CHICAGO — The lights that signal love and peace adorn America's living rooms and lawns these winter nights. From cold and dark northern Europe came the custom that John F. Baldovin describes: "To celebrate the victory of life over winter's death and to combat evil spirits, homes are decorated in this darkest period of the year with lights and evergreens of all kinds." Christmas was called "the devil's funeral."
We may not know much about devils, but an evil spirit does infect our national culture. Shadow and hate and war, at least verbal war, mark this season of heaped-together festivals of light: Hanukkah, New Year's, Kwanzaa, Epiphany on the 12th day of Christmas and, of course, Christmas. Television brings images of hate, talk radio sounds of war and newspaper headlines references to madness--all originating in Washington but beamed everywhere.
To hate is "to bear malice to" and is "the opposite of to love." Former Rep. Robert F. Drinan used a synonym to describe this month's impeachment hearings: President Bill Clinton's enemies "have a deep animosity," he said. One pollster on National Public Radio said 30% of the public want Clinton killed--let us hope only figuratively. Reporters use words like "eliminate," "destroy," "slash and burn" or refer to Armageddon, rancor, lynching and rapaciousness to describe actions and attitudes of some toward the president and of lawmakers toward each other. Bipartisan elements of the public both inspire and live off the climate of hate. They will have more chances to do so in 1999, as the Senate fights over the impeachment issue.
Politics, of course, is not based on love but on argument. A friend-and-foe model is built into debates over what is just. How to prosecute civil conflict is the issue for this republic's future. No one doubts that many in the House of Representatives, in both parties, voted their consciences on Dec. 19 and wanted to be responsible to the Constitution. But all observers say that fear of reprisal from elements within their own parties, and hatred for the president and each other, marked the approaches of many behind the scenes and on camera. This rancor appeared during a televised impeachment session that two-thirds of the public said interested them little. Will a majority find Congress able to face the issues that concern them, or will hate consume all?
The fact that each act against the president pushed Clinton's polls skyward--up to 73% of the public had a "favorable opinion" of him after the impeachment vote--frustrates the furious. Just before he announced his retirement on impeachment day, Rep. Robert L. "Bob" Livingston (R-La.), who would have become speaker of the House, urged, "Let us disregard the outside influences." J.C. Watts Jr. (R-Okla.) also spoke disdainfully of them. But these "outside influences " are the polled public majority. What is its presumed indifference telling those in the Beltway and Bible Belt as we gird for the battles of 1999?
GOP representatives who led the attack on the president defined the nation their way at this crucial moment. House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) averred that this is "God's country." But something had gone terribly wrong. Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) saw total division in it: "I think there are two Americas, and there is a real America out there." The real America, said House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas), was all on one side in "a debate about relativism versus absolute truth." Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) and Watts concurred: "President Clinton is the perfect embodiment of everything being relative."
The attackers misread the public, but no one can come up with a definitive answer as to why the majority does not share their hate. Despite the frustrations and fury of the outraged over the fact that the public does not seem outraged, most people of all parties and religions emphatically despise adultery and lying. They opposed both in their focus whetheir own houses, while not making
these afflict the House or White House.
Could it be that most who display lights in this season are doing what they can to counter the haters so that we can resume the nation's crucial business? Could it not be that their distancing from Bible Belt and Beltway has to do mainly with the fact that they have lives to live, children to raise, bills to pay, moral patterns to find, churches and clubs and neighborhoods to support, holidays to celebrate and issues to face--all of them made more difficult when hate rules?
What drives these hatreds? Longshoreman and philosopher Eric Hoffer called hate "the most accessible and comprehensive of all unifying agents," and the partisans know it. Some see the current conflict as a war of revenge by those who think Nixon-haters of old deserve Clinton-haters today. Tit for tat. Others think it is a cleanup operation against those who perpetuated the lifestyles of the '60s, as they see Clinton and those not outraged by him doing.