Death Of Outrage Essay

William J. Bennett, secretary of education and chair of the National Endowment
for the Humanities under President Reagan captured the public imagination with
the best-selling Book of Virtues, a compendium of other people’s writing that
had something to teach about morality. In his new book, Bennett advances his own
credo of right and wrong, and it is far less compelling. It is a slim book with
a correspondingly slim premise: that the American public’s failure to be
outraged at President Clinton’s lies about his private life is evidence of our
“moral and intellectual disarmament.” The book has six brief chapters
with the grandiose titles “Sex” (first of course),
“Character,” “Politics,” “Law,”
“Judgment” ? and “Ken Starr.” Each chapter presents an
italicized “Defense of President Clinton” followed by Bennett’s
refutation of that defense. Claiming to exercise “sound reasoning,”
Bennett sets himself up as the arbiter of morality and American ideals. The
result reads like a partisan screed. Bennett is outraged because so many
Americans are not outraged at the president, even if they believe that the
allegations of “sexual and criminal wrongdoing are true.” Combining
the words “sexual and criminal” is at the heart of Bennett’s thesis
? and his linguistic sleight of hand. Many people do not endorse the
criminalization of consensual sex. Bennett may not like this, but that does not
make him any more morals than they do. One might argue, in fact, that it evinces
a higher moral sense to distinguish between covering up crimes and a situation
in which the only crime is the cover-up. Bennett repeatedly refers to
“crimes,” “felony crimes,” “criminal conduct,” 284
words “criminal allegations,” “criminal wrongdoing,”
“criminal conspiracy,” and “criminal cover-up” ?
accusation by accretion and repetition rather than reason. Ah, words words.

Bennett’s language reveals a pervasive double standard. Defenses of Clinton are
“the words of hired guns, spinners and partisans.” He attributes the
arguments he refutes to “Clinton defenders,” “Clinton
loyalists,” “Clinton apologists,” and “feminists.” (We
do not read of Starr defenders, loyalists or apologists, or of Clinton
attackers, haters or enemies.) All these label great, but the word
“apologist” is particularly underhanded: It reframes explanations and
defenses as apologies, implying unspecified misdeeds. In Starr, Bennett sees
only “clumsiness,” “missteps,” “lapses of political
judgment” and “a certain tone-deafness.” Ignoring criticism of
Starr from a wide variety of sources, including former special prosecutors and
independent counsels from both parties, he blames Starr’s low popularity on
“a well-orchestrated and relentless smear campaign” ? even as he
dismisses Hillary Clinton’s reference to a “vast right-wing
conspiracy” against her husband as “fantastic.” Bennett’s
substitution of implication for reasoning is particularly evident in an appendix
that juxtaposes statements made about Watergate with statements made about the
current scandals: for example, quotes by both Nixon and Clinton that they would
like to get on with the job of running the country. These juxtapositions imply
that the substance of the scandals is comparable. But the most revealing
comparison with Watergate actually comes early in the book: Bennett suggests a
“thought experiment” which describes moves that actually occurred in
Watergate as if they had covered up a sexual liaison ? actions such as
breaking into a psychiatrist’s office in search of information to discredit a
witness, pressuring the IRS to investigate reporters, and establishing a
“slush fund” to pay hush money. Bennett’s purpose is to 320 words ask,
If we are willing to forgive Clinton’s lying to cover up a sexual affair, would
we excuse any misbehavior on those grounds? But the section actually has the
effect of dramatizing how much more egregious the events of Watergate were.

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There are other instances in which Bennett’s examples support the opposite of
what he supposes. He writes, “Interpreting the actions of a president
solely through a legal prism habituates Americans to think like lawyers instead
of citizens . . .. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a
beneficial influence on society.” But in this spirit, legal terms like
“obstruction of justice” and “suborning of perjury” conjure
up, in most people’s minds, matters far more weighty than engaging in and trying
to cover up illicit sex. In rejecting this “legal prism,” many
Americans are thinking like citizens rather than lawyers. Faulty, slippery slope
arguments abound. For example, after quoting citizens who said, of Clinton’s
sexual behavior, “Who are we to judge?” Bennett writes, “Without
being ‘judgmental,’ Americans would never have put an end to slavery, outlawed
child labor, emancipated women, or ushered in the civil rights movement.”
But the distinction between private acts like having sex and public offenses
like slavery, child labor, and forbidding women and blacks to vote is precisely
the distinction many Americans are making ? and it is a highly moral one.

