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.