A Culture at War With Itself

All last week, despite Christmas parties and shopping to finish, you could feel America at war with itself. Not even the specter of a hated foreign adversary and the nightly bombing of Iraq -- green night-scope images of bombs hurtling across Baghdad -- could keep us from our civil war.The impeachment of a president must necessarily turn the nation against itself. The legislative branch of government seeks to undo the executive branch. More pointedly, legislators over-rule the vote of the people when they impeach a president -- that is what the procedure means.But there has also been a strangely intimate aspect to the impeachment story. From the day William Jefferson Clinton became president, one noticed a hostility toward him that was nothing if not familial.Other presidents in recent memory have been furiously mocked by critics. What's intriguing is that the harshest critics of President Clinton are mainly southern, middle-aged, white men -- men very much like the President himself.Indeed, the story of Bill Clinton and his moral critics has been a saga of a Southern Baptist versus Southern Baptists. Republicans from other parts of the country, particularly the Northeast, indicated an inclination to censure the President. The drive for impeachment was spearheaded by men of Mr. Clinton's faith.I remember Newt Gingrich standing beside Bill Clinton a few years ago, when both were described as the most important political "rivals" in America, and being struck instead by how similar the two men were -- in physical and intellectual stature, as well as reputation (how rumors of scandal attached to both) -- and how both were men of big vision from the small-town South.It was terrible enough in the Civil War when the national family dissolved; more horrific were those instances when the conflict became intimate, turning brother against brother. Family quarrels are always more mysterious and more intense than conflicts between strangers.A few months ago the President, with a Diet Coke in hand, told a flattering story about himself -- how, in high school, he was always curious about the kids who sat on the other side of the cafeteria. They were the ones he always wanted to meet, the ones he crossed the room one day to meet. He didn't say it, but I understood him to mean they were black kids sitting on the other side of the cafeteria.Bill Clinton the small-town white southern boy is, as has been well-remarked, the first U.S. president whose close friends are black. He is a Southerner, but educated in the North. The Bubba White House staff also has many Jews and Ivy League intellectuals. . . and feminists. The odd thing: If the sharpest critics of the President's sexual misbehavior have been southern men (a number of whom, it turns out, have sexual secrets of their own), some of the President's strongest defenders have been women, members of the East Coast feminist establishment.Early last week, a friend phoned. She was in Washington with a group of women to protest the impeachment of a womanizing president -- a man who has, by his own admission, had sexual relations with a subordinate in the workplace. My friend (white, middle-aged) did not talk about saving Bill Clinton so much as she did of fearing "the Christian Right" -- those smiling evangelicals and white male defenders of "family values" -- she supposes are behind the drive to impeach the President. "This impeachment business," she said, "it's not about perjury, not really, it's all about sex -- not Monica's sex -- but my right to have an abortion."At Gold's Gym in San Francisco, on Thursday afternoon, several oversized bodybuilders, probably gay, cheered and laughed when it was announced on CNN that Speaker-elect Bob Livingston had admitted to past adulterous affairs. The woman on the neighboring treadmill muttered to me that "straight men are pigs."The most interesting remark uttered all week, however, was Congressmen Livingston's comment to leaders of feminist groups. Livingston said that his own mother, who raised two children after her divorce in the 1950s, was as much a feminist as any of them -- "and she's in favor of impeachment."Clearly there is an important subtext to the impeachment story that has to do with the way men and women regard each other in America. Divorces and abortions. Tears and silence. The bedroom. The kitchen.The irony is Bill Clinton, the man at the center of so many words last week, is an enigma -- the Southerner who came to Washington with less ideology than pragmatism. A "new Democrat" willing to usurp the Republican agenda, when it suited him. A technocrat.His supporters and his critics, by contrast, are the ideologues. This resulted in several awkward ironies -- critics of the President from the right, long-time militarists like Senator Trent Lott, found themselves sharply questioning the President's decision to bomb Iraq. On the other hand, Americans opposing impeachment, long-time critics of U.S. military policy like Barbara Boxer, found themselves defending the bombing.Who can explain the hostility of white men, Southern Baptists, to one of their own? Who can say why my friend finds the womanizing Bill Clinton less objectionable than an America governed by Puritan Republicans?In the end, it was clear on a bright week before Christmas, that the new American civil war is only beginning.Richard Rodriguez is author of "Days of Obligation" and the forthcoming "The Color Brown." He is a regular essayist for the News Hour with Jim Lehrer and the Los Angeles Sunday Times.


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