted when, in an unguarded, supposedly off-the-record quip to a reporter, he admitted to feeling “not bad” about being impeached.
By contrast, in the famous “Checkers Speech” in 1952, Richard Nixon defended himself against charges of wrongdoing by focusing, not on whether the corruption he was accused of was technically illegal or not, but on whether it was morally wrong. To him, that was the really important consideration, as he made clear in the speech. In a different context 22 years later, he quit as president rather than put the nation through the agony of an impeachment trial, emphasizing in his resignation speech that the United States could not afford the ordeal or the distraction. Granted, unlike Clinton, Nixon had very little hope of surviving as president. But it is easy to imagine Clinton in the same Watergate scenario, wriggling, dissembling and slithering all the way, finally ushered out, handcuffed and disbelieving, still fundamentally oblivious to the ethics and the morals of it all. Nixon, despite his many other character flaws, was a fundamentally honourable man. Clinton, despite his many admirable traits, is not.
A steady moral compass, a strong moral imagination, and a clear sense of right and wrong and good and bad are the bedrock of honour and of all that we associate with the highest standards of personal deportment, such as class, or dignity. Honour does not always bring these traits. Nixon could be undignified and tasteless. For that matter, he was sometimes dishonourable. But without this moral foundation a generally consistent standard of rectitude is impossible.
This moral foundation has been eroding for generations. There were clear symptoms of Clintonosis in the public’s jaded nonchalance toward Clinton’s wrongdoing, and in Congress’s corresponding failure to carry through the impeachment honourably and completely. There were glimmerings of the truth here and there, but society at large simply found itself unable either to perceive the wrongs or to understand exactly why and to what extent they were wrongs.
Our collective ambition has sought and won improved living standards for most of Western society in the last 50 years. With the onset of Clintonosis, that ambition has channeled itself in less Spartan directions, redirecting our need for change onto increasingly entertainment-driven, frivolous and decadent courses. The moral faculties have accordingly fallen into disuse and have atrophied.
The mass media machine is the catalyst of this postwar party, which has catered less to minds and morals than to appetites of all kinds. The advertising explosion exhorted us to consume; popular music appealed to the libido rather than the head or heart. Western society has been gorging at the trough of excess for many years now, its only ethic being the utmost fulfillment of the individual, its only marker the ever-rising GDP—the same rising GDP that proved Bill Clinton’s salvation.
For the first time in perhaps 400 years, progress is measured not by the provision of basic comfort but by the elimination of barriers to self-indulgence. To many people it evidently is a sign of progress that divorce laws have become more lenient and abortion just another lifestyle choice, that sex, violence, foul language, crassness and crudity are more prevalent in the media, that more and more bizarre behaviour— anything and everything goes, really—is tolerated, even encouraged, and that we can be forgiving, accepting and even approving of people like Bill Clinton, whose appetites ultimately and irrevocably damage their families, the public trust and institutions they preside over in the process.
If President Clinton had not existed at this low point in our cultural history, it might have been necessary to invent him. In a sense, the evil Clinton has been invented, for by the time of his first presidential campaign in 1992, the public had already decided that adultery should pose no barrier to the presidency. Yet it was Clinton, infamously, who encouraged people to adopt his own jaded view of adultery, namely, that everyone does it; it’s no big deal “I, like many people, have caused pain in my marriage”). And while the increasing filthiness of movies and television long predates Clinton, it has only been since the Clinton era—especially since Ms. Lewinsky—that we have seen a marked acceleration of the trend. The one truly significant thing about the scandal was how quickly most people got used to discussing things like the president’s private parts, oral sex and the carnal uses of cigars.
Thanks to Clinton, a very large piece of what little had remained of public modesty and reticence has broken loose, clearing the way for a steeper decline in standards. But who in the end is to blame for Clinton? Imagine for a moment that we have travelled two years back in time to the end of 1998: Imagine that Clinton’s crimes and “indiscretions” have all played themselves out in exactly the same way, and we are back to the question of the President’s guilt or innocence. But this time imagine that the economy is in terrible shape. What will become of Clinton? The safest bet is that, if not convicted by the Senate, he will be forced to resign by the pressure of overwhelmingly hostile public opinion, kicked out, not primarily for being a dishonourable man, but for the paramount sin of presiding over a weak economy. His appetites were forgivable so long as our appetites were satisfied.
Shame on him. Shame on us.