Anyone who decides to add his drop to the tidal wave of commentary on the impeachment of President Clinton must acknowledge, at the outset, a built-in difficulty. The very act of writing or speaking about the crisis, irrespective of what is said, tends, by adding to its momentum, to make it worse. Faced with the snowball rolling downhill that is everyone’s favorite metaphor (unless it is the runaway train) for impeachment, the writer who tries to stand athwart its path, waving his puny arms in protest, is in danger, as it rolls over him, of becoming an additional particle of its filthy mass. Thus does impeachment, like so many other obnoxious products of the information age, co-opt resistance against itself. Under these conditions, writing about the crisis seems of doubtful use, and one might prefer, if this were possible, to subtract an article about impeachment from the swelling mass than to add another. Editors, however, do not offer the option of unwriting someone else’s work.
A similar anxiety accounts for a question that has become a motif of the impeachment debate: whether the crisis is “historic” or not. By threatening to remove the chief executive of the self-described “world’s only superpower” (last seen in action cruise-missiling Iraq), impeachment certainly seemed to qualify as the stuff of History. On the other hand, the proceedings entirely lacked the gravity, or grandeur, that we still, for some reason, associate with the historic. On the contrary, they possessed all the grandeur of one of the seamier talk shows. The feeling that we were watching a tragedy kept getting undermined by the suspicion that the whole story belonged in the category of farce, and it was difficult a good deal of the time to know whether to weep or giggle.
There was, in truth, no need to choose. For the essential mechanism of the impeachment crisis has been the elevation of the trifling (sex and lies about sex) to the earth-shaking (impeachment of a President and damage to the constitutional system), and the question that most urgently needs answering is how and why this happened. The most obvious reason is that, for reasons not yet well understood, the Republican Party, which styled itself “revolutionary” when it won control of Congress in 1994, has turned out, to most people’s surprise, to be exactly that. (“Conservative” is the last word that would apply.) What sounded like mere bombast in 1994 turned out to be a plan. The business of revolution, let’s not forget, is to overthrow the existing government. In 1995 the party merely shut down the government as a tactic to force legislation upon the President. Owing in part to the public backlash, Bill Clinton was re-elected in 1996. This year, in a sort of quasi-legal insurrection, the party has proceeded from shutdown to decapitation, in an attempt to reverse the results of that election.
None of this, however, could have happened were it not for a development that transcends the Republican Party–the creation of the media machine of the information age: the satellite feeds, the hundreds of cable channels, the multiplying sources of “infotainment” and the Internet. These media have supplied the screen (or the millions of screens), unavailable in earlier times, on which the small-bore misdeeds of the Clinton scandal have been blown up to billboard-sized proportions. We have traveled far from the days when the press was symbolized by the underpaid, seedy, hard-bitten, ink-stained wretch with a heart of gold and a pencil in his hat depicted in Ben Hecht’s The Front Page. A better symbol for today’s media would be the six-figure-earning, deceptively ingratiating TV interviewer plying celebrities with invasive, intimate questions while wearing an expression of fake concern and trenchancy. And this is not to mention Montel Williams, Howard Stern or Larry Flynt or any of the other assorted monsters of the “new media”–tails that now wag the dog of American political life.
The Framers of the Constitution warned their posterity against standing armies. Better, they advised, to raise armies to fight wars than to find wars to busy armies. The Framers did not worry too much about the news media, but in our day the media machine has become a standing army of a kind. This army’s need, to be sure, is not for wars per se; it is for any dramatic story to cover. These stories satisfy both the natural craving of the journalistic profession for novelty and excitement and the financial interests of its conglomerate corporate masters, who depend for their profits on high ratings. Most of the time, this machine is underfed. Like many of the largest industries today, it suffers from overcapacity–too many cable channels, too many Web sites, too many talk shows, too many networks, too many mouths dinning into too few ears. Left to its own devices, the world simply doesn’t produce enough blockbuster stories to feed this beast.
December 19–the day Clinton was impeached, the Speaker-designate of the House Robert Livingston resigned from his position and the bombing of Iraq entered its third day–was the exception that proves the rule. At last, the supply of stories equaled the demand. For a moment, the machine was able to run on all cylinders. You could feel, behind all the long faces and solemn television talk, the glow of satisfaction of a profession at full employment. The question that needed asking, though, was to what extent the media standing army had created the news it was now so contentedly masticating.
