The Hell of Gates, Jr.

This week’s New Yorker is light on ads (Chatterbox picked it up and for a second thought it was the New Republic!) but thick with highbrow Clintophilic rationalization in the form of an essay by Henry Louis Gates Jr. You thought Flytrap was about sex and perjury? Wrong! It’s really about the decline of loyalty among former Clinton aides like George Stephanopoulos and Leon Panetta, and the nefarious spread of atomistic individuals loyal to an abstract, “uniform set of principles” such as “impartial truth.” Kenneth Starr is the embodiment of these inhuman principles, the “Enlightenment’s…curse.” All poor Clinton was doing was trying to “struggle with the gummy, vexed exigencies of the merely human.”

Well, Gates is right about the gummy part, for sure. Three questions, though:

1. Who says there’s more disloyalty in this scandal? Chatterbox carries no water for George Stephanopoulos (see 1/25 and 2/2). But his sin is less his disloyalty in acknowledging a potential crime by his ex-patron than his failure to confess his own complicity in that crime. Overall, the striking thing about Flytrap is not how much disloyalty there has been but how little. Nobody from inside the administration has yet broken ranks (though there have been rumblings from cabinet secretaries Rubin and Riley). There is no John Dean, no Deep Throat. Compare those Watergate betrayals with the watered-down subversion of Stephanopoulos and Panetta, which amounted to saying on television what was obvious–that Clinton is in trouble unless he explains himself soon–and you would conclude that loyalty has been on the rise since the Nixon years. (Maybe what has changed is we no longer expect a loyal aide to admit even the obvious. We’re so accustomed to spin that common sense sounds like treason.) Gates includes a few “to-be-sure” paragraphs about Dean, and then proceeds undeterred. Like a thinking man’s Johnny Apple, he surveys various Kennedy and Johnson hacks–even tracking down that familiar standby, the unnamed “Washington veteran”–and reaps a harvest of self-congratulatory harrumphing along the lines of “I come from an era when loyalty and gratitude were regally honored,” not like these young whippersnappers, etc. He cites JFK’s secretary Evelyn Lincoln as one of the ancient paragons of loyalty–the “embodiment of the courtier’s discretion.” Would that be the same Evelyn Lincoln who after JFK’s death, according to Slate’s David Plotz, “circulated stories that Jackie had had adulterous trysts in the White House” and “spent the remaining 32 years badmouthing LBJ and Jackie…”? (See Plotz’s piece.) Sounds a bit like Dick Morris defending Bill by badmouthing Hillary.

2.Do we really want to place loyalty over truth? Gates’ main straw man is one William Godwin, who in 1793 argued that if you can rescue either your mother or Archbishop Fenelon from a burning house, “you go for the Archbishop, since he has the greater social contribution to make.” [Gates’ words.] In Gates’ essay, those who would favor a stand of principle over the ties of blut and boden (or even business)–whistle-blowers, antiwar dissenters, anyone who says “I often place my duty to society above my duty to my company”–are characterized as “William Godwin types all, letting their own dear mothers burn to a crisp with nary a second thought while they grandly escort some silk-bedizened cleric to safety.” Worse, they’re selfish, rootless cosmopolitans–sorry, they’re selfish “moral illuminati” pursuing their own vision of individual “authenticity,” of “unbridled self-assertion,” at the expense of family and group ties (“the intricately reciprocal character of a life lived within community”). Of course, Gates comically stacks the deck with the Godwin example, since Godwin asks that we rescue the cleric, not in the name of truth but in the name of some sort of obnoxious aristocratic utilitarianism. (Nor is betraying Clinton exactly like burning your mother.) In reality, of course, it is Clinton’s defenders who are making the utilitarian arguments about the overbalancing value of the president’s “greater social contribution.” A larger point concerns the value of loyalty–whether to family, “community,” employer, or other social group. Is it really such a great thing? Loyalty, in this sense, has given us wars, racism, tribalism and genocide. Selfish uniform principles have given us science, human rights, and the Constitution….The Enlightenment! Individualism! Take it away, Leon Wieseltier!…

3. Even if Stephanopoulos should be loyal to Clinton , why should the rest of us? By the end of his piece, Gates has subtly slipped from attacking ex-aides who criticize Clinton to attacking anyone who criticizes Clinton. We must all, he says, start “learning to talk about right and wrong without recourse to abstract principles.” Anyone else is a mama-barbecuing, Ken Starr-style fanatic. Gates never explains why Chatterbox, or any other ordinary voter, owes Clinton the same loyalty as Stephanopoulos does. If the charges against the president are true, isn’t it he who has betrayed us?

Chatterbox could go on and on. Didn’t Bill Clinton champion the very “new economy” of rootless, skilled free-agents–the very disloyal types Gates claims threaten to subject the president to the laws that apply to other Americans? Would we have been better served in Vietnam if fewer officials had quit the Johnson administration to protest the war–or if more had quit, earlier, and more loudly? Why should we spend valuable time reading the journalism of Henry Louis Gates Jr. if he is happy to place his loyalty–to his family? his race? his colleagues? to The New Yorker?, to the academic empire he’s building at Harvard?–over an annoying abstract principle like truth? Maybe Chatterbox has seen On the Waterfront too many times. But should we really root for the guys who poison Marlon Brando’s pigeons?