Flytrap's Trashy Books
We read 'em so you don't have to.
Scandals customarily generate lots of quick, trashy literature; the kind of unedited, misspelled garbage designed to sell scads of copies before people realize just how junky it is. But Flytrap, until now, has been a publishing flop. The last few weeks have finally brought the first crop of scandal books: William J. Bennett's The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals, Ann Coulter's High Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Case Against Bill Clinton, and Jerome D. Levin's The Clinton Syndrome: The President and the Self-Destructive Nature of Sexual Addiction.
None of these books is Flytrap's All the President's Men (or should that be Women?). The books are, for the most part, shameless attempts to exploit the nation's sorrow for money and fame. They are essentially clip jobs, repackaging newspaper and TV reports with a gloss of new opinion. But there is something interesting about them: the three distinct strains of Clinton criticism they represent.
1 Somber Moral Instruction:
Unsurprisingly, Bennett's project in The Death of Outrage is to stiffen America's backbone, to persuade us to care about Clinton's misdeeds and to punish them. He writes, "American citizens know better--and they will demonstrate that indeed they do know better. Americans will realize they are being played for fools by the president and his defenders."
The Death of Outrage suffers from the same surfeit of self-righteousness that plagues all Bennett's ventures. It is jacketed with the sober brown paper that covered The Book of Virtues, and it seems a calculating attempt by Bennett to secure his franchise as America's scold in chief. Bennett's pose of nonpartisan moral authority, annoying enough when he writes for kids, seems particularly forced in The Death of Outrage. Click for a spectacular example.
After reading Bennett, however, I began to think that the consciousness-raising he preaches might actually be possible. He is a fine rhetorician, and The Death of Outrage makes the best case yet for public condemnation of Clinton. Bennett's arguments are nothing you haven't read before on the New York Times editorial page or in the Weekly Standard, but they're powerful nonetheless. Basic premises: Clinton's reckless, repeated adultery weakens essential moral codes; his betrayal of vows and his lies undermine public trust; his use of legal chicanery to duck ethical responsibility is cowardly and grotesque; the public's silence in the face of this is a capitulation, "moral disarmament"; and America, which has always believed that politicians' moral behavior matters, must start judging Clinton's character.
But the inspiration of this book is its tone. Bennett is obviously obsessed, partisan, and furious about Flytrap, yet he has managed to write a book without vitriol. He refrains from gloating. He chastises others for their glee in savaging Clinton. He takes Clinton's immorality so seriously that he can't even joke about it. Like television, the book is a cool medium; Bennett's anger is convincing because he holds it in check.
I realized the effectiveness of Bennett's restraint when I opened Coulter's High Crimes and Misdemeanors, which represents the second strain of criticism. If Bennett is superego, Coulter is id. Bennett says in measured tones what conservatives ought to believe. MSNBC pundit Coulter screams what they really feel.
High Crimes has two principal aims: 1) to explain what, historically and legally, constitutes an impeachable offense (summary: moral offenses, not just criminal ones) and 2) to build an impeachment case against Clinton by summarizing his malfeasance in everything from the Paula Jones case to campaign fund raising to Webb Hubbell's job search to the White House Travel Office to Monica Lewinsky. But Coulter, whose TV manner is that of a woman going stark raving mad, is the wrong person to write a sober legal tract. High Crimes is supposed to show that Clinton's enemies have a strong legal case against him. Instead, it suggests Clinton's enemies are nutters.
David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.