Thursday, November 14, 2019

Flashback 1998: Confronting the horror in this political jungle

Bill Clinton, National Portrait Gallery
     America has impeached four presidents and I've written about three of them while the process was unfolding (Andrew Johnson was before my time).
     For Nixon, I was a 13-year-old budding journalist, recording thoughts in a green clothbound notebook lifted from NASA, where my father worked. 
     "As I sat in music class with Mr. Zagar we were listening to the radio when the teacher turned the station we heard the news that Vice-President Spiro T. Agnew has just resigned," I wrote, in cursive, a forgotten skill. "At first I was exstatic [sic] but now I'm not so sure this is a good thing. While I hate Nixon, his vice president, and all the assorted crooks, thugs, tuffs [sic], and assorted evil doers and phone tapers [sic] that associate themselves with Nixon, I feel that unexpected bad things might happen like the fall of American democracy or Nixon seizing the government, but those are remote possibilities."
       Twenty-five years later I had just begun writing a column at the Sun-Times, and the impeachment of Bill Clinton was something to be endured. There are a few errors in the column as well: "Wozzeck" is only 90 minutes long, thank God. And showing off, I name-check Joseph Conrad and quote T.S. Eliot. But can you find the Dante reference as well?

     If you've ever sat through a really terrible opera, one of those four-hour jobbies, always modern—say "Wozzeck" by Berg—that the Lyric Opera seems to feel compelled to inflict upon its audience, periodically, perhaps as penance for the joys of Mozart and Verdi, then you might have already struck upon my technique of escape visualization.
     It is the second act. Having spent the intermission begging my wife to leave and salvage what remains of the evening (she refuses, out of the charmed notion that the performers, 100 yards and two balconies away, will feel badly if we do), I slump down in my red plush seat. The opera unfolds, hideously.
     So I leave, not in reality, but in imagination. I narrow my eyes and go through the process: getting up, murmuring apologies, sliding down the row, trying not to grind my butt in the faces of seated patrons.
     Quick-step up the aisle. Pass through the door into the light. The relief of the unmobbed coat check desk. The giddy reunion between man and coat. The rush down the stairs. The careful noting of the crooked beige plastic electric wall socket plates in the lobby, an amazing lapse amid the glorious marble and brass (I'm going to dip my toe into philanthropy some day and raise the money to buy the Lyric a half dozen real brass socket covers for its lobby— the Neil Steinberg Memorial Wall Plates). The final release into the revivifying night air.
      I found myself engaging in a similar escape last week, when struck by the tsunami of the Lewinsky; Tripp tapes, followed hard by the typhoon of the impeachment hearings. (We never have thought of a proper name for this nightmare, have we? Maybe we should take a cue from Conrad, and just call it the Horror).
     How will this end? When will the face of the general public—turned away in relief since the elections, now roughly grabbed and shoved, like a naughty dog, back into the noisome mess—once again be permitted to turn skyward and view the stars?
     My personal moment of squirming despair came Thursday. I was in a cab, on Lake Shore Drive. Of course, the radio was turned to Ken Starr (all radios and televisions were; you could keep up with the farce by just walking down the street, like with the Cubs in a playoff game).
     Cab radios only have two volumes, tantalizingly soft and eardrum-piercing loud. Straining to hear Starr's pious palaver, I asked the cabbie to turn the radio up. As punishment, I was forced to endure Starr's voice sawing full volume through my head for the rest of the trip.
     When will this be over and what will that be like? Can we conjure up a scenario that, like a fantasy tiptoe out of the opera house, can give us a bit of balm against the nightmare grinding out before our eyes? Since relief tarries, might we not at least imagine relief?
     My first impulse would be to say: No, it's not possible. Steven Calabresi, a professor of constitutional law at Northwestern University, floated a scenario in which the Senate would still be arguing this issue in January, 2001. And that was his short version. He also suggested the Senate could hold some sort of hearing hounding Clinton after he leaves office (after? after!) to legally bar him from holding future office.
     With all due respect to Calabresi, he's out of his mind, showing the sort of oblivious wish-fulfillment that has led the Republican Party to the precipice and is now inspiring them to leap over into the abyss.
     If this nonsense is still being debated into 2001, there won't be a Republican in Congress to vote on the matter. Bank on it.
     As with all moralists who periodically grab the reins of the nation and drive us toward a cliff, they don't get the idea of a gray region. The moderate mass of America doesn't think in absolutes—we're trying to get through the day, which often requires compromise, a concept lost on zealots. Abortion is bad, but banning it is worse, so the rights of the fetus, such as they are, are trumped by the rights of the mother. Smut on the Internet is a problem, but appointing a committee of bluenoses to try to sweep it clean is worse. Clinton lied under oath, but he lied under oath about his sex life in a proceeding that grew out of a garbage lawsuit mounted by his enemies who hated him prior to all his supposed crimes and only hate him more now.
     But it will end, right? I bring you good news. It will. The inquiry will grind on, the Republicans trying to expand it, desperately. But society, which cares little now, will begin to care less. The hearings will continue, but we won't notice them anymore. New developments will get pushed to the back pages, to the last segment before the weather. Newspapers will run a small box, back by the astrology tables: "Today is the 147th day of the impeachment hearings. Rep. Hyde said . . ."
     This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a whimper.
               —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Nov. 22, 1998


