JWR Roger SimonMona CharenLinda Chavez
Paul Greenberg Larry ElderJonathan S. Tobin
Thomas SowellClarence PageWalter Williams
Don FederCal Thomas
Political Cartoons
Left, Right & Center

Jewish World Review / August 7, 1998 / 15 Menachem-Av, 5758

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg Welcome to the roaring 90s

AT TIMES, RECURRENT TIMES, the great political and constitutional questions facing this grand republic look more like a bedroom farce. Although bedrooms seem to have precious little to do with this affair of state.

It occurs that l'affaire Lewinsky
Will hers be the mouth
that finally brings down Bubba?
might be a good deal more entertaining, instead of just sordid, if it were being covered not by the Associated Press but Moliere. But, to quote the all-too-imitable Mencken, nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American people. Or, for that matter, the taste of modern American presidents.

The best guide to this affair of state may not be the Constitution and laws of the United States but a history of the Harding administration. Back in the very roaring Twenties, presidential bodyguards had to stay alert lest Flo Harding burst into a White House closet, the little study off the Oval Office, cubbyhole, or other nook or cranny where Warren might be entertaining one of his inamoratas. Mrs. Harding was not amused, and anyone who ever felt her wrath, particularly Mr. Harding, was not likely to forget it. The Duchess, they called her.

In one narrow escape, poor Nan Britton had to be spirited out to wait in a closed car in the White House drive till the storm and Mrs. Harding blew over. So much for the popular myth that sex scandals are a Democratic monopoly.

Alice Roosevelt Longworth, one of Florence Harding's confidantes and Warren's cattier critics, was shocked -- shocked! -- at all the gymnastics in the Executive Mansion. A fine raconteur, here's how she described that incident, doubtless over many a good dinner:

"I don't think the Duchess ever found him in the moment, but that summer afternoon in his office, I understand it was really rather a close call. Stumbling in closets among galoshes, she pounding on the door, the girlie with panties over head. That sort of thing.''

At this point, Mrs. Longworth would take a long draw on her cigarette in its elegant holder a la cousin Franklin and pass sentence through the smoke: "My G-d, we've got a president who doesn't know beds were invented. And he was elected on a slogan of Back to Normalcy!''

Now that's how to tell a story. But the country seems to have lost any sense of style in the oh-so-advanced 1990s. Elegance has been replaced by a tasteless mix of blind puritanism, avid voyeurism and an ever-extended adolescence. All of which is now compounded, in this terribly scientific age, by the search for DNA evidence. Was it for this that the double helix was mapped?

Can this be the republic of Washington and Hamilton, Madison and Jefferson? The American sense of republican simplicity, of what is right and decorous, no longer measures up even to a Coolidge or Grant.

Or as Edmund Burke observed when he saw the French Revolution coming, and foresaw where it would lead: "It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honor, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil by losing all its grossness.''

It hurts to admit it, but the French really do some things better. They've always understood that discretion can be the better part of some valors. Wasn't M. le President Mitterrand's devoted mistress afforded a quiet and dignified, if secondary, place at his funeral? The French know how to do these things. Lafayette, we Americans have not yet arrived.

In this country, every sordid detail of our boy president's adventures must be bandied about on television even before the children are put to bed. The code duello has been replaced by the code of civil procedure. And grave constitutional issues hinge on evidence once reserved for the more squalid domestic disputes.

Serious accusations like perjury, the subornation thereof and obstruction of justice are discussed in the context of low comedy. As the dog days of August approach, as they did for Richard Mountebank Nixon in 1974, the thought occurs: This president doesn't need to be impeached; he needs to be sent to the principal's office.

There are, after all, such things as low crimes and misdemeanors, too, unworthy of the republic's attention -- if only they didn't inspire an elaborate cover-up. It's not the original scandal that does a president in, but the elaborate and oh-so-clever attempts at concealment. In Dick Nixon's case it was a third-rate burglary elevated to first-rate crimes. Why, oh why, must a certain kind of president insist on raising the ante? In order to avoid mere embarrassment, he winds up risking disgrace.

This president's big problem is that he was never caught early and so may assume, perhaps rightly, that he never will be. Didn't anybody ever give Bill Clinton a severe talking-to? Make him do a hundred push-ups? Extra laps? March around the ROTC building with full pack? Guess not. Maybe that explains it.


8/06/98: No surprises dept. -- promotion denied
8/03/98: Quotes of and for the week: take your pick
7/29/98: A subpoena for the president:
so what else is new?
7/27/98: Forget about Bubba, it's time to investigate Reno
7/23/98: Ghosts on the roof, 1998
7/21/98: The new elegance
7/16/98: In defense of manners
7/13/98: Another day, another delay: what's missing from the scandal news
7/9/98:The language-wars continue
7/7/98:The new Detente
7/2/98: Bubba in Beijing: history does occur twice
6/30/98: Hurry back, Mr. President -- to freedom
6/24/98: When Clinton follows Quayle's lead
6/22/98: Independence Day, 2002
6/18/98: Adventures in poli-speke

©1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate