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Bill Bennett asks 'where's the outrage?'

'The Death of Outrage'
By William J. Bennett

Web posted on: Monday, August 24, 1998 12:43:10 PM EDT

(CNN) -- In "The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals", former Cabinet secretary and bestselling author William J. Bennett aims to dismantle the president's defenses, brick by evasive brick, and analyze the meaning of the Clinton scandals: why they matter, what the public reaction to them means, and the social and political damage he thinks they have already inflicted on America.



Bill Clinton is completing the second year of his second term. Why not let these matters go? Instead of keeping the nation's attention focused on scandals and squalid acts, why not move on to other issues? Why not just look away?

The answer to these questions is that on Bill Clinton's behalf, in his defense, many bad ideas are being put into widespread circulation. It is said that private character has virtually no impact on governing character; that what matters above all is a healthy economy; that moral authority is defined solely by how well a president deals with public policy matters; that America needs to become more European (read: more "sophisticated") in its attitude toward sex; that lies about sex, even under oath, don't really matter; that we shouldn't be "judgmental"; that it is inappropriate to make preliminary judgments about the president's conduct because he hasn't been found guilty in a court of law; and so forth.

If these arguments take root in American soil -- if they become the coin of the public realm -- we will have validated them, and we will come to rue the day we did. These arguments define us down; they assume a lower common denominator of behavior and leadership than we Americans ought to accept. And if we do accept it, we will have committed an unthinking act of moral and intellectual disarmament. In the realm of American ideals and the great tradition of public debate, the high ground will have been lost. And when we need to rely again on this high ground -- as surely we will need to -- we will find it drained of its compelling moral power. In that sense, then, the arguments invoked by Bill Clinton and his defenders represent an assault on American ideals, even if you assume the president did nothing improper. So the arguments need to be challenged.

I believe these arguments are also a threat to our understanding of American self-government. It demands active participation in, and finally, reasoned judgments on, important civic matters. "Judgment" is a word that is out of favor these days, but it remains a cornerstone of democratic self-government. It is what enables us to hold ourselves, and our leaders, to high standards. It is how we distinguish between right and wrong, noble and base, honor and dishonor. We cannot ignore that responsibility, or foist it on others. It is the price -- sometimes the exacting price -- of citizenship in a democracy. The most popular arguments made by the president's supporters invite us to abandon that participation, those standards, and the practice of making those distinctions.

Bill Clinton's presidency is also defining public morality down. Civilized society must give public affirmation to principles and standards, categorical norms, notions of right and wrong. Even though public figures often fall short of these standards -- and we know and we expect some will -- it is nevertheless crucial that we pay tribute to them. When Senator Gary Hart withdrew from the 1988 presidential contest because of his relationship with Donna Rice, he told his staff, "Through thoughtlessness and misjudgment I've let each of you down. And I deeply regret that." By saying what he said, by withdrawing from the race, Senator Hart affirmed public standards. President Clinton, by contrast, expresses no regret, no remorse, no contrition -- even as he uses his public office to further his private ends. On every scandal, what he says or intimates always amounts to one of the following: "It doesn't matter. I wasn't involved. My political enemies are to blame. I have nothing more to say. The rules don't apply to me. There are no consequences to my actions. It's irrelevant. My only responsibility is to do the people's business." This is moral bankruptcy, and it is damaging our country, its standards, and our self-respect.

Once in a great while a single national event provides insight into where we are and who we are and what we esteem. The Clinton presidency has provided us with a window onto our times, our moral order, our understanding of citizenship. The many Clinton scandals tell us, in a way few other events can, where we are in our public philosophy. They reveal insights into how we view politics and power; virtue and vice; public trust and respect for the law; sexual morality and standards of personal conduct.

America's professional opinion classes -- journalists, columnists, and commentators -- have produced truckloads Of words, both spoken and written, about the Clinton scandals. Some of them are excellent, and I have mined them for this book. What I hope to do is to put things in a broader context, explaining their implications for our national political life and for the lessons we teach our young.

My goal is also to give public expression to people's private concerns. Many Americans have an intuitive understanding that something is deeply troubling about President Clinton's conduct and the defenses offered on his behalf. But Bill Clinton and his supporters have skillfully deflected criticism by changing the subject. They have persuaded many in the middle that the sophisticated thing is to dismiss the scandalous as irrelevant. My purpose in this book is to speak citizen to citizen to those in the middle -- not to "preach to the converted," but to speak to the troubled. I believe that public opinion has not yet hardened on these matters and that people are still open to evidence, facts, persuasion, and an appeal to reason and the rule of law. This book is presented in that spirit.

This is a short book. It is not a systematic work of moral philosophy. Its aim is much more limited: to respond to an urgent public matter now before the American people -- in a manner, I trust, that is informed by sound reasoning. In what follows I take the words of the president and his defenders seriously, examining them, and asking the reader to judge whether the conclusions that flow from them are true or false, good or harmful. In the end this book rests on the venerable idea that moral good and moral harm are very real things, and moral good or moral harm can come to a society by what it esteems and by what it disdains.

Many people have been persuaded to take a benign view of the Clinton presidency on the basis of arguments that have attained an almost talismanic stature but that in my judgment are deeply wrong and deeply pernicious. We need to say no to those arguments as loudly as we can -- and yes to the American ideals they endanger.

Copyright 1998 by William J. Bennett.


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