The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals
by William J. Bennett
(The Free Press, 160 pp., 1998, $20)
“Bill Clinton is a reproach. He has defiled the office of the presidency of the United States,” writes William J. Bennett in his latest best-selling book. As the Senate convenes to put a president on trial for the first time in more than a hundred years, we do well to revisit his words.
Bennett's slim volume is not really a book. It is a scorching, passionate, almost frantic closing argument before the jury of the American people, exhorting them to convict their president of being manifestly unworthy to serve. As courtroom veterans know, sometimes — after a long, wearisome, and disheartening trial — a scorching, passionate, and frantic summation is necessary lest a somnolent jury fail to do its duty.
The Death of Outrage details the impeached president's assault on marital fidelity, sexual propriety, the importance of character, truthfulness, and the law. If polls are accurate, most people agree with Bennett: President Clinton's behavior is widely held to be morally reprehensible and illegal. Those who have not been convinced by almost a full year of all-Monica, all-the-time network coverage will not be convinced by Bennett, who even takes on the less-than-pleasant task of defending Kenneth Starr's occasional unpleasant tactics.
As a closing argument before a jury, it seems like a winner. Bennett's frustration is that the American people seem to have accepted the facts but refuse to sentence the offender. The November election results only confirm Bennett's worst fears, namely, that “the widespread loss of outrage against this President's misconduct tells us something fundamentally important about our condition. Our commitment to long-standing American ideals has been enervated.”
Bennett rushed this book into print last summer to sound the alarm that America must not let itself become the sort of society for which Clinton would be a fitting leader. He worries that a prosperous, secure America which tolerates moral turpitude in high places might no longer possess the virtue requisite for greatness. He may be right — after all, a nation that re-elects defenders of partial-birth abortion has much to answer for. The death of outrage may well mark the death of America as the cshining city on the hill” so fondly evoked by President Reagan, in whose cabinet Bennett served.
But there is an alternative explanation. Perhaps the American people, utterly disgusted by the president's behavior, have turned also on his prosecutors, hoping that a “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” approach may obscure Clinton's deep venality and mendacity. Judge Starr was not thanked when he reported that Clinton is the kind of man who commits adultery after returning to the Oval Office from Easter Sunday services.
If such an explanation is true, it is not the case that outrage has died, but that this president is so outrageous that polite people just avert their eyes and pretend not to see. Those who cannot avert their eyes due to professional obligations — congressmen and journalists — grow markedly less sympathetic when they are asked to become accomplices in the ethical gymnastics of a president who is, in the words of Senator Bob Kerrey, “an unusually good liar.” For now, at least among the political class, outrage is back.
Bennett is the quintessential “big picture” author, usually writing about the grand sweep of law, literature, politics, and culture, who normally would have evaluated such an alternative explanation. But here he goes after Clinton with such righteous ferocity that the reflective Bennett, a man of nuance, context, and distinctions, takes a very secondary role. Like so much else, Bennett — though owed a debt of gratitude for this summons to action — comes out the worse for having engaged Bill Clinton.
He is not the only one. The overarching point that Bennett fails to make in his book is that Clinton corrupts whatever has the misfortune of coming in contact with him. His narcissism — that everything, everywhere, is always to be seen through the prism of his own self-interest — is so enormous that he has managed to do what Bennett frets about in this book: corrupt the American people.
The New Republic, which opposes Clinton's removal, wrote that Clinton is “a moral and cultural disaster” who is “shockingly capable of degrading just about anything he touches.” Two days before the House of Representatives voted to impeach Clinton, the Washington Post, in an editorial arguing against impeachment, expressed its concern in the form of a question: “What will he drag down with him?”
The very next day, Clinton bombed Iraq. It is a terrible thing to be ordered to kill another man — soldier or civilian. More terrible still for American servicemen to kill Iraqis, knowing that their commander in chief is the sort of man who might engage the machinery of death in an attempt to change the newspaper headlines in Washington. Their surely tortured consciences are only the latest things to be dragged down by Bill Clinton.
The Post's question is not quite right. The question that will echo long after the Clintons slither out of the White House for Georgetown or Hollywood is: What did he not drag down with him?
He cannot even go to Mass, as he did in South Africa, without causing scandal. He turned the Lincoln Bedroom into a fund-raising trinket. He exposed his most devoted followers — prominent feminists — as cynics and hypocrites who will hide sexual malfeasance behind their skirts if politics demands it. He replaced freedom and security as the pillars of American foreign policy with peddling American popular culture and pimping for Planned Parenthood. He reduced Kenneth Starr, a one-time prospective Supreme Court nominee, to taking DNA samples from a stained dress. He made fools out of his closest collaborators, who repeated his lies and subsequently chose to keep their jobs by sacrificing their dignity. He has made his allies embarrassed to defend him and his critics defensive about embarrassing the nation.
He has left the language richer in circumlocutions and obfuscations, but poorer in conveying the truth. He has rendered his presidency a laughingstock and his own name a shorthand expression for lying — clever lying to be sure, but lying nonetheless. He ascended to a grand office and conducted himself as the smallest of men. And finally, he has forced his wife to do what a modern woman is never supposed to do, namely, to swallow her pride, forget his betrayals and, in order to consummate their joint lust for power, to stand, stand, stand by her man.
William Bennett is right. Bill Clinton is a reproach. That this book is not as good as we have come to expect from Bennett is not a surprise; concerning Clinton, nothing is ever as good as it ought to be.
Raymond de Souza is a seminarian in the Diocese of Kingston, Ontario.