17 OCTOBER 1998, Page 13


Mark Steyn on some of the novel

arguments of Mr Clinton's defenders

New Hampshire AND ON it goes: a vote to inquire into impeachment, followed by a vote to impeach, followed by trial in the Senate and learned counsel cross-examining wit- nesses on who touched what part of whose parts when. And so the world's longest- running sex comedy staggers on to another act: as a speeded-up 'Hail to the Chief' plays on the soundtrack, President Benny Hill runs around in circles pursued by Paula, Kathleen, Monica, Linda, Ken, Newt, Henry Hyde, Trent Lott and a posse of constitutional scholars. I think we can all now agree that Bill Clinton has, in every sense, been blown out of all proportion.

But so what? After all, if America lacks anything, it's a sense of proportion. If spilling McDonald's coffee on your dress can lead to years of litigation and a gazil- lion-dollar settlement, spilling your seed on someone else's dress ought surely to be worth four years and $40 million. In Amer- ica, anything worth doing is worth doing slowly and expensively. Perhaps that's why last week's historic vote, formally admit- ting a third member to the select Impeach- ment Club, didn't seem historic so much as inevitable: a spectacularly American con- clusion to the American century, in which all the swirling cross-currents buffeting the fruited plain — sexual, cultural, linguistic, litigable — come together in one almighty twister funnelling down on the presidential zipper. To switch metaphors in mid- stream, all the chickens of modern liberal- ism have come home to roost in Mr Clinton's lap. To switch yet again, that's the reason one small furtive act in a win- dowless hallway has grown like Topsy.

Actually, maybe that's a switch too far. Recently, Senator Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois complained, 'As the only African- American in the United States Senate, I hope I am not overly sensitive to notice a tendency by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott in statements on the Senate floor to allude to a fictional slave girl.' Senator Moseley-Braun is offended by the Majority Leader's routine use of the expression `grown like Topsy' in reference to the pro- liferating amendments tacked on to Senate bills. As the Senator points out, Topsy is an African-American slave girl from Harri- et Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. 'Have you heard anything about God, Topsy?' asks Miss Ophelia. 'Do you know who made you?"Nobody, as I knows on,' replies Topsy. 'I 'spect I grow'd.' Mrs Stowe's fervently abolitionist book became the most successful novel, and subsequent- ly play, of its day, and the phrase quickly passed into the language: when something grows like Topsy, it grows of itself without anyone's direction.

But Senator Moseley-Braun, sitting in the upper house of the United States Congress and presumably with plenty of other things to think about, hears an innocuous standard Americanism dimly alluding to the most popular black charac- ter from the most effective anti-slavery tract and construes it as a racist slur. Mod- ern liberalism has grown, not like Topsy but in a more calculated way — from princi- pled moral objections to racism and sexism to a vast array of behavioural and linguistic prohibitions intended to harass its oppo- nents and feed the paranoia of its client groups. The world has been turned Topsy- turvy: if referring to Topsy is 'racist', what words does that leave for genuine racism? If saying, 'Hey, you're a cute-looking chick' is a form of 'rape', what language do you use for forcible sodomy? It's liberal Democrats like Senator Moseley-Braun and Senator Barbara Boxer who've legislat- ed away America's sense of proportion. Why is it wrong for Linda Tripp to tape conversations with Monica, but OK for the Reverend Jesse Jackson, America's number one shakedown artist, to obtain an illegal tape of a Texaco board meeting which is then inaccurately transcribed to make it seem as if certain directors are using racist language in order to force those directors to quit and Texaco to cough up millions of dollars for 'sensitivity training'?

Anthony Lewis, whose New York Times columns are as devoted to the President as Monica in her 'Dear Handsome' letters, objects to 'the would-be moral police who want to pry into all of our bedrooms'. In fact, Kenneth Starr has never shown the slightest interest in prying into the Presi- dent's bedroom, presumably on the grounds that in the Clinton White House that's the one place where there's abso- lutely nothing to pry into. But, allowing that Lewis is making a broader point about privacy, who are the 'moral police' of the Nineties? It's not Ken Starr who has crimi- nalised private conversation. It's not Ken Starr who mandated the training course at Cornell University in which resident advis- ers are made to sit through a hard-core gay flick in the course of which they're pho- tographed to see if they show any disturb- ing signs of homophobic squeamishness. Given that thousands of nobodies across the country have had their lives destroyed because of perceived behavioural trans- gressions, it was foolish to think these trends would not one day converge on the White House. Congressman Hyde is a Republican, Judge Starr is a Republican, Paula Jones's backers are Republicans, but they're all just bit players in what's essen- tially a parable of modern liberalism.

