Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#46, August 4, 1999


by Marylaine Block

If you believe that history goes in cycles, and that we reap what we sow, the fact that Bill Clinton's impeachment came 25 years after Nixon was forced from office must be the ultimate proof.

There are so many parallels between these men. Both of them were masters at lying to us, largely because they were masters at lying to themselves. Both of them went against major principles of their parties -- Nixon created much of our regulatory state and established relations with communist China, while Clinton signed welfare reform and pushed NAFTA through. Both men inspired an unsettling, deep-seated, virulent hatred that could not be rationally justified.

For both men, the downfall was a long, slow slide. Neither was capable of admitting what he had done, or even believing it was wrong, let alone anybody else's business. Both suffered from the arrogance of power, living out a classic Greek tragedy of the man of promise doomed by his tragic flaw.

They both became president at times when things seemed to be spiraling out of control. 1968 brought riots, assassinations, protest, and a war that increasingly seemed unwinnable and misguided. 1992 brought economic dislocation and a sense that our leaders didn't notice, or care, that we were hanging on by our fingernails. Things fell apart, the center could not hold. Americans, who usually cling to the middle, disliking extremes of passion and policy, broke into noisy warring factions.

If you don't remember the Watergate days, you need only think about the months leading up to Clinton's impeachment, because they were very much alike. There was a kind of sick fascination to watching the news, as each day brought another revelation, and everyday the noose tightened just a little bit more.

For those who despised Nixon, just as for those who hated Clinton, it was incredibly exciting. Every day, with every new piece of evidence, hatred was being fed and watered. It grew like the man-eating plant in The Little Shop of Horrors -- if a day passed without new proofs of the president's villainy, you could almost hear it grunting "Feed me!"

It was an exciting time for journalists, too, certain that the stories they told would change the world, maybe even purify it.

It was even exciting, though horrifying, for each president's sympathizers.

But then it was over, leaving behind a sense of anti-climax. Nixon left office, while Clinton subsided into his much-diminished power and reputation. For the haters, neither punishment was great enough, but the rest of us breathed a sigh of relief that at last it was over.

It may be that from time to time we need a ritual venting of hatred and anger. Certainly societies seem to require enemies toward whom they can direct hostility - the Irish have had the British to hate; the Serbs, Albanians, and Croats have each other. We, for so many years, had communists. Deprived of this enemy, perhaps we were forced to find our enemies within.

It seems to me that every 20 to 30 years, our slowly accumulating grievances explode into some kind of symbolic bloodletting, whether it's war or the sacrifice of an unworthy leader. The excitement of the stalking and the kill may satisfy some deeply inhuman part of our nature.

But bystanders, and those who sympathize with the victim, feel more than a little nausea watching the remorseless working out of the tragedy. It affronts our sense of balance, of moderation, of decency.

And ultimately, I think, it sickens the haters, too. There's a pleasure in hating -- one rock song points out that when we "say hello to the hate, [we] tap into the power." But it's a power that makes it hard to live with ourselves, forcing us to realize that down deep, we might not be very nice people at all.

Maybe Aristotle had it right. Tragedy IS an important civic drama, that reminds us powerful men may overreach and self-destruct, and that evokes our pity and horror -- not just for them, but for ourselves as well.

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