Policy made plain.
Oct. 10 1998 3:30 AM

Slate Family Values


Attentive online readers will notice a slight change in our design, if not by the time you read this then in the next few days. The purpose is to reflect the launch of Microsoft's new "portal site," msn.com. As followers of Internet fashion are aware, portal sites are the flavor of the moment, as various online giants--America Online, Yahoo, Netscape, and Microsoft--compete to be your guide through the maze of the Internet. A portal site is a Web page with useful features such as a Web search engine, your local weather, sundry links, perhaps a stock ticker, news headlines, a small button that says "Click here or we e-mail your boss that you've been playing Solitaire again," and so on. The idea is that you make it your home page, or at least come to it often, and that way the sponsoring company will get lots of traffic and make lots of money by ... by ... well, we're all still working on that. It's the Internet after all.

Anyway, Slate conducted a scrupulously objective study of the major portal sites and concluded that msn.com was the one we preferred to be associated with. By special arrangement with America Online, however, readers who access Slate through AOL will get a special set of pages that shield them from any special temptation to visit msn.com and other Microsoft properties. Instead, they will continue to enjoy AOL's own self-promotions as usual. Of course AOL customers are free to check out msn.com, just as other Slate readers are free to visit aol.com. Nobody has a monopoly here, as we keep telling Janet Reno.

We can't resist noting, finally, that if your primary interests are news, politics, and cultural commentary, our "Slate Links" page doesn't make a bad "portal site." There you'll find links to all the major columnists and commentators, movie and other arts reviewers, U.S. and foreign newspapers, and other tasty treats. Make it your home page--Microsoft won't mind.

Partisanship: Slate Wobbles


There is nothing especially Democratic or liberal about the behavior that has got President Clinton in hot water. Nor is there anything especially Republican or conservative about Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr's alleged excesses. Some conservatives have attempted to associate Flytrap with the political and cultural values of the 1960s--let it all hang out and so on--though they also have insisted that feminists are betraying feminism's roots in the same period by failing to condemn the male perpetrator. Surely the latter critique is closer to the mark. If the Clinton-Lewinsky affair smells of any past decade it is the 1950s and the pre-feminist workplace culture reflected in movies like The Seven Year Itch and The Apartment.

But basically this scandal is nonideological and so are the arguments around it. So the strong tendency of Democrats and Republicans to see Flytrap differently is especially impressive. There is nothing wrong with partisanship--when it's about principled ideological disagreement. "The Beast stands for strong, mutually antagonistic governments everywhere," says the press magnate, Lord Copper, in Evelyn Waugh's Scoop. That is a pretty good attitude to have about domestic politics. If there's anything worse than partisanship, it's bipartisanship. This is not merely the journalist's professional preference for disagreement over agreement. It is a suspicion that rising above partisanship usually means rising above democracy. (See David Plotz's "Flytrap Today" dispatch on Washington's "Wise Men.") Nevertheless, it is remarkable that on a series of essentially apolitical issues on which reasonable people can differ, Democratic politicians are almost all on one side and Republicans are almost all on the other.

How does it happen? Empty, principle-free partisanship--the bad kind--is the obvious answer. It is tempting to apply this analysis only to whichever side you happen to disagree with. But unthinking partisanship can strike anyone at any time. Consider the sad case of an online magazine editor. Call him "K." K was working on an article--and working himself up into a fine froth--on the subject of legal "hairsplitting." What is wrong with it? K does not go as far as those Clinton defenders who say that you have the right to lie under oath if the questions are ones you should never have had to answer. But he was strongly tempted by the notion that if you shouldn't have been asked the question, responding with fatuous evasions is perfectly OK. Starr had spent four years and $40 million not so much investigating a crime as arranging for one. If a bizarre definition of sex could allow Clinton to mislead without falling into a perjury trap, he was not merely within his rights but perfectly justified.

As K was thinking this through, though, the line of reasoning started to seem familiar. Wasn't this exactly Elliott Abrams' argument? Abrams, assistant secretary of state under President Reagan, pleaded guilty to misleading Congress about the Iran-Contra affair, but was pardoned by President Bush. His defense (for which K had contempt at the time) was that he intended to mislead but was technically telling the truth. For example, he stagily denied that any foreign money was being used to finance the contras--although he himself had been involved in soliciting such money--because the check hadn't yet arrived. When the deception came out, Abrams sermonized that sneakiness in the defense of liberty is no vice, and many Republicans supported him in that.


There are differences, of course. Congress' right to question an assistant secretary of state about U.S. foreign policy will seem clearer to many than Starr's right to ask the president about a sexual affair, but a few will think the opposite. Abrams felt he was defending liberty in Nicaragua, while others might characterize his deception as an effort to subvert democracy in the United States. So what Abrams did to prevent Congress from enforcing a policy he disagreed with is either much worse or much better than lying-through-technicalities to protect your right to privacy from an overzealous prosecutor. K has no trouble deciding which it is now that he needs a few second-order considerations to refine his argument. But K's indignant objection to hairsplitting a decade ago and his indignant sympathy for it now took no account of such nice distinctions.

The clips from the Abrams episode are a hilarious reminder of how partisan indignation can survive a total reversal of position on an issue. The thundering Republican condemnations of the special prosecutor back then are just like the thundering Democratic condemnations today, down to the very phrase, "four years and $40 million." Republicans used to defend any conceivable expression of "executive privilege" over Congress and the courts--now Democrats do that, while Republicans take up the old cry of "imperial presidency." When Republican officials were in the dock, the Wall Street Journal editorial page used to opine about "prosecutorial discretion"--the apparently noble principle that you don't necessarily prosecute a guy just because he did something illegal--and K used to mock it for that. Now the conservative mantras are "perjury is perjury" and "no man is above the law"--and K finds himself tempted by the idea that it isn't the end of the world if a perjurer gets away with it.

The strangest role reversal is going on right now and concerns democracy itself. In the 1980s, and as late as 1994, a major Republican theme was a sort of taunting, nyah-nyah populism. They thought the force was with them and always would be. Remember term limits? The notion of representative democracy took multiple hits. Politicians were considered inherently inferior to "the people." There was no patience for the good old Burkean conceit that legislators should sometimes rise above the wishes of their constituents. Those voters' wishes expressed in polls even trumped the voters' own wishes as expressed at the ballot box (since the essence of term limits was to limit the voters' right to vote for whom they wanted).

These days, though, the polls show that people pretty clearly don't want President Clinton impeached. And so we hear a lot of talk about rising above politics and ignoring the polls and doing the right thing not the popular thing. There have even been some frustrated musings among conservative writers and pundits that the people are not necessarily all-wise. They can be duped. They make mistakes. This was a note K used to strike a lot in the 1980s, and he's glad he doesn't have to strike it anymore. But he's trying to avoid the opposite note--"the people agree with me, so I must be right." Just in case.

--Michael Kinsley