The rise of the new media machine may have fatally tipped a newly endangered balance of power: the balance between fantasy and reality. In totalitarian countries, of course, it has proved possible, through the combination of ideology and terror, to fabricate wholly fictitious realities. In free countries, where terror is unavailable, political manipulators must satisfy themselves with a subtler, more limited and, we trust, milder–but still highly dangerous–variant of this. Even under conditions of democracy, human beings have a well-known capacity to mistake a world of their own making for the real one. In dreaming, for example, we create, behind our own backs, so to speak, a “reality” that we then experience as objective–frightening or arousing or even surprising ourselves with the creations of our own mind. Is it possible that because of the rise of the new media, which have given us the ability to manufacture what we call virtual reality, we are now able, without quite knowing what we are doing, to secrete a secondary world that we are liable to mistake for the primary world given to our senses at birth? If so, the prime need it serves is probably not political at all but the one Freud identified as the chief motive for dreaming: wish fulfillment–a need catered to both by our luxuriously proliferating sources of entertainment and the means of their support, namely, advertisement of consumer products. In our variant of self-deception, pleasure plays the role that terror plays under totalitarianism.
If–supposing that these suggestions are sound–a history of this secondary reality is ever written, a pivotal chapter, I believe, will concern the trial of O.J. Simpson, in which the media, making use of materials offered by the real world, managed to construct a drama indistinguishable from a soap opera. The key moment was, of course, the pursuit of O.J. along the freeway in his Bronco–an episode in which reality furnished a live version of that archetypal scene in movies and television programs, the car chase. At that moment, virtual reality and plain old-fashioned reality were inextricably fused in some new way.
The many commentators who opined that the trial of Clinton in the Senate may be “even bigger than O.J.” were speaking to the point. In both stories, highly diverting ascertainable facts mingling sex and crime were presented as, among other things, entertainment. However, there is, of course, a critical difference. The O.J. trial marked the apotheosis of infotainment–the use of factual material to amuse. (If virtual reality is the use of fictional material to simulate a factual world, then the O.J. story was virtual fiction, which we can define as the use of factual material to satisfy the need for a fictional world.)
The Monica and Bill story started that way, too. A factual story became a bigger and better blockbuster than anything any of the ratings-chasers at the networks could confabulate. The entertainment value of the story certainly was one reason the public, though engrossed in the tale, has never taken it very seriously. Only a minority, for instance, has ever thought that Clinton should–or would–actually be impeached. But then the story was given a fateful turn. The soap opera suddenly became serious and real. Against the public’s wishes and its expectations, Clinton actually was impeached. The public, which thought it had been watching a mere program and now would have liked to switch channels (perhaps to a football game, which CBS actually offered on a split screen alongside the impeachment debate in the House), discovered not only that the program was going on but that they were doomed to play a supporting role.The whole country found itself trapped inside a television program.
What was now happening was no longer infotainment (the manufacture of dramas out of real events) but reification–the sudden mutation of what the public had taken to be soap opera into something terrifyingly actual. All at once, the fun was over, and the amusing characters in the drama–the rascally President, his hypocritically puritanical inquisitors, the empty-headed ingenue, her comic-book-wicked, treacherous “friend”–were capable of authentic, long-term harm to the United States and its people. O.J. went the way of Jurassic Park and Seinfeld. Not so Bill and Monica. This sudden inversion of the O.J. process accounts for the dual character, so vexatious to commentators, of the crisis, which now is indubitably real while remaining at the same time false to the core. Never has James Joyce’s saying that history is a nightmare–or perhaps we should say a TV miniseries–from which we are trying to awaken been more true than it is today.
It’s often said that no one–not the feckless President, not the vindictive Republicans, not the spineless Democrats, not the braying, news-famished media–has come out of the scandal looking good. This accusation, however, overlooks a notable actor in the crisis–the public. It’s true that the public had made a modest contribution to the problem by falling victim to a bait-and-switch procedure. The bait was sex and power (the usual stuff), and the public gobbled it down eagerly; the switch, which came with remarkable speed in the wake of the fall’s Congressional election (whose results had mistakenly seemed to bury impeachment), was the authentic, if gratuitous, crisis in which the country now finds itself caught.
Nevertheless, if there has been a hero in the crisis, it has been a majority of this same public, which, notwithstanding its pardonable appetite for a sensational story, has in what amounts to an information-age act of mass civil disobedience resolutely chosen reality over fantasy and resisted the stampede to judgment urged upon it by the establishment. (It’s almost enough to give apathy a good name.) Here is a very important body of sane men and women whose unbroken ranks give heart–let us all praise the silent majority!–to one wavering, anti-impeachment commentator and can, we may hope, shatter the dirty snowball that is rushing toward us into a thousand pieces.