I saw the forty-second president of the United States leaving Starbucks one morning last week. Carrying their coffee, he and his single Secret Service escort could pass as ordinary locals. Bill, in jeans and a black T-shirt, looked dismayingly fit—Dorian Gray out for a stroll.
His companion, also in jeans, wore a black range vest open over his T-shirt. A cool touch, the vest. When the Clintons first moved to town, they were bird-dogged by large men who had CONCEALED CARRY written all over their heft and suits. This one struck just the right note for a hip-on-weekends exurban sidewalk.
But I drift. There is a point to this celebrity sighting. In that moment, I felt a spasm of regret—something close to grief. The venal old miscreant has emerged triumphant from chronic abuse of office, impeachment, suspension of his law license, and a squalid personal life. In defiance of the truth, Clinton ranks as one of our most-admired and -rewarded public figures.
This victory of image over fact derives, in part, from our post-Enlightenment conception of a wall between private and public life. When Pierre Trudeau famously announced in 1967, “The state has no place in our bedrooms,” he addressed a culture used to taking for granted a private-public divide, as if it were natural and universal. Yet it is neither. It is an historically conditioned belief that colors critical judgment about how we live our lives.
Adultery Used to Be a More than Personal
One glimpse of my glittering neighbor, and memory leaped to the vocabulary of a discarded moralism: strumpetmonger; putour; consort of whores, vagabonds, and thieves. Bawdry came to mind. Add disreputability, ill-fame, and that plangent complaint brought against late medieval men at inquest: harlot of his body. One historian of fifteenth-century mores notes that, in England, “adulterers and fornicators were spoken of in the same breath as thieves, criminals, oath-breakers, the indigent, and idlers.”
Adultery had a long run as a civic crime. It has dwindled now to a private sin, if that. We might speak of peccadillos, but resist sin. As Thomas Mann quipped, sin was already “an amusing word used only when one is trying to get a laugh.” Among moderns, the word adultery is a musty coinage. We prefer the nonchalant, almost genial, affair.
From classical times until quite recently, adultery extended beyond the personal. It was a reverberating signal of misgovernance that, if left unchecked, would contaminate the social order, one derangement inviting another. Moral failure in conjugal matters warned of untrustworthiness in other obligations. While strictures placed on women differed from those on men, both sexes had to guard against sexual misconduct to maintain themselves in good standing.
To our premodern forbears, any separation between public and private, particularly in sexual matters, would have been a foreign concept. It is we heirs of Locke and the Enlightenment who place sexual relationships beyond public scrutiny. Transgressing medievals surprised by an official visit to the bedchamber could not claim a “right to privacy” because no such right existed. Reputation for misrule carried communal consequence.
From Clinton to Mizzou
In the late 1400s, one Peter Idley instructed his son: “He that willfully his body abuseth/And past is all dread and shame/ Loseth a precious jewel, which is his name.” Quaintness lies less in the diction than in its prompt to shame, and the specter of stigma in the eyes of family and all who know your face. Clinton’s achievement was to make sexual misconduct discountable, and shamelessness commendable.
Harry Truman said he would never knowingly hire a man who cheated on his wife: “A man not honorable in his marital relations is not usually honorable in any other.” We know how that would play today on “Saturday Night live.” Dishonor no longer attaches to sexual misconduct. It is too small a thing, too personal, for public concern.
During the Lewinsky era, reigning opinion held that Zippergate was a private matter. It was “just about sex.” Language repeated daily on TV and in the press detached sexual conduct from the moral plane. By now the rupture has widened. Exodus from the virtues—and their tattered old guardian, shame—is complete. Our young are left groping for a foothold in the abyss.
They find footing in the pseudo-morality of political correctness. Politics has replaced character as the key component of moral education. It is a beguiling swap. It shifts the demands of conscience away from our lived commitments and onto the postures we assume toward offerings from the Zeitgeist. PC provides escape from the responsibilities of a personal conscience while it presents the semblance of one. Habituation into virtue cannot compete.
You Can’t Tell Me What’s Wrong—That’s Private
Working their way across campuses are the free-associative dead ends that displace disciplined thought when activism is encouraged over understanding. That old business of right and wrong, and the effort of distinguishing between them, impinges on—consider it—privacy. These tantrums over safe spaces, what are they but the natural end of cherished notions of a right to privacy gone rancid?
The concept of privacy, however muddled, has pervasive reach, psychological no less than legal. Contemporary students make their own distinctive claim to privacy. A sophomore’s mind is his castle. It is fortified against discomfort by the activist and agnostic pretentions of his tutors. The private bastion of his personal thoughts and feelings is a sacred zone. It deserves protection from siege by any exterior reality. Fallen angels boasted as much:
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.
Clinton is hardly the lone driver of descent into absurdist denial of objective truth. But he serves as a walking emblem of it. In terms of cultural legacy, the determining act of Clinton’s tenure was his testimony to a grand jury that he was not lying when he swore “there is nothing going on” between himself and his 22- year-old intern: It depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is.
The president of the United States bore witness before a watching world that there is no objective reality; no truth exists beyond one’s particular perception of it. His rationalization prompted admiration from Timothy Noah in Salon: “Bill Clinton really is a guy who’s willing to think carefully about ‘what the meaning of the word “is” is.’ This is way beyond slick. Perhaps we should start calling him, ‘Existential Willie.’”
The message seeped into a generation: Reality can be parsed until it suits us. The mind is its own place. My truth trumps yours.
The Consequences of Severing Public and Private Morality
Today’s campus crybullies, insisting on the primacy of their willed realities, are inheritors of that poisonous grand jury moment in 1998. They absorbed the lesson bequeathed them by a discreditable man who left office with the highest final approval rating of any president in the previous half century. He was named Time’s Man of the Year—for the second time, and with Ken Starr—within days of his impeachment.
Clinton’s claim to the supremacy of his individual moral truth paid handsomely. Cub demagogues at Mizzou, Ithaca, Hanover, and elsewhere are products of a culture that rewarded Clinton for discarding traditional synthesis between public and private scruples. Sever that unity, sanction perception over fact, and the means for moral reflection shrink to a grab bag of politicized “values,” the weight of privacy among them.
In private, Bubba was a moral grotesque. But his public persona exhibited concern for old-growth forests, ozone depletion, and racial discrimination. He opposed the Vietnam War and, later, sugary drinks. Plus, he left a budget surplus. What more can we ask?
Answer: much more. But we have forgotten how to do it, forgotten even the import of the question. Mizzou and the rest are the price of our blackout.