I went to Washington, D.C., for a couple of days last week-and should report to you that the nation's capital isn't acting much like a scandal-plagued city. President Clinton was home again after his trip to Illinois and Wisconsin, but he wasn't wearing an embroidered "A" on his suit or shirt; nor, of course, did he take even a few minutes out from meeting with his lawyers to talk to me about how things are going for him. Neither, for that matter, did Kenneth Starr. Everybody just rushed right by.
In other words, everything seemed pretty normal in Washington. And that's what's really depressing about our country right now.
Whatever the American public is thinking these days about what it might ever take to unseat a sitting president of the United States, one thing is clear: It's a lot easier to get rid of a president than it is to get rid of the American public. And whatever you think of William Jefferson Clinton, he's not the main problem. The American public is-the American people numbly going on about their normal business on any given morning and seemingly unable to get upset anymore about anything.
Certainly the astonishing revelations of the last couple of weeks were not about Mr. Clinton. He was just doing what he's done as long as he's been in Washington and as long as he's been in politics. As a friend told me right after the first in the president's string of denials: "He looked just like I think I used to look whenever I told my parents a lie." Why should any of us have been surprised? Folks complained about "a rush to judgment," but it was far too late in this whole ugly scenario to talk about a rush to anywhere.
What really surprises us, we say now, are the American people. You could see that surprise registering on columnist George Will an hour after Mr. Clinton's State of the Union address. Late-night newscaster Ted Koppel reported a new ABC poll indicating that 74 percent of all Americans agreed that the case against the president may well have stemmed not from Mr. Clinton's own actions, but from a right-wing conspiracy. Mr. Will shook his head in disbelief.
So did George Stephanopoulos, Mr. Clinton's former aide who was also on Mr. Koppel's program. His disbelief was best described by a current White House assistant: "We are all like someone who's just been shot at, but missed." But the disbelief of such people often turns suddenly from panicky fear to new boldness. For if the American people were gullible enough to choke that one down, what won't they accept?
Yet, as I say, we shouldn't have been surprised. For if a quarter billion people have consistently heard the same message now for a generation or two from their nation's media, from its educational establishment reaching from kindergarten to graduate school, and even from its pulpits-why wouldn't those people accept the arguments of a man who is the quintessential embodiment of all those very same values?
The essence of that worldview is that no values are supernaturally stated or imposed; they're made up as you go along. Such is now the way of doing politics, governing the world's strongest nation, doing business, marrying, starting and then maintaining a family, divorcing, entertaining, creating art and music, playing sports, worshipping, and everything else we do in life.
So what was the media furor all about when the story first broke? It sprang from three sources-none of them rooted in an ultimate sense of right and wrong.
First, the media outcry resulted from the can't-go-wrong sense that stories about sex and intrigue will sell. Stories about sex and intrigue in high places will sell even better.
Second, there's still a residue of good habits from the past-even among the hardened media types-that instinctively responds, "Whoa! There's something wrong here!" And though their consciences may be totally seared, these people aren't dumb about hanging on to their audiences. So they have to keep thinking, "Even though there's obviously nothing morally wrong here (since we don't believe in morals in the first place), maybe our readers, viewers, and listeners still have such quaint old ideas. We'd at least better play the part." Except that this time, sadly, the readers, viewers, and listeners had all caught up with their teachers.
Third, the furor sprang from a sense of betrayal among media people. All along, for the most part, they'd been cheerleading the president-minimizing his peccadilloes and lionizing his policies, his leadership, and his unerring political judgment. Especially, they had focused on his great political appeal to women. Yet now (and this is true no matter how the scandal ultimately turns out), the president seemed to have betrayed not just his marriage, not just his staff, not just his party, and not just his ideological defenders, but the very principles over which he had so often and so movingly bitten his lower lip. Betrayal, even for people with not many other moral values, isn't easily sloughed off.
In America, three structures exist to keep a political leader accountable: the law, the media, and the voters. All three have been profoundly shaped by a no-values mind-set.
Of the three, it is possible that the law and the media will still do their job in this sorry case. But almost certainly, the American people themselves are no longer to be trusted. Given what has shaped them, we should hardly be surprised.