State of the Conjugal Union

How you look at things.
Jan. 22 1999 3:30 AM

State of the Conjugal Union

Clinton obscures his adultery by reinventing "family values."

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Tuesday afternoon at President Clinton's trial, White House Counsel Charles Ruff emphatically reminded the Senate that Clinton had confessed to adultery with an intern less than half his age. Hours later at Clinton's State of the Union address, senators applauded as the president touted his record on family values. How did Clinton get away with this compartmentalization? By reinterpreting "family."

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Ruff's argument before the Senate was a legal defense but a moral surrender. Clinton couldn't be guilty of perjury before Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's grand jury, Ruff explained, because in his testimony Clinton had "admitted" the essential truth: that he had engaged in "sexual conduct" and "inappropriate, intimate contact with Monica Lewinsky." Yes, Ruff conceded, Clinton had clammed up about the details, but this was merely "an effort to preserve the dignity of the office" in the wake of the indignities to which Clinton had subjected it. The president's lawyer concluded, "We are not here to defend William Clinton, the man." Indeed, Ruff stipulated that senators were free "to find his personal conduct distasteful."

Yet Clinton conveyed no shame when he entered the House chamber later that evening. Nor did the Democratic lawmakers who cheered and embraced him. The president sprinkled the word "family" throughout his speech and devoted one-sixth of the text to a section titled "Support for American Families." The section didn't mention marriage, illegitimacy, or any of the other conventional moral topics that might embarrass Clinton. Instead, it repackaged five other kinds of issues as family concerns.

1.Technical support. Republican family issues are conflicts over contrary goals (hence the phrase "culture war"). Clinton, however, uses the word "family" to describe issues in which the goal is uncontroversial and the only challenge is to provide the means. In the "family" portion of his speech, he bragged about the "Family Medical Leave Act" and called on Congress to "extend family leave to 10 million more Americans." He urged lawmakers to provide subsidies and tax credits for "quality child care" and "after-school programs"--all in the name of "working families."

2. Aid to individuals. Republican family issues are about relations among family members. Clinton's family issues are about helping individuals while describing them as members of families. In his "family" discussion, he challenged Congress to raise the minimum wage, support HMO regulations, finance studies on arthritis (because "America's families deserve the world's best medical care"), and help public hospitals treat "working families who don't have any insurance." Democrats used to embrace "working people" while Republicans embraced "family values." By claiming to serve "working families," Clinton plays it both ways.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right. Follow him on Twitter.

3.Constituency politics. Republican family issues discriminate between family configurations (straight vs. gay, married vs. unmarried, etc.). Clinton's family issues ignore these distinctions and instead discriminate by other demographic criteria that are equally politically useful. In his remarks on the family, he extolled federal funding of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's research. He urged Congress to "allow people with disabilities to keep health insurance when they go to work" and to "give people between the ages of 55 and 65 who lose their health insurance the chance to buy into Medicare." This is great news if you're disabled, if you're 55 to 65, or if someone you care about has Parkinson's or Alzheimer's. But Clinton isn't speaking to you as a special interest. He's speaking to you as a family.

4. Cultural liberalism. Republicans use the F word to affirm conservative principles such as chastity, maternity, and homemaking. Clinton uses it to renovate or even reverse those principles. "Let's make sure that women and men get equal pay for equal work by strengthening enforcement of equal pay laws," he proposed at the outset of his discussion of "family." Equal pay began as a feminist cause, but Clinton has made it a family issue by spotlighting mothers who work outside the home. Likewise, in his speech, he avoided the phrase "birth control," which connotes hostility to kids and families. Instead, he spoke up for "family planning," which connotes the opposite.

5.Paternalism. Republicans advocate regulation of family matters while defending freedom of choice in economic matters. Liberal Democrats draw the same distinction but take the opposite positions. Clinton confounds both camps by blurring the family/economic distinction. His favorite hybrid issue is tobacco legislation. This began as a public health crusade, but Clinton has transformed it into an issue of helping parents protect their kids from tobacco pushers. "Our children are targets of a massive media campaign to hook them on cigarettes," he charged in his remarks on the family. "I ask this Congress to resist the tobacco lobby [and] to reaffirm the FDA's authority to protect our children from tobacco."

After 10 minutes of family values oratory and dozens of ovations, Clinton concluded, "If we act in these areas--minimum wage, family leave, child care, health care, the safety of our children--then we will begin to meet our generation's historic responsibility to strengthen our families." Of course, honoring your marriage vows helps, too. But when you're as smooth-tongued as Bill Clinton, that goes without saying.