In the aftermath of the Senate trial of the president, the nation has been struggling to “move on,” to put the scandal and the partisan standoff over the impeachment process behind it and to get on with the political business at hand. Both left and right have stakes in moving forward, particularly as a new election cycle approaches. With a few exceptions, the consensus on both sides reflects this desire. Nonetheless, closure is not a foregone conclusion.
One distraction has been the testimony of Juanita Broaddrick,previously known as Jane Doe No. 5, whom the president allegedly raped in an Arkansas hotel room 20 years ago. Another is Monica Lewinsky’s TV appearance and the publication of her gossipy book. Both have poured fuel on old fires.
Some suicidal Republicans, Bill Kristol most prominent among them, have called for new congressional investigations into the Broaddrick charges. In a Weekly Standard cover editorial that asks, “Can’t we just move on?” Kristol throws down this regrettable gauntlet: “The only honorable answer to the question is no.” Democrats, on the other hand, have responded to the new charges with an equally familiar posture — agnostic attitudes toward the allegations themselves coupled with pleas to bury the whole mess, so that once again they appear, as a group, as partisan defenders of the reprobate himself.
The real problem underlying this stasis is that none of the major players really want to examine the events of this deeply troubling year in a way in which they would have to admit where they went wrong.
Mercifully, one group has actually begun to do just that, and, as unlikely to Salon readers as this may sound, it is the Christian right. In a reaction triggered by the impeachment failure, several leaders of the Christian political community have begun to discuss whether religious conservatives should now withdraw from the political process altogether. In a stunning confession of misjudgment, Paul Weyrich — the man who gave the Moral Majority its name — has announced that his movement’s 25-year political effort has been based on an assumption he now realizes was an error. This is the assumption that the majority of the American people share his moral outlook. Weyrich puts it this way: “If there really were a moral majority out there, Bill Clinton would have been driven out of office months ago.”
This is certainly correct, and refreshing. (Would that more politicians had the courage to admit publicly they were wrong!) Weyrich’s view of his political failure and of America’s unreceptive attitude toward his moral viewpoint is quite stark. “We got our people elected. But that did not result in the adoption of our agenda. The reason, I think, is that politics itself has failed. And politics has failed because of the collapse of the culture. The culture we are living in becomes an ever-wider sewer. In truth, I think we are caught up in a cultural collapse of historic proportions, a collapse so great that it simply overwhelms politics.”
Weyrich is certainly wrong about America. In the popular culture, it’s the year of romance (“Shakespeare in Love”) and duty, honor, country (“Saving Private Ryan”). As for the civic culture, every social indicator Bill Bennett and other conservatives have used to describe its downward arc through the era of liberal irresponsibility is currently headed in the right direction. Crime rates, teenage pregnancies and out-of-wedlock births are on the decline. Combine that with full employment and it would be more appropriate to say that things haven’t been better for a long time. Only someone attached to an irrecoverable past, and therefore hostile to change as such, could react so negatively toward a culture that is doing all right by any reasonable measure.
But Weyrich is correct about religious conservatism like his. In fact, he is right about religious politics across the board. One of the most enduring negative consequences of the ’60s “revolution” was the injection of chiliastic ambitions into the normal political culture. The utopian idea of a “liberation” that would encompass both the personal and the social has roots not only in Karl Marx and the Paris Commune, but in Martin Luther and the Puritan settlement. “The personal is political,” a ’60s slogan that originated with the feminist left, could just as well describe the moral aspirations of the Christian right. Moreover, it could easily stand as a summary statement of the attitudes that created the impeachment debacle.