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CULTURE WARS

Ken Starr: A True Child of the '60s

October 11, 1998|Michael E. Parrish | Michael E. Parrish, a professor of American history at UC San Diego, is the author of "Anxious Decades: America in Prosperity and Depression." He is completing a biography of civil-rights lawyer Joseph L. Rauh Jr

SAN DIEGO — Long before sex scandal engulfed the White House, Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton were demonic figures to people who believe the nation has entered an era of political and cultural decay whose roots are to be found in the 1960s. The Clintons are, so the thinking goes, quintessential products of the decade dominated by liberalism, civil disobedience, disrespect for law, the decline of patriotism, recreational drug use, sexual promiscuity and rampant self-indulgence. Conservative opponents are fond of calling the president "a draft-dodging, pot-smoking womanizer," thereby attempting to link him to anti-Vietnam War protests, illegal drug use and the sexual excesses associated with the counterculture of Haight-Ashbury and Woodstock. His wife fares no better. Hillary Rodham Clinton has been criticized both for her aggressive professionalism and her rejection of the traditional, ornamental role of first lady in favor of active engagement in contentious policy issues. Judging from recent speeches by Sen. John D. Ashcroft (R-Mo.), religious conservative Gary L. Bauer and others, the current scandal has intensified Clinton's identification with the '60s. To impeach and convict him, these critics say, will excise the cancer of that dreaded decade from the nation's body politic.

But the conflation of Clinton's present problems with the '60s distorts his relationship to those years and misconceives the true meaning and legacy of that decade, trivializing it at best, and attributing to it changes with roots far deeper in our post-World War II society. Denouncing Clinton as the sinister embodiment of '60s politics and culture may be good rightist propaganda, but it is bad historical and cultural analysis. In fact, a stronger case might be made for Clinton's principal tormentor, Kenneth W. Starr, the former Barry Goldwater volunteer, whose self-righteousness and contempt for moral ambiguity resemble not so much the spirit of the late senator from Arizona as they do the paranoia of J. Edgar Hoover and radicals such as the Weathermen. Hoover was eager to crush his enemies by any means, including illegal electronic eavesdropping. Sixties radicals, equally certain of their own rectitude and monopoly on truth, blew up buildings and destroyed innocent lives to protest the Vietnam War.

As a consequence of that war, the civil-rights movement and the disruptions produced by a postindustrial economy, the '60s witnessed the collapse of a liberal political consensus that had dominated U.S. politics from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Richard M. Nixon. That consensus, while it endorsed an expansive role for the federal government in promoting economic growth and national security, also tolerated white supremacy, homophobia and the subordination of women. The consensus rested upon the conviction that America possessed both the economic resources and political will to contain leftist (and especially communist-dominated) revolutions wherever they arose in the world.

Black demands for equality, rising feminist aspirations, the gay awakening, the tenacity of Vietnamese communists and the deindustrialization of the U.S. economy presented U.S. liberalism with a series of challenges it could not master, except through half-measures such as President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty or Nixon's peace-with-honor policy for Vietnam. These palliatives only deepened social discord and gave new momentum to a conservative backlash that continues to poison American life. The true legacy of the '60s is not Students for a Democratic Society, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, the Diggers or the Yippies, but Young Americans for Freedom, the Christian Coalition, Operation Rescue and the Freemen of Idaho.

Based on his record as governor and president, Clinton bears about as much resemblance to the historic core values of liberalism as Newt Gingrich bears to the Republicanism of Theodore Roosevelt, Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes or former Vice President Nelson A. Rockefeller. One of the proudest '60s achievements was a sustained and often successful attack on the death penalty as both arbitrary and racist. As governor, Clinton, an enthusiastic supporter of capital punishment, condoned the lethal injection of a man so mentally retarded that he believed he could finish his dessert after his date with the executioner. As president, he signed into law the broadest expansion of crimes punishable by death since the adoption of the first federal criminal statutes in 1789.

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