Sexual McCarthyism

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

When it comes to shaping fear and guilt into the bedrock of a neopuritan morality, no one is more successful than William Bennett. He has circled over this scandal like a hungry buzzard, and now he is ready to swoop. Bennett's latest book, The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals, hit the shelves just as the Starr report was slouching toward the Internet. As a model for conflating immorality, radicalism, and the foreign, you can't beat the passage where Bennett accuses Clinton's supporters of sharing "the temptation to see themselves as realists, worldly-wise, sophisticated: in a word, European. That temptation should be resisted by the rest of us. In America, morality is central to our politics and attitudes in a way that is not the case in Europe, and precisely this moral streak is what is best about us."

Chauvinism of this sort was the very currency of McCarthyism. It enabled the authoritarians of that era to dismantle the First, Fourth, and Fifth amendments with impunity, while proclaiming the defense of democracy. We still live with the legacy of their demolition; for example, it was politically impossible for Clinton to take the Fifth because, ever since McCarthy, that gesture has become an admission of guilt. Then there is that other precedent of the McCarthy era: criminalizing an entirely legal act. Back then, it was belonging to a host of political organizations branded as Communist; now, it's having sex with someone other than your wife. Even the perjury trap that snared the president was a device used by the McCarthyites to destroy Alger Hiss, among others. "McCarthyism stigmatized something that was not a crime, and then built a superstructure of pseudocrimes on top of it," Navasky notes.

Of course, the analogy between the witch hunts of the '50s and the current circus is far from a perfect fit. For one thing, red-baiting was a national pastime 50 years ago, while today the nation is anything but united behind the sex police. "To me, what's remarkable is the contrast," says Eric Bentley, author of the drama Are You Now or Have You Ever Been? "A generation ago, middle America would have risen in horror" over blowjobs in the Oval Office, "but things have changed a lot."

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.

It's true that Clinton's ratings remain high, but the media keep pouncing on signs that his support is slipping, and everyone knows that if the Republicans expand their majority this November, the president is in deep doo-doo. If that comes to pass, it will be because people are sick of veering between images of a humiliated leader and the priapic stuff of late-night comedy. Just under the surface of titillation, the relentless barrage of lurid details may be producing a sense of helplessness that is the first step toward acquiescence.

Red-baiting, too, did not catch on immediately. It took a prolonged campaign--from carefully planted gossip to the highly ritualized spectacle of Congressional hearings--to create a national hysteria. Can the same theater of shock work in an allegedly shockproof time? If it does, the consequences will be far more profound than meet the winking eye. Recalling how the persecution that began with Communists soon spread across the entire political and cultural landscape, Navasky warns, "It would be a disastrous precedent to drive a president out of office as a result of what is underneath it all a sexual inquisition, because that would mean they can do it again--and not just to him."

Mccarthyism was rooted in fundamental American anxieties, but it also sprang from a political agenda: undoing an entrenched liberalism. New Deal programs were too popular to attack, but in 1946, a Democratic president collided with a Republican Congress, and, as Schrecker says, "the GOP took the issue the Democrats were vulnerable on--Communism--and they ran with it."

There was always a sexual undercurrent to this politically generated panic. Then as now, the enemy was presented as not just dangerous but immoral; the women cold and domineering, the men louche and effete. The image of the Communist couple imbedded in the American psyche of the '50s was not so different from the image of the Clintons crafted by the right--as in the countless cartoons where Bill is a hen-pecked letch and Hill is a heavy-legged harridan (possibly a lesbian).

Among the stock figures of anti-Communist films were the Red seductress and the controlling mom: "There were actually cases in which judges refused custody to women accused of Communist leanings," Schrecker writes. Homosexuality was too far beyond the pale (and perhaps too sensitive an issue for the likes of Roy Cohn) to become part of the Commie profile, but McCarthyism did inspire a purge of "perverts," thousands of whom lost their government jobs.

These targets--the unnaturally assertive woman and the weak-willed yet lascivious man--are at the heart of the right's obsession with Bill Clinton. But they resonate across the political spectrum, just as social conservatism has broad appeal for many people--especially men--who consider themselves politically liberal. The perception that the red-blooded male has been dethroned is as powerful today as was the fear in the '50s that America was losing its power in the world. This rage over lost male supremacy may be masked by high principle, but it shows in the metaphors pundits and their editors fall back on--as when Time recently proclaimed, "There is need not only for a Reformation but for a Restoration."

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