Clinton's Southern Gothic Legacy


It has become clear that the Clinton era's twilight years are turning into a gloomy dusk, filled with the whispering of ghosts and the casting of unsettling shadows. The Juanita Broaddrick rape charge–uncomfortably credible and insufficiently countered not merely by the president's lawyer but, more disturbingly, by his friends and political allies–casts a pall over a White House that has not wanted for black clouds. Indeed, that the president's supporters plainly see him as capable of such an act, if not necessarily guilty in this particular instance, is to damn the man as fully as his most vociferous enemies. Though rushed off the news pages–when it was mentioned at all–the Broaddrick story still lingers uncomfortably in public consciousness, pointing to larger, equally dark truths about the president and his place in history.

When Bill Clinton took office six years ago, there was something of the atmosphere that surrounded Andrew Jackson's arrival in Washington, D.C. in 1829: Here was a new kind of politician, both regionally and ideologically, a figure from the western, rough-and-tumble fringes of the South, a man of humble roots who claimed a strong emotional and experiential bond to the common people, a leader who would inaugurate a new age in national politics. Charged with ushering in the next American century, Clinton would not only oversee the "most ethical administration" ever (an unintentionally ironic boast, that), but would fundamentally restructure government and American life for the better.

But he has succeeded in nothing so much as transforming the White House from a symbol of august leadership and sober authority into a decaying Southern manse out of the pages of Poe, Faulkner, and Tennessee Williams. Famously raised in a dysfunctional family–the story of how young Billy stared down his alcoholic, physically abusive stepfather was early on made part of his legend–Clinton has himself emerged as a passive-aggressive national patriarch who alternates between fits of angry, finger-waving indignation and dew-eyed, lip-biting confessions before announcing that, starting tomorrow, he will be a changed man.

In an age of arch cynicism toward politics and politicians, he has distinguished himself as so thoroughly Machiavellian that it is universally acknowledged that his own word in the Broaddrick matter is worthless. In a way that was unthinkable before his presidency, we are left puzzling over the subtext and latent meaning of every utterance the chief executive makes and every action he takes, whether the topic is sexual harassment or the bombing of foreign countries.

The pattern of prevarication and half-truths, of course, was in place even before the president took office, and it has never been restricted to arguably personal matters: While candidate Clinton gave halting, patently insincere, and predictably evolving accounts of his relationship with Gennifer Flowers (and the use of state troopers in facilitating the affair), he did the same regarding his draft experience and experimentation with drugs. Again and again, we have been asked to believe this today ("I did not have sexual relations with that women, Miss Lewinsky") and that tomorrow ("Indeed, I did have a relationship with Ms. Lewinsky that was not appropriate") without concluding the man is a moral impostor. There is a policy analogue, as well. To pick one example among many: After campaigning on a refreshingly open and inclusive attitude toward gays and lesbians, he later–and with minimal arm-twisting–signed The Defense of Marriage Act, the most blatantly homophobic piece of legislation passed in recent years.

Before the Broaddrick charges were at last aired publicly, the chattering classes were preoccupied with musing over the implications of the impeachment proceedings for Bill Clinton's "legacy" and for his final years in office. Now such talk has receded, as if these most serious accusations are simply too monstrous to contemplate. Analysts, politicians, and–most bizarre of all–feminist leaders–have urged that we must "move on" and "get back to the business of running the country"; the charges are, they say, too old to prove one way or another, and they tremble at putting a simple, unequivocal question before the president.

If Clinton has become an abusive father, such people have become his whipped wife and children, eager to repress ugly and uncomfortable fears–not simply about Broaddrick but about all the values and ideals which the president claims to hold. He wanders the public landscape, ever present in our lives, but a distant, uncommunicative figure nonetheless. If anything, his same-as-before utterings on policy matters–a few days after Broaddrick's interview on Dateline aired, he triumphantly announced guidelines for a universal attachment mechanism for children's car seats–only serve to draw attention to the wall of unspoken words between him and the nation he governs.

The result is an unreal atmosphere that is both dumbfounding and paralyzing: If our leader is indeed capable of rape and left in office–if our leader is credibly charged with rape and never makes a full accounting of himself–precisely what sort of moral order in America is possible?

In the end, Clinton will eventually exit our lives. We will indeed move on from the psychodrama in which he has enmeshed us. But how we move on–by repressing the memory and pretending it hardly matters or by confronting it and working toward some definitive sense of what, if anything, happened between Broaddrick and the president–will speak volumes about our own moral lives and will determine how long the episode haunts our country.

Nick Gillespie is editor-in-chief of reason. This story originally appeared in the Bridge News Service.