Forbidden by my parents from seeing it because of its prurient qualities, I missed "The Graduate" in my youth and it did not re-emerge in my life until just a few months ago when it slipped in via Saturday afternoon television. There was 1967 outrage over this movie because of young Dustin Hoffman's affair with Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), an older married woman. Somehow this film about non-DNA liaisons in a hotel room is positively bland compared to Wolf Blitzer's CNN reports on our president.
Trotting back to that era brings Fannie Fox, the stripper, and Wilbur Mills, once-powerful chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, to mind. Caught drunk in a fountain and then on stage with his alliterative friend, Mills lost his position and power. Public fountain cavorting and striptease clubs now seem Pollyannaish next to 1996-98 Oval Office activities.During the 1996 Democratic National Convention Dick Morris was driven from the Clinton inner circle of poll-mongers for engaging in hotel activities with the toes of a prostitute. Morris now looks like Captain Kangaroo in those bygone days of innocence before we experienced neck ties, interns and nincompoop first ladies. Prostitution, adultery and drunken strippers would be welcome relief from the addictions, compulsions and indiscretions of our liar in chief.
The president has stolen our innocence, such as it was. Clinton's bedding (or doing whatever "legally accurate" inappropriate behavior is) of a young intern has moved the bar on tolerable sexual behavior in public figures. Yet, the bar darts from Victorian to lascivious. Which brings me to Bob Bark-er. The public was prepared to take up medieval arms to drive him from "The Price Is Right" because he had an eye for the well-turned ankles that displayed the washers, microwaves and carousels on his program, which measures the skill of guessing the full retail price of junk. There are puritanical standards for game-show hosts and a tabula rasa on morality for the leader of the free world.
Clinton's "Saturday Night Fever" activity and our support for him reveal something far more disturbing than just a lower bar on morality: The bar has moved for guys we like. We have created flexibility in both the definition and invocation of morality. Bob Dole defended tobacco companies and lost an election because, well, tobacco is immoral. Clinton duped loyalists, lied to the public, disgraced his family, disparaged career public servants from the spec-ial prosecutor's office and got a "Get out of jail free" card through his approval ratings. His arrogant grasp of the full transactional immunity we granted him was evident in his map room mea culpa, which smacked only of irritation that the last two years of his presidency are going to be babeless.
Under this popularity system for morality, consistency is not required in condoning or condemning. A caller to MSNBC mentioned Mark Fuhrman's fate. Lying under oath about adulterous sex is OK because it's private, but lying under oath about uttering a racial slur during a private conversation eight years earlier makes you a societal scab. We prefer Jerry Seinfeld's standards: We all lie about sex, so who cares?
Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot notes that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein labeled Nixon's lies reprehensible but consider Clinton's lies irrelevant. Gigot puzzles, "Why is lying less offensive in the 1990s than it was in the 1970s?" The answer is that moral judgments are no longer based on conduct. Morality depends on who's lying and their motivation. Morality is now a moving target that shifts with the liar's popularity, political affiliation, and ideological views. Feminists look like feckless fools as they support Clinton after having hung Justice Clarence Thomas and Sen. Bob Packwood. Barney Frank remains a popular congressman and commentator despite homosexual indiscretions, but Newt Gingrich was censured as unethical because of a tax-exemption issue with his foundation. Chuck Colson served time for unauthorized possession of one FBI file, and we don't even know who hired Craig Livingstone, the Clinton White House keeper of 900 FBI files. The Boston Globe sacked Patricia Smith for lying but gave Mike Barnicle a temporary reprieve when his popularity spoke to their net earnings.
The legacy of Clinton's presidency is our complete surrender to flighty morality. Presently, the state of our union approaches what Sir Thomas More feared: a state of having no laws. "And when the law was down," to whom do any of us turn for protection? Law is discretionary because public opinion, with a 3 percent or 4 percent margin for error, has become the law of the land.
The same mechanism that gave the 1998 MTV movie award to "Austin Powers" now sets our moral standards. And so Mark Fuhrman is ostracized, Clarence Thomas is ridiculed, Bob Barker is disdained, and Bill Clinton, our philanderer in chief, remains immune from laws and adored in polls. For the right price, we've sold our souls.