Back in 1998 when the House of Representatives was impeaching Bill Clinton on two charges related to his extramarital affair with Monica Lewinsky, millions cheered.
For years the GOP had desperately looked for something – anything – with which to harpoon the wildly popular Democratic president and at last his Achilles heel turned turned out not to be his heel.
Quietly, of course, quite a few people whispered a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God as the two shameful charges of perjury and obstruction were leveled against Bubba.
Those who lived through it will recall how Clinton, tarnished by the debacle, eventually took his lumps like a medieval penitent in stocks, and those who had persecuted him enjoyed the heady intoxication of sexually shaming someone they personally disliked.
For the GOP it was win, win, win. At least at first.
For others it was a nauseating spectacle of Olympic level hypocrisy. Clinton had made his marriage vows to his wife, not the nation, we counseled at the time. It was no one’s business but their own, we said.
Lewinsky later admitted she regretted what happened as much as the president. Twenty-one at the time and an unpaid intern, she found herself at the center of a terrifyingly isolating maelstrom and was victimized by it over and over.
Did people care about her or did they care about the opportunity she had afforded them? Certainly the GOP and the media finally had the chew toy they had all longed for.
If one could characterize the American national voice, then and now, it was that of a puritanical scolds. He’s the worst president in history they barked. He's an abuser. He's a sociopath. All the fingers pointed outward, but never inward, not for a minute.
Of course what many of us suspected at the time – but could not prove – was that Clinton’s “sin” was being daily replicated by his most prominent conservative tormentors and their media mouthpieces.
Now at last we can prove it. The historic vote and then the subsequent trial in the Senate was overseen by three men who were each elected Speaker of the House of Representatives by the Republican majority in succession: Newt Gingrich, Bob Livingston and Dennis Hastert.
We now know that whilst Gingrich was part of the broader effort to impeach Clinton for his extramarital affair, he was conducting an extramarital affair of his own with a Congressional aide.
“There were times when I was praying and when I felt I was doing things that were wrong. But I was still doing them,” Gingrich told Focus on the Family's James Dobson during a radio interview in 2007.
“I look back on those as periods of weakness and periods that I'm not only not proud of, but I would deeply urge my children and grandchildren not to follow in my footsteps.”
Don’t impeach others for the sins that you’re lustily committing yourself, he might have deeply urged them. Or if you absolutely must, it’s very important not to be caught he might have said. Gingrich style family values I hope they didn't follow either.
Ah, but if only Gingrich could have found the Shakespearean forgiveness for Clinton that he generously offered himself.
Next up on the parade of nauseating hypocritical adulterous scolds was Bob Livingston. With masterful timing Livingston announced he was resigning on the very day of Clinton’s impeachment vote, following revelations that he had – you guessed it – engaged in an extramarital affair.
Soon after Livingston’s spectacular fall Dennis Hastert became Speaker-designate, formally becoming Speaker in 1999 and remaining so as the Senate pursued impeachment proceedings.
Last week Hastert was indicted on charges that he paid $1.7 million in hush money to an unnamed individual to cover up an extramarital affair.
But in a dramatic wrinkle that few anticipated, the LA Times reported the payments were being made to “conceal sexual abuse against a former male student he knew during his days as a teacher in Yorkville, Illinois.”
The male student had been fourteen years old. It has since emerged that the FBI is aware of multiple potential victims in the case.
Back in the late 90's Hastert's meteoric rise had everything to do with the impeachment mania that had gripped the GOP. “The evidence in President Clinton's case is overwhelming that he has abused and violated the public trust,” he said at the time, becoming one of the loudest voices calling for a trial.
The GOP had picked Hastert for his homespun manner, which they thought would be a folksy counterpoint to the scandal prone showboats that had preceded him. The Daddy party had found their man.
Many wil remember how Hastert advanced the homophobic Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) through the House and we remember him for his proposal of a constitutional amendment to invalidate same-sex unions in the few states that then permitted them. He was remorseless in his anti-gay approach.
Recall that these men – Gingrich, Livingston and Hastert – presented themselves to the nation as moral compasses, impeaching a man publicly for transgressions (or worse) they privately practiced themselves. It’s appalling.
The the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do crowd often gravitate toward authoritarian enterprises like religion and politics, anything redolent of real power. Give a man (it's usually a man) some authority and an office and watch him grow to twice his size, especially in his own estimation.
The truth is that the world is lousy with hypocrites because we enable them in their hypocrisy. We are taught to uphold their traditional standards, without worrying if the leaders we pick actually embody them at all. That’s our own hypocrisy at work. It’s a dysfunctional feedback loop that never ends.
Does all the pious and imprisoning morality daily advocated by conservative politicians inevitably look for an outlet in some discreet debauchery? Or do the old white men who run centers of power like Washington think that morality is only for the little people and doesn't apply to titans like themselves?
Shakespeare suspected so, so in his darker moments does Pope Francis and so now do most of Washington D.C.
Recall too that the hypocrisy and hubris of Gingrich, Livingston and Hastert didn't end with the turn of the millennium. After them came a new cast of do-as-I-say-or-else showboats who led us into an unprecedented debacle that they insisted was the nation's only possible course. We are still paying the price for unquestioningly listening to them.
In Ireland last month the country finally gave it's verdict to its own do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do conservative establishment who had had the run of the place for decades. The tectonic shockwaves are still being felt worldwide.
America may be in a similar moment soon. We have learned over and over that the paternalistic and deeply exclusionary old men who have run America have quite forgotten what it’s like to actually live here. We have also learned they are not who they say they are, they are not even close.
Conservative Ireland didn't know what hit it last month. Conservative America may be due to experience a similar comet strike any day now.
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