Life Watch: We are all Arkansans now

Even Jim Lehrer was taken aback. He was “moderating,” if that was the word, the debate of the vice-presidential candidates, and he gave Jack Kemp the chance to elaborate on his response: Was it really the case that there were no distinctly moral issues bothering the American public, that the main issues vexing our lives could really be reduced, in the end, to the problem of taxes and incentives?

No, Kemp reflected, the moral questions of the age really were concentrated in the problem of taxes. We had come through the hazards of the twentieth century. We had defeated, he said, Nazism and communism, and now, with the triumph of freedom, the principal moral question remaining in the modern period was the question of taxes and growth. Kemp had shunned his briefing books; he was, after all, a speaker well practiced. Now, winging it, Kemp had reached a stage of terminal fatuity. And that was The Election That Was.

This column began in the opening months of the Age of Clinton, as the pro-life movement braced itself for the worst of times. Few people anticipated that the party of abortion would quickly reach the end of its tether as it failed to pass the Freedom of Choice Act.

And no one anticipated the elation that would come in 1994, as the Republicans took control of the Congress and a pro-life majority could actually start passing bills. Expectations then ran high that this president could not indeed last beyond his term, and now, within the space of a year, we have seen another reversal, capping a period of persisting reversals.

In the final days of the campaign, Clinton could even take out ads on Christian radio. Those ads, with outright falsehoods barely concealed, offered the quintessential Clinton, rendered now with a distilled audacity. And so, while the Age of Clinton gets another lease, those ads on Christian radio seem to mark a natural close to this period. They form a fitting end to Act 1 of the play that began with Clinton’s inspired acts of dissembling: Abortion, he said, should be “safe, legal, and rare” —and then proceeded to issue his first executive orders, to sweep from the body of federal regulations every inhibition on the practice of abortion.

The late election has been described curiously as a “status quo” election. When the clamor subsided, things looked rather much the same: Clinton in the White House and the Republicans in control of Congress. But that appearance on the surface is of course deceptive. We have no “mixed” government when it comes to control over the courts. There, the nomination of judges rests entirely in the hands of an administration determined to remove every lingering resistance to the “right to abortion.” That state of affairs would not be altered in the least, even if Clinton departs before the end of his term.

The courts will continue to be filled by a Democratic administration, and an administration under Al Gore would continue to draw on those lawyers and professors who reflect the character of the modern Democratic party. Beneath the facade of a status quo, the courts will exert a steady force to reshape the laws that touch the moral framework of our lives.

That recasting of the laws explains, more than anything else, the evident change in the character of American Catholics over the last twenty years. In the late ’70s, Catholics were still willing to make themselves different from other Americans in their refusal to accept the new “right” to an abortion. But as that right ceased being novel, as the “rightness” of abortion seemed to be in the air all about us, breathed in by a new generation, even Catholics would become more and more like everyone else.

The sobering, even shocking, commentary, came in the election: Catholics voted for Clinton at a split of 53-47, while Evangelicals voted heavily for Dole. Would it really be extravagant to say that few things stand as clearly as a sign of Catholic apostasy? Would this vote not in fact be a ringing judgment by American Catholics that the teachings of their Church are simply not important enough to matter?

It is readily argued that Dole must bear some of the responsibility for this misdirection: Dole made no effort himself to suggest that the issue of abortion was central or decisive, and so if he emitted those cues why should we reproach ordinary folk who responded to these cues, and then voted, on other grounds, for the Democrats?

On Dole’s failings as a candidate there is no tissue of a quarrel. Regrettably, every worry posted over Dole in this column was amply confirmed. And yet, Dole’s bumbling as a candidate cannot excuse American Catholics. Even if Dole could render his own record hazy, even if he could raise doubts, of all things, about the pro-life character of a Dole-administration, the fact of the matter was that there was not the least doubt about the Clinton administration. The character and record of that administration was etched unmistakably in the pattern of its acts, culminating most dramatically in the veto of the bill banning partial-birth abortions. It required a peculiar isolation and obtuseness among Catholics if they failed to notice the firestorm of opposition that Clinton finally ignited among the American bishops.