Senator Moseley-Braun, alas, won't be there to play her part. Up for re-election in Illinois, she's currently running about ten points behind her Republican challenger, Peter Fitzgerald. Perhaps she agrees with the black poet Toni Morrison, who calls Mr Clinton 'our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children's lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent house- hold, born poor, working-class, saxophone- playing, McDonald's-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.' Up to a point. He's black mainly in the sense that he's this year's OJ en route to next year's trial of the century. He's black mainly in the OJ-esque argu- ments his supporters are mustering: even if he's guilty, the alleged conspiracies and cover-ups of his opponents are even worse.

What's happening is both magnificent and ludicrous. But what's the alternative? Of late, there have been moments (round about the point in Monica's testimony where Bill tells her she can't perform oral sex any more, and then gently leads her into the outer office where they sing 'Try a Little Tenderness') when I've found myself pining for the ruthless trajectory of a British sex scandal: on Sunday you're plas- tered all over the News of the World; on Monday you're posing with your wife loy- ally standing by you on the drive of your Sussex manor house; and on Tuesday you're opening the letter from the prime minister regretfully accepting your resigna- tion but understanding your wish to be with your family at this difficult time and assuring you that the nation will long hon- our you for your tireless efforts on behalf of the Stansted Airport (Additional Park- ing Facilities) Bill. At the other end of the spectrum, there's the French approach: go ahead, install your mistress in a state apartment, who cares? Among Clinton critics, there's something to be said for the French system: don't get rid of him at all. But there's nothing to be said for a system that gets rid of him excruciatingly slowly. Thanks to what the wags call its Spanish Fly Inquisition, America is now supposedly the laughing-stock of the world.

Big deal. It may be news to most Ameri- cans, but they've always been the laughing- stock of the world, especially in Europe, where virtually every newspaper runs smug little columns dedicated to wacky things that happen in the United States. Obvious-

'Do you have this in a larger size?' ly, what's happening to Bill Clinton is incomprehensible to a Frenchman or a German because, in those countries, when the head of state runs up against the con- stitution, it's usually the constitution that gets blown to kingdom come. That's why they have their Third Reichs and Fifth Republics, whereas America has only the same old yellowing parchment it started out with 200 years ago. As for Britain, well, resignation is a very British act, a mechanism which forms part of the codes and nuances, nods and winks of a system in which nothing is explicitly spelled out. But I'm not sure it's terribly fair. Viewed from this distance, I can't see why on earth, say, Cecil Parkinson should have had to resign.

In fact, if Bill Clinton's changed my mind about anything, it's that in hindsight I now believe Richard Nixon did a great disservice to his country by resigning. He could have waived many of his rights, he could have declined to contest much of the evidence, he could even have pleaded guilty, but he would have done better by the constitution to let the impeachment process take its course. By resigning, he weakened his office and encouraged many Washington bigwigs who should know bet- ter to assume America is now a parliamen- tary democracy. It's not. The President does not hold his office because he com- mands the confidence of the legislature. In 1990, when Mrs Thatcher 'resigned', I spent many hours trying to explain to my New Hampshire neighbours how such a speedy ejection was perfectly legal. Nonetheless, they quaintly persisted in seeing her removal as fundamentally unjust and an affront to democracy.

That's why the various compromise pro- posals won't fly. Censure and a fine are unconstitutional: Congress has no right to judge the President, unless he commits criminal acts, in which case they're duty- bound to impeach him. That's it. It's a set menu, not a table d'heite. The latest pro- posal — from Gerald Ford, no less — is that the President should be summoned to the well of the House before a joint session of Congress to be rebuked live on televi- sion. That's a terrible idea, especially from a former president: I take a relaxed view about humiliating Mr Clinton with detailed questions about semen and cigars, but I strongly object to humiliating the office by dragging the President down to the House for a ceremonial hurling of rotten toma- toes. In effect, that's subjecting the presi- dency to a grim variation of the 'sensitivity training' inflicted on Texaco executives and Cornell advisers. A bad president should not become a bad precedent: after the Ford 'compromise', Congress would be free to concoct customised punishments for any future presidents. This is Bill Clin- ton's last chance to be of service to his office: it may be laborious and absurd, but he should insist on nothing less than a full trial. That's the American way.