Bennett displays contempt for average Americans, calling us fools because we do
not view the president the same way he does. Rather than seeking to understand
the moral underpinnings of positions others take, he dismisses them as debased,
lacking in morality. The people may be the wiser ones when they refuse to reduce
complex notions of “character” and “morality” to personal
sexual conduct. How about the morality of a country as wealthy as the United
States being the only modern industrialized society that does not provide
universal 308 words health-care coverage to all its citizens? Or the morality of
the ever widening gap between rich and poor? In this light, when voters say they
care more about the economy or health care than about Monica Lewinsky, they are
not just expressing petty self-interest; they are also taking moral stances. To
my mind and perhaps to the minds of those Bennett deplores, the real moral
question is not: Did he or didn’t he have sex/ lie about it/ apologize for it,
but How have we all participated in and been sullied by a political, legal and
journalistic system that has focused public attention on the president’s private
life rather than the many problems facing the country and the world? Many who
refuse to support the president’s impeachment do not defend his sexual behavior.

They just say that this behavior should not be the object of an expensive
investigation and media coverage. Bennett’s diatribe is unfair because it is
unbalanced. He blames only Clinton, and rejects or ignores any roles played by
others. The public is not incapable of outrage; they simply have different
objects for it than Bennett would like them to. There is plenty of outrage at
Linda Tripp’s betrayal of friendship when she (illegally) taped conversations
with Monica Lewinsky and turned them over to lawyers deposing Clinton, leading
to his denials that constitute the much-touted “lying under oath,” but
this does not count as morality for Bennett; instead, it irritates him.

“Why all the venom directed at Ms. Tripp?” he asks. Many also feel
outrage at the pouring of public funds into an independent counsel investigation
that moved far afield from the Whitewater events it was initially charged with
investigating. When allegations against the president reached a crescendo, so
did his approval ratings. Bennett sees this as indifference, which he bemoans,
as an abandonment of “longstanding 317 words American ideals.” But the
approval ratings didn’t just stay the same; they shot up. This is not a sign of
indifference. It is a backlash, an expression of outrage against what I call
“the argument culture” ? relentless attacks on figures like the
president by political opponents and the press. There are many who agree with
Bennett that no president should be “above the law,” but also feel
that a president should not be pursued with laws that would not be applied to
other citizens. Such sentiments uphold the longstanding American ideal of
fairness. Bennett sees the public “giving license not only to Mr. Clinton’s
corruption but possibly to our own as well.” But jumping on the bandwagon
of denunciation gives license to future overzealous prosecutors, civil
litigants, and political opponents to try to destroy leaders they dislike by
launching assaults on their private lives and character rather than debating
them on the issues. According to critics don’t look for President Clinton’s
picture in The Book of Virtues; best-selling author and former Secretary of
Education William J. Bennett considers Bill Clinton uniquely unvirtuous. In the
wake of the White House intern sex scandal, Bennett accuses Clinton of crimes at
least as serious as those committed by Richard Nixon during the Watergate
imbroglio. Rising above anti-Clinton polemics, The Death or Outrage urges the
American public–which initially displayed not much more than a collective
shrug–to take issue with the president’s private and public conduct. Clinton
should be judged by more than the state of the economy, implores Bennett. The
commander in chief sets the moral tone of the nation; a reckless personal life
and repeated lying from the bully pulpit call for a heavy sanction. The American
people should demand nothing less, says the onetime federal drug czar. In each
chapter, Bennett lays out the rhetorical defenses made on Clinton’s behalf (the
case against him is “only about 279 words sex,” harsh judgmentalism
has no place in modern society, independent counsel Kenneth Starr is a partisan
prosecutor, etc.) and picks them apart. He may not convince everybody, but this
is an effective conservative brief against Bill Clinton Today we see little
public outrage about Bill Clinton’s misconduct. With enormous skill, the
president and his advisors have constructed a defensive wall built of bricks
left over from Watergate: diversion, half-truth, equivocation, and sophistry. It
is a wall that has remained unbreached. Until now. In The Death of Outrage: Bill
Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals, former cabinet secretary and
best-selling author William J. Bennett dismantles the president’s defenses,
brick by evasive brick, and analyzes the meaning of the Clinton scandals: why
they matter, what the public reaction to them means, and the social and
political damage they have already inflicted on America.


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