The Party's Over


The Washington Post, Tuesday, September 8, 1998; Page A15

NEW PRESTON, Conn., Sept. 7–Here in the upper-left-hand corner of Connecticut, it is the latest of Labor Days, but the air is still thick with summer, powerboats plow the lake and not a leaf has turned.

Yet fall is here. Tuesday is different, utterly. It is back to work. The fun is over, and America will have to put away its toys. That means looking at the events of the past three months squarely and, rather than dispatching another e-mail joke, thinking about the dangers to which they lead.

After six years of pleasure and inconsequence—practically the entire Clinton presidency has been a summer vacation—we confront serious times that require serious choices by serious people (if any can be found).

America's summer of 1998 was dominated by the Monica Lewinsky scandal. We alternated between low ridicule and high indignation—both forms of wicked self-indulgence. We laughed over cigars and blue dresses and were in high dudgeon about ethics and legalities, all leading to ex-cathedra pronouncements, often from liberal columnists, that the president had to go.

Many of us were preoccupied with Monica, most notably Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, who busied herself this summer with such items as musing over how the zaftig intern "caught" a president "with a little gumption and a lot of cleavage."

The subtext is Schadenfreude—the joy one feels at another's pain—and a blithe disregard for where all this will end. My warning is that, this fall, it won't be pretty. It all reminds me of a scene from "Pulp Fiction" and countless B movies, where the audience starts laughing and then, suddenly, realizes that murder and chaos are not very funny. First, consider the cast: Bill Clinton is unlikely to go gently; his successor, Al Gore, faces an investigation of his own; and Congress lacks the stomach to do its duty with the seriousness required. We have been lulled into complacency by the relative ease with which Richard Nixon departed. But Nixon, while loathsome in many ways, understood his historic responsibility; his successor was an upright, self-sacrificing adult; and members of Congress, of both parties, recognized the profound nature of their task.

Also, in 1974, Americans were not unaware of the threats in the world, having faced a menacing Soviet Union, an oil embargo, a deteriorating economy and a recent war in the Middle East. They knew that a weakened presidency could have consequences.

Sure, there were jokes and trivia contests about Watergate, and, sure, we rushed home excited after school or work to watch the hearings, but Watergate was important from the start, not an occasion for snide hilarity.

As the fall proceeds, the importance of Whitewater and the Lewinsky scandal will begin to sink in as well. It won't be so funny.

One reason is that, nine years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the world is menacing. In summery fashion, Clinton can fire missiles at Sudan and Afghanistan, and we can joke about "Wag the Dog." But, in the fall, we will find that war with terrorists is serious, as Israel and Britain know.

Meanwhile, Iraq continues to defy us and evidently is developing new weapons of mass destruction. India and Pakistan test nukes. North Korea is hurling two-stage ballistic rockets (for summer fun) over the heads of the Japanese. The Chinese, quiet this summer after a rewarding visit from the president, will be heard from in the fall, as will the Russians, who are descending into anarchy or autocracy with only their own missiles for comfort. We perhaps will be without the stability and reassurance of Helmut Kohl of Germany, who could lose reelection later this month.

The fun may be ending for the U.S. economy too. This has been a summer to marvel at a 20 percent correction in stocks, but we haven't seen anything yet. The broad market is still up for the year, and interest rates are low. The recovery from the last recession began at the end of 1991, and the summer of 1998 could prove the last blow-off for a while—the end of the biblical seventh fat year. One-third of the world is in recession, and something called deflation is moving west with the night.

Deflation is a decline in the general price level, which can lead to collapsing profits, higher unemployment and lower production. We haven't seen deflation since the 1930s, and economists don't really know how to stop it, as Japan has recently learned.

Our stock market can go lower. And, in the worst of all plots, the world's central banks, including our own, may try to reflate—or print money—to get out a slump. Interest rates would then soar.

If all this sounds alarming, it means to be. The summer of 1998 was a time for giddiness, lewd jokes and the heady rush of moral posturing. But it is over now. As the poet Wallace Stevens wrote:

"He rode over Connecticut

In a glass coach.

Once, a fear pierced him… "

It's a fear, as fall begins, that America, putting away its summer toys and boats, ignores at its deepest peril.