THE PAST IS PRESENT
Polls currently show the GOP leading with something like a 40-point edge over Democrats on the question of which party better represents high moral standards, efforts to restore family values, and other worn-out phrases that are dirty wedge-issue code words for civilization. Understandably, this drives some decent human beings who happen to be Democrats bonkers. But for Democratic operatives and strategists, this fact is so discomfiting it might as well be a live trout enema.
So, what to do? I mean, it’s not like the feminists, anti-religionists, free-market haters, and the rest of the left fringe of the party is going to just embrace Western civilization or anything else so radical. Well, there is one answer. Change the subject.
Several conservative commentators have called this effort “defining deviancy down.” That’s not quite right. Instead (as the woman explained it to me last night), they are seeking to make certain modes of inquiry illegitimate for political consideration. The standards, they think, can remain, but they are simply irrelevant to a politician’s job. The idea is to make personal probity as irrelevant as, say, one’s preferences in cheese.
Remember when Michael Dukakis declared, “this election isn’t about ideology, it’s about competence”? Well, that was because he was the kind of “competent” manager who read Swedish agriculture papers (I’m not making this up) when he was on vacation at the beach. In other words, his ideological radar didn’t flash like he won the big jackpot on a Vegas slot machine when he saw the word “Swedish” in the title. So he couldn’t possibly fight a contest about ideology in this most un-Swedish nation without learning how to catch rotten tomatoes everywhere he went.
Yesterday, on Meet the Press, Paul Begala proved once again why we are so blessed to have only one Paul Begala. Begala believes the real scandal is that Bush won’t take a position on the minimum wage. And, he said, “I would have thought we learned a lesson from what we’ve been through for the last two years, chasing the president’s private life, which had no bearing on his ability to conduct his job….”
NBC reporter David Bloom chimed in, saying, “I think that the lesson that Paul draws from the past two years is precisely the wrong lesson. The message from Bill Clinton was: ‘I may have sinned in my past, but it’s not relevant to my presidency.’ In fact, it was relevant to the presidency…”
“Not to his presidential duties,” sayeth Begala. “Not to his performance as president.”
Bloom replied, “Paul, if you think that what happened in the White House wasn’t relevant to his duty… I think you’re sadly mistaken.”
But Begala settled the issue. “No, I’m not…The American people and the United States Senate took my side, David.”
So, there we have it. If a president does something so legally, politically, and morally grotesque that reasonable people may differ on whether he should be removed from office, his behavior becomes utterly irrelevant if a slender majority of Senators decide he shouldn’t be removed from office.
Begala et al. have decided that only things narrowly defined as “the issues” are relevant for popular consideration. A man’s position on the minimum wage not only matters, it is all that matters. So in 1992 candidate Bill Clinton could have said: “Oh, by the way, in my coming two terms I will lie with a frequency and brazenness that will tempt God’s lightning bolts every time I open my mouth. I will seduce interns and pleasure myself with them in the manner of a Bedouin prince (but at no time will I intend to gratify them in any way). Of course, if I am caught doing these things I will instruct or deceive my lawyers so as to cripple the government. I will let Paul Begala and other loyal friends make metaphysical jackasses out of themselves month after month on national television. I will destroy the reputations of any who dare accuse me. I will gladly discontinue cabinet meetings to protect the sanctity of my pants. I will entertain the notion of bombing other nations to hide my deeds. And, oh yeah, if somebody comes forward with a credible allegation of rape from 23 years ago, I will offer no detailed defense and I will refuse to discuss it. But the stock market will do very well, and the world I inherited from Ronald Reagan will chug along nicely.”
That’s right; according to Paul Begala such statements would be as irrelevant as saying, “By the way, no brie will ever be served at the White House.”
Now, as for the question of Bush’s behavior and character – well, they are relevant. Indeed, he has said that he will restore dignity and honor to the White House. Of course, anything short of setting up a brothel in the Lincoln bedroom would increase the dignity and honor of the White House.
Still, Bush implicitly understands, and his popularity is largely due to the fact that character counts. So, he should address concerns about his character. Cocaine is illegal today and it was when he allegedly did it. It’s relevant, but it’s not disqualifying (rape, of course, is disqualifying — or should be — anytime you’ve done it). Unlike Bill and sex, nobody expects that Bush would break his word and do lines on the Oval Office desk.
But the notion that is unacceptable is this formulation, popping up all over the networks: “Is another politician going to be sidelined because of his past?” “Is so-and-so’s personal past about to destroy his chances?” etc. One’s past is not an asteroid out of a clear blue sky. Your “past” is a euphemism for your accumulated experiences, decisions, and reactions. Your past, and what you’ve learned from it, is you. J. C. Watts defined character as what you do when no one is looking. Well, when it comes to presidential politics, your past is what you did when no one was looking. Bill Clinton’s past demonstrates that he is a borderline deviant and pathological liar who is very good at politics. His past was most certainly prologue. We deserve the opportunity to discover the same thing about George W. Bush.
Like a Caesar who turns to the crowds for advice about a gladiator’s life, I have listened to you, the readers of the Goldberg File, and spared my Couch (henceforth to be spelled with a capital C). (Actually, my own similarity to a Caesar is that I sometimes like to walk around the house in a toga). The poll was decisive (though again, many complained about the narrow choices). The Couch will get his own column. Thanks to you all.