The most significant political story of 1998 is not that the President had oral sex with a 22-year-old White House intern. The most significant political story of the year is that most citizens don't seem to think it's significant that the President had oral sex with a 22-year-old intern. Yes, yes, and he lied about it. Under oath. Blah blah blah. They still don't care. Rarely has such an unexpected popular consensus been so clear. And rarely has such a clear consensus been so unexpected.
The press and the Washington establishment have been taking a beating for getting this one so totally wrong. But that's not fair. What about you? Suppose someone told you a year ago that the big story of 1998 would be a sex scandal involving the President and that it would reveal a great "disconnect" between Washington and the rest of the country. Then suppose you were asked to guess who was on which side. Put aside your own views on Presidents, oral sex, interns, perjury and so on. Would you have predicted that Washington would be outraged and the rest of the country would shrug it off? If you say yes, I don't believe you. In 1998, thanks to Bill and Monica, we all learned something surprising about ourselves. That's what makes the public reaction, not the events themselves, the political story of the year.
But what is that something we learned? Poor Sally Quinn had her head chopped off for trying to explain, in the Washington Post, why Washington was so outraged by the President's behavior. Her bold suggestion that Washington has moral standards offended almost everybody. An equally intriguing question is why the rest of the country hasn't been outraged. The easy explanation--so easy that someone (me, unfortunately) raced early on to offer it in these pages--is that we've become sophisticated or decadent (take your pick), like the French.
"What ever happened to the scarlet letter?" has become a major despairing theme of conservative political commentary. (Or, "Values, shmalues," as America's leading value peddler, William Bennett, summarized the apparent new culture consensus to the New York Times recently.) Social conservatives used to be smug populists who tarred their critics as out-of-touch elitists. Now they shoot furious thunderbolts at the formerly all-wise American people. Although the dismay of the sanctimony set is enjoyable to watch, their despair may be somewhat misplaced.
Americans don't necessarily think adultery and perjury are perfectly O.K. What they may think--what they certainly know, from personal experience--is that life is complicated and people often make a mess of it. It's complicated and messy in ways the language of politics can't describe or even acknowledge. They may think Hillary doesn't love him, or they may think all men have their brains in their crotch, or they may think Monica made it too easy, or they may have no theory at all. But while Washington boils the narrative down to issues--adultery, lies under oath--Americans who come to the story out of human interest rather than professional obligation are more likely to fill it out with details derived from their own life and the lives around them.