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What is Past is Prologue

by Chip Berlet

Political Research Associates


A revised and expanded version of the article that appeared in the Public Eye,
with additional material by Fred Clarkson, other appendices, and footnotes


The roar was visceral. A torrent of sound fed by a vast subconscious reservoir of anger and resentment. Repeatedly, as speaker after speaker strode to the podium and denounced President Clinton, the thousands in the cavernous auditorium surged to their feet with shouts and applause. The scene was the Christian Coalition's annual Road to Victory conference held in September 1998-three months before the House of Representatives voted to send articles of impeachment to the Senate.

Former Reagan appointee Alan Keyes observed that the country's moral decline had spanned two decades and couldn't be blamed exclusively on Clinton, but when he denounced Clinton for supporting the "radical homosexual agenda," the crowd cheered and gave Keyes one of his several standing ovations. Republican Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire attacked Clinton's foreign policies, stating that the "globalists of the New World Order" must not be allowed to sell out American sovereignty.

Most attacks on Clinton highlighted his sexual misconduct and subsequent cover-up as proof that he was unfit to remain President, but the list of complaints was long. When the American Conservative Union distributed a National Impeachment Survey with the type of loaded question typical of the direct-mail genre. It asked:

    "Which Clinton Administration scandal listed below do you consider to be `very serious'?"

The scandals listed were:

    Chinagate, Monicagate, Travelgate, Whitewater, FBI `Filegate,' Cattlegate, Troopergate, Casinogate, [and] Health Care-gate..."

In addition to attention to scandals, those attending the annual conference clearly opposed Clinton's agenda on abortion, gay rights, foreign policy, and other issues.

Several months later, much of the country's attention was focused on the House of Representatives "Managers" and their pursuit of a successful impeachment of Clinton in the Senate. Few people understood the vast right-wing political machinery that was mobilized to pressure the managers to fight on and never give up.1 Those gathered at the Road to Victory Conference are naturally inclined to oppose Clinton, but they were "educated" by a large number of relatively unknown right-wing groups and individuals to see Clinton as the embodiment of evil¾not just a liberal, but corrupt, immoral, and even a murderer. They are the foot soldiers in the "Culture War," the backlash launched by the political right against the Post-WWII social liberation movements. It has replaced communism as the right's major unifying focus.

Today's Culture War is, in part, a continuation of the right's long-standing campaign against the ideas of modernity and even the enlightenment. Some openly support the Culture War as part of the age-old battle against forces aligned with Satan.

Demonization is central to the process. Essayist Ralph Melcher notes the "venomous hatred" directed toward the entire culture exemplified by the President and his wife succeeded in making "Bill and Hillary into political monsters," but represented the deeper continuity of the right's historic distaste for liberalism.2 As historian Robert Dallek of Boston University puts it, "The Republicans are incensed because they essentially see the embodiment of the counterculture's thumbing of its nose at accepted wisdoms and institutions of the country."3

Liberals are demonized for tolerating godless moral relativism and sinful immorality-especially in the form of abortion and gay rights. Liberals also are demonized for supporting a strong federal government, aggressive regulatory oversight, and global interdependence-seen as subversive collectivism that undermines sovereignty and the spirit of free enterprise.

The Christian Coalition audience's palpable hostility to Clinton and all he represents illustrates the zeal of the foot soldiers mobilized in the crusade for God and country. We should not discount the political impact of these activists, who are motivated by deep ideological, theological, and emotional commitments. While the Senate voted not to sustain the charges sent over by the House of Representatives, there is no truce in the Culture War. Bill and Hillary Clinton continue to serve as high profile targets.

Much of the original constituency for the impeachment battle came from the Christian Right, but the Christian Right does not act alone or in isolation. Right-wing attacks on President Clinton flow from a large and diverse network of individuals and organizations. This is not so much a secret conspiracy against President Clinton as a loosely-knit pre-existing coalition among several sectors of the political right that share an anti-Clinton agenda, despite wide differences in political outlook and style. As analyst Russ Bellant explains, "different sectors on the right didn't have to agree on the person they would choose to replace Clinton; all they had to do was agree that they wanted Clinton to go."4 It is this convergence of anti-Clinton sentiment across sectors of the right that accounts for the fervor and drive of the anti-Clinton campaign.

Most of us are tired of the impeachment scandal and interminable pundit ruminations about it. This article, however, will review the attacks on President Clinton with an eye to discerning clues to how the Christian Right and its allies will regroup and launch the next battle in the Culture War. I will pay special attention to the process by which dubious conspiracy theories became acceptable within the Republican Party, and then became major headlines. I also will examine why the right's leaders and followers pushed so hard for the impeachment of Clinton, and why the failure of the campaign has left such bitterness and disillusionment within the right's ranks.


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