The conclusion is indeed hard to resist: The voting of American Catholics can be explained only if Catholics have truly absorbed the notion that this grisly killing, this thinly concealed form of infanticide, was simply not a question of moral consequence, not an issue that finally mattered.

But the sense of distraction or disarray among Christians was not confined to Catholics. One of my brightest students, an Evangelical, told me she was voting for Clinton because he was showing a more welcoming, generous spirit to immigrants. The record on partial-birth abortions, which she found abhorrent, was somehow screened from view. Or it was placed further down in the hierarchy of concerns. The standard that placed it there was shrouded in a certain haze, deposited there, apparently, in a collection of things to be thought about later. But it is only against a backdrop of such disorientation among the Christians that Clinton could spring his ads on Christian radio. Part of the curious charm of Bill Clinton lies in the sense that he is, really, a rascal, and a rascal willing to show his artistry by doing brazen things. But by these standards, Clinton managed to exceed even himself in his ads on Christian radio.

The first, regretful report offered to the pious members of the audience was that Bob Dole, after a career of such apparent integrity, had actually stooped to lying. He had lied by misrepresenting Bill Clinton’s position on partial-birth abortions. He had claimed that Bill Clinton opposed the effort to ban partial-birth abortions—a claim given a certain plausibility, it must be said, by the fact that Clinton had vetoed the bill.

But the real truth, as the voice explained, was that Bill Clinton had opposed that late-term procedure (left decorously undescribed). His only concern had been for the “health” of the pregnant woman. With a modest effort to make that provision, he would have supported the bill to forbid these abortions. I say Clinton exceeded himself because he knew that the bill contained an exception for the life of the mother (even though the life of the mother was never at issue in these abortions). He had ample ways of knowing also that the procedure was not really necessary for the health of the mother; in fact, it posed more risks and dangers of infection. Yet even if a pregnant woman were faced with a threat to her health, what kind of a danger would it have to be before a woman would seek her remedy by having the skull of her child crushed, and the brains sucked out? Would it be bronchitis? The flu?

But beyond everything else, Clinton knew that under Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, the “health” of the mother encompassed the notion of “mental health”: If a woman promised to feel distress in being barred from the abortion, she had an ample ground for ordering the surgery.

Clinton knew, as surely as he knew anything in this field, that when he offered to support a ban on partial-birth abortions, with an exception for the “health” of the pregnant woman, he was offering, in fact, nothing. By any reckoning, this ad had to be counted as the most cynical gesture by a political man. For he was not merely appealing to his listeners; he was parodying them.

One may think of Lincoln, in a playful spirit, speaking to the Temperance people, but satirizing them in the subtler lines of his speech. In the case of Clinton there was an edge of contempt: The unmistakable premise in the ad was that Evangelicals were simple, dumb folk. The assumption had to be that most of them would not be able to penetrate the step or two beneath the surface to see the emptiness or the brazen falsity. Perhaps most would not be taken in, but the betting was that some would, and that would all be gravy—more than anyone had a reason to expect.

A wise observer once remarked that the lesson emerging from the Goldwater campaign in 1964 was that a politician from a small state would not develop the reflexes that were needed for running for office in a large, heterogeneous electorate. But Clinton, from several angles, has disproved that claim.

In Arkansas, Bill Clinton learned the art of speaking to rubes, and that skill turned out to be quite serviceable. For he discovered that he could speak to the whole country in the same way; and offered that same fare, the larger public showed itself to be quite as credulous. Or it may be that when a politician is willing to address the country as though it were composed of rubes, he converts the country into a country of rubes. The sobering thing we discovered in the late electoral season is that the whole country has become Arkansas. We are all Arkansans now.


  • Hadley Arkes

    Hadley P. Arkes (born 1940) is an American political scientist and the Edward N. Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions at Amherst College, where he has taught since 1966.

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