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1 December 1998

The Howler review: Defining dyspepsia up

Synopsis: Ol’ Cranky, Bill Bennett, helps to show why most people don’t think that impeachment makes sense.

The Death of Outrage
William J. Bennett, The Free Press, 1998

The perpetually-furious William J. Bennett has his shorts in a wad about Clinton. Endlessly fuming in TV appearances--as if a waiter had just served him an overcooked piece of steak--Bennett drums his fingers and makes his complaint: the American people don’t get steamed any more, the way that they used to be able. So the Crown Prince of Cranky put his thoughts in a book, and it’s still #5 on the best seller charts, although the drive for impeachment has lately been waning. Outrage has died in the GOP too, since they lost those five seats in the Congress.

In fact, with impeachment fever fading last month, the analysts asked if they could skip this report. They’re tired of all this impeachment talk, like their good friends, the American people. They’d rather spend time doing serious prep for that chaos-to-come, the Social Security debate. When the press corps has to start ’splainin’ that--well, we’re bracing for big-time confusion.

But we decided to hold their feet to the fire and make them review Bennett’s book. Fact is, we agree with Bennett about naughty TV; we think he’s done valuable work in that area. But The Death of Outrage is a whole other number--a screed that sets our teeth on edge. We can understand why the analysts want this cup to please pass. But sorry, kids. You volunteered for this labor.

*             *              *              *

And the analysts ended up slightly outraged themselves, after fighting through Bill Bennett’s thicket. They looked up at us with their big doleful eyes, and they wondered how this work ever passed Bennett’s desk. In its worst parts, Outrage seems to have been thrown together by thumbing through clip-sheets, and compiling greatest hits of Vile-Bill-Bashers Past. But then, The Book of Virtues was just a bunch of old tales. Maybe Bennett’s applying a formula.

Bennett quickly tells us, on page three, of Clinton’s “sexual affair with a twenty-one-year-old intern.” For a guy who loves to lament academia’s decline, he’s having a bit of trouble here assembling basic facts (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/9/98, for the truth about Mo’s maturation). By the time we get all the way to page five, we hit the same old list of the same old nightmares allegedly cranked out by the Clintons. And it’s kind of fun to peruse the list now, now that Commissar Starr has mumbled to Congress that he won’t charge Vile Clinton in three major areas--it’s kind of fun to see the abandoned charges still settin’ on Bennett’s long list. Filegate and Travelgate won’t be moved on by Starr, but they live on here in Bennett’s Fury, reminding us all of how Bashers once dreamed of all the charges they’d rain on Vile Bill.

But then, Bennett’s constructed a slippery heading for the catalog of conduct he lists. What’s he listin’? “Skulduggery, half-truths, stonewalling, breaches of ethics, and even contempt for the law,” that’s what, all of which, the winded pontiff puffs, “have characterized the Clinton presidency.” We guess that when you’re dealing with categories so vague, you can really end up with quite a long list. Jeez. It almost makes you pine for that “lawyerly parsing” we hear complained about when it’s done by the Clintons.

Yep--on page 7, Bennett even cites RTC crackpot Jean Lewis; he quotes her long-discredited plaints. It’s been quite a while since we saw Lewis cited. It’s amazing that a guy who’s so concerned with ideals would produce scholarship so depressingly shabby.

*             *              *              *

We don’t want you to think, from our tone of voice, that we’re giving a free pass to Clinton. We’ve said before what we say again--we think his sexual conduct with Lewinsky was so reckless as to be disturbing, and we think a reasonable person could make a case that he ought to be removed from office. But that reasonable person doesn’t seem to be writing this book, in which standards of scholarship go right out the window. If Bennett wants to know why the American people aren’t outraged, he should maybe grab a copy of his book, and go sneak a quick peek in the mirror.

But deep in his text, Bennett cites a primo example that helps show why no one really cares any more. He cites David Tell, in The Weekly Standard, lamenting the perjury conviction of Dr. Barbara Battalino, “ for deception about oral sex in a civil case.” Bennett asks, “Why should exactly the same standard of justice, for exactly the same offense, not clearly apply to President Clinton?”

Good question, with an obvious answer. President Clinton has hardly been accused of “exactly the same offense” as Battalino. Battalino, a VA psychiatrist, engaged in oral sex with a patient, who subsequently sued her for professional misconduct. In falsely denying she’d engaged in the conduct, she lied about the central act in the case--an act which plainly constituted professional wrong-doing. By contrast, Clinton lied about a tangential matter in the Paula Jones case, a matter explored in discovery through the intrusive legal thinking that conservatives rightly used to deplore. Did Clinton and Battalino commit “exactly the same offense?” Only if you tell the tale the way Bill Bennett does, all tricked up to produce a favorite outcome.

Why has the public lost its outrage? Perhaps from exposure to slick work like this. No one can find a real victim here, in the lying conduct of which Clinton stands accused. It’s clear who Battalino may have harmed--who did Clinton hurt by his fibbing? Was Jones somehow kept from her right to a fair hearing? Yes--if you think that having consensual sex means that you likely expose yourself too. Quite a leap of faith, it says here. But the fact that courts invade privacy over nonsense like that--well, it’s an “outrage” you won’t hear from Bill Bennett.

Bennett’s lazy performance--sung for the choir--reminds us why people have simply stopped listening. Reading Bennett, we stop wondering what Clinton may have done. We just wonder, why is this big grouchy guy so damn mad? And why can’t he explain it all better?

Read on: The New York Times has standards that are even more lax. See Read on, 12/1/98.