Despite spin, truth matters

February 3rd, 1998

Despite the White House sex scandal, President Clinton's poll numbers are soaring. One new poll shows a record-high 72 percent of the American people approving the way he is "handling his job as president." At the same time more than half think the president had an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. 

Have the American people gone bonkers? Have they thrown truth and morality to the winds? Perhaps, but there may be alternative explanations. Consider:

  • The privatization of politics. By this line of reasoning, if the CEO is doing OK running the enterprise, who cares about his poker pals, his girlfriends or the size of his bonus? The political version: "It's the economy, stupid." By this account, if stocks are up, unemployment down and the economy perking along, the president will benefit big time in the polls. It works because some people separate public and private morality, a position that is unconscionable from a religious point of view and self-deceiving from a psychological point of view. Nevertheless, some people see the world this way.
  • Wag the dog. Like the current box-office hit, politics is all spin, and today, White House-inspired themes to "explain" what is going on are resonating with the public. Two of the oldest and most powerful themes in American political culture have been successfully invoked by this White House: "mob at the gate" and "rot at the top."

They go something like this:

  • "Mob at the gate." In the old days it was the "red scare" and the "yellow peril." More recently, it has been immigrants and "globalists" taking American jobs. Last week, the mob at the gate theme was dressed up and rolled out by Hillary Clinton as the "vast right-wing conspiracy" trying to do in the president. This image has traction with the public. The media demonized "these people" killing national health care and, in the extreme,the Oklahoma City bombing. Now "these people" are "ganging up" on the president. The calculation: Americans will side with the underdog.
  • "Rot at the top." Railing against self-serving Mandarins and corrupt establishment elites is a tried-and-tested vote-getter in American politics. Washington lawyers and the mainstream media are about as "establishment" and as close to pure Mandarins as you can get. Many people (saying things like, "why don't they just leave him alone") see the president as a victim of a feeding frenzy by mainstream media. And they see high-paid, well-heeled lawyers making $400 an hour poking around in the president's trash. Result: a public appeal that finds support even among the usually conservative "leave me alone" coalition.
  • Legal beagles. Without an effective moral voice at the national level, the legalisms of the Pharisees have taken over. Recent public discourse is characterized by obscurantism: from "no controlling authority" in the Al Gore campaign finance case to the view that lying under oath apparently doesn't count if there is "no material evidence" in the Bill Clinton case. Result: Many see the Mandarins playing games that sidestep the central issues -- an affair in the White House, hush money, stonewalling and lying under oath. Their response: "Hang him or let him go, but don't harass him."

Despite the spin from the White House and the many ways to comprehend public reaction in today's polls, there is still a crisis in American politics that remains to be resolved. It's a crisis about the integrity of our leaders, the even-handedness of the press and ability of the judiciary to dispense justice. That crisis includes the indictment of Cabinet secretaries, the slumbering national media and the O.J. trial, so it predates the Monica Lewinsky matter. But the Lewinsky matter will demand resolution. So there is more to come. 

Number: 
341

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