National Catholic Register


A Coarser America Has the Leader It Deserves

BY Kathleen Howley

September 20-26, 1998 Issue | Posted 9/20/98 at 1:00 PM


I sat on the subway a few days ago, watching a businessman read his morning newspaper. He was one row in front of me, so it was easy to look over his shoulder and check the day's headlines.

He skipped by reports of a looming famine and political disarray in Russia. He leafed past the story of U.S. Marines who shot a teenager herding goats near the Rio Grande. He gave barely a glance at a story about North Korean missile tests. He ignored reports of instability in the Middle East.

But then his eyes landed on the latest from the Clinton scandal — specifically, the story of the dress. The dress. The one that Monica Lewinsky failed to take to the cleaners, figuring, perhaps, that she'd use it to take someone else to the cleaners.

Charges of obstruction of justice and perjury are weighty charges to level against the president of the republic. But, those legal issues are not what interest the majority of Americans. Most people, like this businessman, seem inordinately interested in the seamier side of the affair.

He spent the rest of his commute pouring over every detail of Monica's dress. It seemed as if no other story existed in his world. When he reached his station, he ditched his paper, picked up his briefcase, and exited the train. He was prepared for the day.

I used to pity the English for their morbid obsession with the royal family. I assumed that spending so much time devouring details of the personal lives of the Windsor family — people far removed from their daily routines — meant that their own lives must be empty and lonely.

Now the Americans, with our predilection for doing everything in a bigger and better way, have made the English look like babes in the woods. Today, the racy details about Clinton's extramarital affairs hedge out almost every other news story.

It's all part of the coarsening of America. Ten years ago, it was not polite to discuss certain topics at social gatherings. Today, even those who call themselves social conservatives are ready to debate every intimate detail of the scandal.

It has become our new national obsession. The presidential affair is a fixed part of the nightly news, even when there have been no fresh developments. CNN and other 24-hour cable stations rehash the details on an hourly basis, like a monotonous drumbeat.

We twice elected Clinton to head our nation, knowing, at least at some level, that he has no character. We, the American people, allowed it to happen.

It's a quick and easy laugh during the opening monologues of the late-night talk shows. I assume the joke writers are only working half days, now. This is the type of humor that doesn't take much thought.

Frankly, I'd rather not revel in the intimate details about Clinton's private life. I only want to hear about whether or not he violated the law.

Before he was elected, it was a different story. I was interested in every word that Gennifer Flowers said. In fact, I thought she was a credible source. I thought she had something to add to the debate about character.

If you recall, that was a time when mainstream newspapers didn't want to touch the infidelity issue. My, how things have changed in six years. As soon as the American people voted to elect Clinton to be our president, I became not-so-interested in private details. If his name wasn't going to be on a ballot, it was not relevant information. I assumed his family life was in disarray. People rarely change their modus operandi, barring a conversion experience or some other traumatic reorientation.

It's a democracy. The majority rules. We twice elected Clinton to head our nation, knowing, at least at some level, that he has no character. We, the American people, allowed it to happen.

The only ones who are excused from responsibility are those who worked to prevent it by taking part in the political process before the elections, and those fighting the societal decay that allowed him to win.

I'd be willing to grant a partial absolution to the people who actually went to the voting booth and cast ballots against Clinton on both occasions — those minority of Americans who actually bothered to vote. But I don't think a vote cast in secret, taking little or no effort, lets anyone totally off the hook.

A biblical scholar once told me that one of the biggest lessons from the Old Testament is: God is willing to give people the leaders they deserve. Given the unwillingness of the silent majority to do anything other than complain, I'd say that is a good description of the current state of affairs.

Kathleen Howley is a Boston-based journalist.