The Vast Conspiracy That Cried Wolf

As usual, Dan Quayle put it best. “Do we really want to ask or answer all these irrelevant questions about what someone may or may not have done 20 or 30 years ago? Quite frankly, the American people don’t care,” he told the New York Times recently. “And quite frankly, it’s not that important. What’s important is who you are today, what you’re going to do.”

Quite right. What does it matter if, for example, Bill Clinton forced himself on Juanita Broaddrick way back in 1978? Whom a man may have raped in the privacy of her hotel room when he was attorney general of Arkansas has nothing to do with his ability to lead the nation into the 21st century. If an elected official is doing a good job, how he relaxes during his free time is not a legitimate public concern.

Clinton denies the accusation, and there are good reasons not to believe it (see “Chatterbox“). But it would have been better if he had said, with simple dignity, “none of your business.” Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., are winning press plaudits for refusing to answer press questions about past private peccadilloes. Exhausted by the Year of Flytrap, we have all decided that politicians’ private lives should stay private.

Some might demur that rape is not a peccadillo. It is, among other things, illegal. But so are pot smoking and cocaine snorting, which are high on the list of private behavior politicians are getting little gold stars for refusing to discuss. Is rape a worse crime than using drugs? Well, many might think so, but you wouldn’t know it from the way most politicians talk about drugs. In declining to talk about his own drug experience, George W. made the interesting point that he didn’t want to give young people today the unfortunate (though accurate) impression that you could do whatever he did when young and still end up governor of Texas. Certainly this argument applies in the case of alleged rape by a president even more currently popular than the governor of Texas.

It is obvious why the liberal perverts and druggies of the Democratic Party favor a curtain being drawn on politicians’ private lives. But how did Republican politicians–pure of body and spirit–get into this position? One way is by repeating the mantra “it’s not about sex” just once or twice too often. They thought they had him by the legalities on perjury and obstruction of justice, and in attempting to win converts to their cause they may have been more dismissive than they intended about the sex thing. Too late, too late.

Then there’s Larry Flynt. A few conservative voices, such as the Weekly Standard and the Wall Street Journal editorial page, remained steadfast in their hysterical disapproval of the president’s private sexual behavior, and remained adamant that it is a legitimate public issue. But even they–like all politicians of both parties, almost all the media, and most of the citizenry–were hysterical and adamant that Larry Flynt should not be allowed to draw public attention to the private sexual behavior of anyone else. (The Journal even insisted that Flynt should be prosecuted for blackmail.)

Why? If a category of information is legitimately useful in judging an elected public official, how can it be illegitimate and outrageous to gather and publish such information? Maybe they decided that Clinton was a good place to stop. When your side has launched an offensive, been driven back, and nervously awaits a counteroffensive, it’s not a bad time for an armistice. That would be hypocritical of course. But newspapers have the right to practice hypocrisy in the privacy of their own editorial pages.

But did the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy tragically call for a cease-fire just as the ultimate weapon was about to be delivered into their hands? Did they dig a tunnel to within an inch of freedom from their Clinton imprisonment when they gave up? Did they finally have an accusation that would shock a seemingly unshockable public? Rape! Those few elements of the VRWC that haven’t been drained of fight–Fox News, for example–are flogging the Juanita Broaddrick story with at least a bit of the old spirit and are puzzled that even this hasn’t worked.

It is puzzling. The evidence is flaky–a woman who has both confirmed and denied the story, corroborators with their own reasons to lie–but major scandals have been built on less. Yes, we’re all suffering from scandal fatigue, but rape?

The explanation is partly the frog-in-hot-water phenomenon (he’ll jump out if you drop him in boiling water, but not if you put him in cold water and slowly heat it to boiling). Clinton has faced an escalating series of serious accusations–serious in the sense that they were all plausible and some were true. One or another of them might have stuck, but each one inured the public to the next. (Clinton skillfully augmented this process by pacing any admissions he has been forced to make, so that each new one was just a small accretion on a large pile of old news.)

Clinton, though, has also faced a continuing barrage of unserious allegations–implausible and untrue. He’s been accused of murdering 23 people, among other things. The effect of these stories from the nether regions of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy has been like crying wolf. When you’ve heard the president preposterously accused of murder so often, you just yawn when he’s accused of rape.

So now we are living in the world everyone has long claimed to want: where we judge politicians based only on the issues and their public records of governance. Some might feel that healthy indifference to what politicians do in their private lives has gone too far when it covers allegations of rape. But they’ll get used to it.