  1. Good point about the Clinton impeachment comparison.

  2. Now the Republicans are bloviating about how the impeachment inquiry is a partisan witch hunt and a blatant attempt to overturn the results of the election and subvert democracy blah blah blah. These people always, always ascribe to others their own behavior, either past or intended.

    1. Last week, Agent Orange used "Scam" and "Witch Hunt" and "Fake" in the same tweet about the inquiry, making it a trifecta. Left out "Hoax" for some unknown reason, but in one of yesterday's rants he used the word "Sham"...which he apparently just discovered. That's who these people are--Scam the Sham, the Wannabe Pharaoh, and his Woolly Bullies.

  3. I'm recalling Kennedy"s (or Schlesinger's) Profiles in Courage, one of which profiles was of the Senator who supposedly had the courage not to vote for the conviction of Andrew Johnson. Seems to me that the nation would have been benefited had Johnson, a segregationist at heart, been removed from office.


  4. Re your puzzle, "...once again permitted to turn skyward and view the stars." sounded like it might have come from The Devine comedy, but I couldn't locate a citation.

    Professor Calabresi, who is big in the right wing Federalist Society, was quoted in today's Washington Post arguing (incorrectly) that the impeachment hearings are illegal. Another name that came up in your old column is Henry Hyde, who sat in judgement over Clinton's sexual immorality despite his own record of infidelity.


    1. Tom: Bingo. The Divine Comedy is divided into three books, Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. Each ends with a reference to stars, the first one, most famously, "Through a round opening I saw/Some of the lovely things the heavens hold/From there we came out to see—once more—the stars."
      From there we came out to see once more the stars.

    2. I am elated. I liked your fantasy about escaping a long, boring opera, but disagree about Wozzeck. Possible alternatives are to book a seat on the isle or leave the wife at home. Also, modern operas aren't necessarily long. "Dead Man Walking," currently running, plays under three hours, but seems shorter because of the griping storyline. Also, length is not a crucial measure of excellence. A five hour Meistersinger, well cast and performed, can seem shorter than a mediocre Boheme.


    3. I once asked my Republican uncle why he so hated Hilary Clinton. His reason was essentially that she had forgiven her husbands infidelities. After his own wife had left him for her AA sponsor, he forgave her. So when he exclaimed from a church pew one Sunday around the time Neil's column was published, "God Bless Henry Hyde", my Father felt compelled to find a different church rather than point out the hypocrisy.


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