While Rome Burns

HISTORY TEACHES US that the true measure of a society's decadence is not, as the religious right would have it, to be found in the sybaritic pleasures of its people, but rather in the corruption of its ruling elites. This institutional rot presages the end of empires, from ancient Rome--as a careful reading of Edward Gibbon's still-relevant history demonstrates--right down to the collapse of Soviet-style communism.

Many of those who like to think of themselves as liberals and who are still in denial about the Clinton scandals, in refusing to take this long view, likewise miss its concomitant: that the comfort of the corrupters is sustained by the continued sacrifice of the powerless by the corrupted.

So when otherwise well-meaning folk complain that too much attention is being paid to the putrescent underbelly of the Clintons' 20-year climb to the pinnacle of power and to the seamier side of their governance, I put it down not only to the death of systemic critical thought in American politics--the principal legacy of the domestic Cold War--but to the ahistoricity of an over-mediated culture that is wallowing in information overload.

Those liberals who dismiss each new chapter in the unfolding saga of the Clintons' iniquities with a shrug and the observation that "everybody does it" ignore that a rebirth of genuine progressivism in our public life cannot succeed if tainted by tolerance of boodling and hypocrisy. The recent history of European Social Democracy is highly instructive in this regard. In country after country where social democratic parties too long in power have proven themselves riddled with corruption, they have been chased from office to the profit of the right--in France and Spain, Italy and Greece, and most recently, Belgium. Where these parties have adopted monetarist economic austerities that betrayed their historic commitment to the welfare state--or, as Europeans would say, the social state--by downsizing the institutions of collective solidarity, the result has usually been a rise in race-baiting populism of the extreme right, like Jean-Marie LePen's National Front in France or Gianfranco Fini's "post-fascists" in Italy.

The Democratic Party is not a "left" party except in the debased Crossfire sense of the word, but the corporate liberalism of the Kennedy-Johnson years (so usefully dissected by C. Wright Mills and other icons of the campus-based New Left in the early '60s) has been easily transformed into the corporate centrism of the Clinton era.

The roots of Clinton's adoption of the business lobby's agenda as his Oval Office program lie in Arkansas and have been brilliantly chronicled in Roger Morris's bestseller Partners in Power: The Clintons and Their America. As one prominent Little Rock lawyer so handily framed it for Morris, "For political purposes there are really just two classes in this state: rich and dirt. The Clintons got their votes from the dirt and their money from the rich and saw themselves always as part of the money."

The usefulness of the investigations into the netherworld of the Clintons' Arkansas finances--from the much-publicized looting of the Madison S&L to the soon-to-make-headlines Arkansas Development Finance Authority--is that they reveal the moral turpitude of these two corporate courtiers in their unprincipled accommodations with monied power, the fruits of which are now being reaped by the multinationals and their K Street lobbyists.

There is no ethical difference between yesterday's "McDollars"--as Gov. Clinton laughingly used to call the easy cash available courtesy of Jim McDougal's S&L scams--and the illicit Lippo dollars of the most recent scandal. And in trying to cover up these and other briberies, the Clintons and their cohorts have employed a fully Nixonian arsenal: perjury and subornation of perjury, obstruction of justice, withholding and destruction of incriminating documents, even--as in Travelgate--the use of the FBI and IRS to persecute and smear innocent private citizens.

Clinton's liberal defenders would never countenance such goings-on from Republicans, a double standard that is not only morally perverse but a practical miscalculation. Voters punished the Democrats for congressional corruption in '94 and renewed GOP control of the House and Senate in '96 when the late-breaking Indogate scandal reminded them of the Clintons' sins. Any attempt at progressive renewal that doesn't absorb these lessons not only can't win; it doesn't deserve to.

 
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