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."

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."

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."

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."

One can only imagine what this redemption would look like: a revival of the patriarchal presidency as epitomized by John F. Kennedy. JFK's reputation remains suspiciously intact among the Clinton bashers despite all the shock-horror about infidelity. (Indeed, as Jim Windolf complains in last week's Observer, the problem is that Clinton lacks Kennedy's grace in philandering.) In the more id-driven precincts of the media, this sense of the world turned upside down is taken quite literally. Consider the recent New York Press cartoon of Clinton butt-fucking Uncle Sam, with blood and shit flying everywhere. Talk about male panic!

"Certainly Clinton is not threatening the political status quo," says Schrecker, "but as a cultural figure, he's an embodiment of women's rights, a more relaxed modern view of sexuality, and a more multicultural world. Whether he lives these values or not, they have been projected onto him." These qualities are still associated with the '60s, which explains why the rap about Clinton's lack of honesty and honor so often leads to the need to wean America from countercultural values. "What's at stake in the Lewinsky scandal is not the right to privacy," writes conservative commentator David Frum, "but the central dogma of the Baby Boomers that sex, as long as it's consensual, ought never to be subject to moral scrutiny at all."

The conflation of Clinton and the counterculture is to conservatives today what the image of Communists in the State Department was 50 years ago. No wonder Pat Robertson told the Christian Coalition convention last week that the office once occupied "by Washington and Jefferson and Lincoln," had become "the playpen for the sexual freedom of the poster child of the 1960s." This is the moment when roiling resentments over the low status of white men in general and God-fearing Christians in particular can be brought together in a grand alliance. It's D-Day in the culture wars, and the target is much bigger than the president.

Once it took hold, McCarthyism spread far beyond its original mandate to root out Communists, damning as "fellow travelers" anyone who opposed nuclear proliferation, expansion of the military budget, or the global predations of the CIA. At its height, this crusade virtually shut down social activism, from civil rights to trade unionism. The impact of a similar jihad today could threaten everything from sexual freedom to abortion rights. These signatures of the current era are far less entrenched than they seem, and liberals are far more ambivalent than they are willing to admit. Not that there is anything wrong with an uncertain response to complex issues, but when it comes to politics, the true believer is always in the best position to accomplish social change--especially when he can wield the ultimate weapon of shame. Clinton's destiny--and ours--may ultimately be decided by what Americans actually feel about their sex lives.

"The United States is one of the most sexually conservative countries in the world," says Edward Laumann, coauthor of the definitive University of Chicago study Sex in America. Yet our puritanism is suffused with promiscuity. Adultery is by far the most common sexual transgression, with one out of four married men (and one out of three over 45) admitting to it. Yet 90 per cent of Laumann's sample say adultery is "always wrong." This contradiction is reflected in the recent Washington Post poll showing that more Americans regard adultery as unacceptable than even homosexuality. The widespread revulsion at Clinton's conduct has more than a little of the slogan artist Barbara Kruger invented to describe the American sexual perplex: "Protect Me From What I Want!"

The consequences of this paradox are impossible to predict. But as the Washington Post noted, 55 per cent of Americans think their values are losing influence in society. This is the constituency social conservatives hope to mobilize, and if they succeed, we could see not just a new president but the rise of a virulent new puritanism, enforced by sin-baiting pols and scandal-mongering media. (First they'll publish all the filth, then they'll say it's filthy.) You don't have to be a public figure to fear this apparat. When it comes to probing the sex life of, say, a teacher, the precedent that the Starr investigation sets for what the government can get away with is terrifying to behold.

Why are people willing to accept a process that could ultimately curtail their freedom? One might as well ask why Clinton was willing to risk his presidency for a fling. He has never been able to embrace the aura of the New Man. Elected as the first postmodern president, he is revealed to be the ultimate premodern pig. In his failure to get away with what other men have always gotten away with, he may thrust us all into the very past we thought we had overcome. In the end, much will depend on whether the American people can tolerate the complexity of liberty, as personified by a fallen man.

Research: Michael Zilberman

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