Sexual McCarthyism

Lurid revelations, crude moralizing, perjury traps: they all echo America's darkest days

Call it Blue Monday. As the nation kept one eye on work and the other peeled on Bill Clinton: The Video, we passed into a new age whose contours are far from clear. No one can say how the Starr investigation, with its radical and unprecedented breaches of privacy, will change the rules of the American game. But there's an ominous phrase in the air: sexual McCarthyism.

The term cropped up last Thursday in a column by The Wall Street Journal's house liberal, Albert R. Hunt, who raised the specter of "a new moral McCarthyism." Soon it was being bandied about by attorney Alan Dershowitz, who warned an NBC interviewer: "Remember, it was sexual McCarthyism that J. Edgar Hoover used to try to get Martin Luther King," adding that "McCarthy himself used to go after people [for their sex lives]." Then USA Today made the phrase official with its headline: "An Air of Sexual McCarthyism Chills the Nation's Capital."

Like many newly minted terms, this one stands for different things. Hunt uses it to describe the atmosphere in Washington now that rumors are flying about the adulterous affairs of Republicans. What reminds him of the bad old days is the kind of predatory posturing that can signal a purge. "Three GOP presidential hopefuls already have vowed they never cheated on their wives," Hunt reported, "and one suggested anyone who has shouldn't run."

Kenneth Starr (left) and Joseph McCarthy: Their methods are ominously similar.
AP / Wide World
Kenneth Starr (left) and Joseph McCarthy: Their methods are ominously similar.

But the prospect of a latter-day loyalty oath involving marital fidelity pales before the threat Congress has already unleashed. From the lurid revelations and crude moralizing to the criminalization of a legal act (in this case, adultery) and the deliberate setting of a perjury trap, it all seems frighteningly familiar to historians of McCarthyism. "There's a strand of Western culture that requires some kind of demonized enemy," says Ellen Schrecker, author of Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America. "In the late '40s and '50s it was Communists, but today it's operating in the realm of sexuality. We're obviously in the middle of a Red scare about sex."

In order to grasp the full measure of the present danger, and its resemblance to the darkest years of this American century, you have to venture abroad to cultures that do not march to the drum of Matt Drudge. While The New York Times cloaks the scandal in tropes of the sacred and profane (referring in editorials to "the central magic" of the government, the "sanctity of the law," and even the "hallowed" White House map room), its French equivalent, Le Monde, rails against "this new McCarthyism that replaces the fear of Communism with the terror of sexuality."

In France, with its tradition of sexual discretion--not to mention after-work (or cinq-à-sept) affairs--the American scandal seems, to say the least, surreal. "Because I love America, and because it is a model for democracy, I wish for the victory of Clinton," says Jack Lang, the former French minister of culture and one of Europe's most vocal champions of the United States. "Tyranny begins when one power, one church, one party introduces itself into the private life of its citizens."

Lang is circulating an international letter of protest, whose signers so far include Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Gùnther Grass. "I have been very intent on the reaction of Europeans," says William Styron, the author of Sophie's Choice, who collaborated with Lang on the letter, "and they are almost uniformly devastated by this. They realize how deadly serious it is."

But among American intellectuals, the silence has been deafening. The writers' organization PEN, which weighs in on everything from Bosnia to beached whales, has yet to join this fray. ("This is not a literary matter," says a PEN spokesman.) Nor has there been a peep from the film and theater worlds. "I'm absolutely baffled," Styron says, "because in the past, whenever there's been a national crisis in which injustice is being perpetrated, there has been a cadre of intellectuals who have made their protest loud and clear. It may be that we're so cowed by the magnitude of this affair that we feel protest cannot make much of a dent."

This silence of the liberal intellectuals is one of the things that scares Schrecker, who compares the moralizing of Democrats like Senator Joseph Lieberman to speeches by postwar progressives like Hubert Humphrey distancing themselves from the Reds. Then as now, Schrecker notes, "most liberals ran for the hills." Their failure to stand against the erosion of liberty is what allowed McCarthy and his henchmen to set the agenda. Bad faith on all sides made it hard to see what was at stake--until it was too late.

There are two themes in American history," says Victor Navasky, publisher of The Nation and the author of Naming Names. "One is freedom and liberty, the other is intolerance, symbolized by the Alien and Sedition Act, the Palmer Raids after World War I [in which thousands of radicals were rounded up and deported], and the McCarthy era. This Nativist strain generally combines three elements: the foreign, the radical, and the immoral. It exploits fear of the unfamiliar."

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