With our reaction to the Monica Lewinsky episode, we Americans have turned the concept of hypocrisy on its head. The French philosopher François La Rochefoucauld famously praised hypocrisy as the socially useful "homage that vice pays to virtue." That, of course, is very French. In the United States, however, it seems that virtue pays homage to vice. Have we thought through the implications?
Americans in large numbers tell pollsters that we disapprove of adultery, regularly attend church, and would like to see the return of prayer to schools. We claim nostalgia for 19th-century moral standards and propel the Book of Virtues to the top of the best-seller list. Yet almost 60 percent of us, according to a New York Times/CBS poll last week, not only don't think it's our business whether President Clinton had sex with Monica Lewinsky but also "would understand" if he had lied about it, even under oath.
Until now, it has been assumed that the leader of an egalitarian society should, at least in aspiration, be better--not just smarter and braver, but more noble--than other citizens. Now we seem to be engaged in a rapid rewind of the morality tape, zipping right through the age of Victoria to the time when the rules of droit du seigneur held sway. Then the peasants and bourgeoisie were expected to live lives of probity, while the king and his court whored and plundered as they pleased.
Can this really be us, tugging our forelocks and mumbling, "That's OK, boss, you go ahead and have a good time, we'll just wait out here in the hall and say a few prayers"? No, that's not us. Far more likely is that we still regard the president as a role model--it's just that, like him, we prefer his new role. We wish we had the protective coterie of government-paid procurers and concealers that would let us get away with it.
That being so, serious rethinking is in order before we invest further in public activities incongruent with the new dispensation. Some corrections are easy and obvious. Send prosecutor Starr off to Pepperdine and let him take all his pokings into S & L swindles and FBI file invasions and election-fund finagling with him. Nobody cares about that other stuff, either. For a successful politician, that's just doin' what comes natcherly.
And let's quit picking on poor Army Sgt. Maj. Gene McKinney. If it's OK for the commander in chief to hit on women in the office, why should we prosecute a man so much farther down the military chain of command? Sure, his satisfied-customer ratio seems to have been lower than Clinton's, but is that any reason to put a man at risk of a lifetime in jail? Let copulation thrive, as King Lear would say. And as the century ends, let us grope our way toward a new liberalism.
Other changes in federal policy are needed urgently to support the implicit goals of the New Awakening. For example, we must obviously restore Welfare as We Knew It. Here, after all, was a program (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) that, judged by current lights, must be rated one of the most successful social experiments of all time. When AFDC rolls began climbing in the late 1960s, fewer than 10 percent of American children were born out of wedlock. By the time the welfare rolls peaked in 1993, that figure had risen to a gratifying 31 percent!
To be sure, illegitimacy is not a perfect proxy for indiscriminate promiscuity--although other indicators (venereal-disease incidence, divorce rates, etc.) track well with it. Nor can AFDC take all the credit. Other programs--Medicaid, Food Stamps, housing aid, special feeding and educational programs for unwed teens, and so on--certainly provided additional inducements for unguarded sexuality. Some people (e.g., our president) manage to promiscuate pretty indiscriminately without the incentive of food stamps--just as some minority citizens manage to get ahead without affirmative action. But an extra incentive from the government surely helps.
A nd yet even now, in a misguided appeal to a public that misunderstands its own core beliefs, President Clinton is presiding over the dismantling of this forward-looking program. Welfare mothers are being pushed into the work force, whence they will stagger home each night lacking the energy for romantic exploration. Young men are being told to take responsibility for their sexual behavior and, should they slip, pay up on child support. This threatens to undermine all President Clinton's good work in sending the message that one should get it whenever and however one can.
Oh, and let's cut out all this huffing and puffing about Saddam Hussein. He's got oil to sell, and we've got gas guzzlers to keep rolling. Anyway, by now he has surely squirreled away all that anthrax and poison gas where we'll never find it with bombs or inspectors. Keeping all those planes, ships, and troops on alert is expensive. It uses up money that would be much better spent on--well, tax cuts for all of us. And while we're at it, isn't it time to jettison all this anal-retentive preoccupation with a balanced budget? Is paying for what we get really the essential us? Listen instead to the subtext of the president's recent, acclaimed State of the Union message. More spending! More tax cuts! This, surely, is where the Clinton sex policy and the Clinton social policy combine. He wants us to feel his pleasure. And we do.