From cowboys to the psychiatrist's couch

The Saturday Essay: Every nation needs its myths but the American ideal of rugged individualism is disintegrating
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The Independent Culture
The most significant insight in Kenneth Starr's report is not into American politics nor even President Clinton's character. The real revelation concerns the profound changes to American society since the 1960s, and the way in which Bill and Hillary Clinton awkwardly straddle a cultural schism.

The United States has become a nation of victims, from the Victim in Chief in the White House on down. We are witnessing the Oprahfication of the American presidency in a confessional culture which extends from the Oval Office to the tens of millions who watch their daily dose of don't-blame-me television courtesy of Oprah Winfrey and Jerry Springer. We are also witnessing all the cultural battles which characterised the formative years of Bill and Hillary Clinton in the 1960s - taking drugs, military service in Vietnam, sexual mores and the role of women - being fought out again in divided attitudes to the Clinton scandals.

The biographer of Bill Clinton's early years, David Maraniss, spotted a key clue on page 242 of the Starr report. In the middle of Mr Starr's lawyerly pornography, President Clinton is telling his staff that he has "done nothing wrong" over the Monica Lewinsky affair. Instead of being a sexual predator towards a young intern, by the President's account, it is he himself who is the victim of Ms Lewinsky. She "made a sexual demand", and was "known as a stalker". Poor, poor Bill Clinton. He is able to say no to the demands of Republicans in Congress, but falls victim to the demands of his unpaid volunteers.

Once you have recovered from the notion that Ms Lewinsky is the bunny- boiler played by Glenn Close in the movie Fatal Attraction, there follows an even more extraordinary insight into Bill Clinton from, naturally, Bill Clinton himself.

"I feel like somebody who is surrounded by an oppressive force that is creating a lie about me and I can't get the truth out," Mr Clinton tells an aide. The oppressive force is not an episode from The X-Files, but from a better class of fiction.

"I feel like the character in the Koestler novel Darkness at Noon," Mr Clinton says. The character, of course, is Rubashov, once a true believer now a victim of Stalinism waiting to be purged, ground to pieces by the system.

There are indeed elements of an oppressive force in Kenneth Starr's inquiries, which is why - so far - most Americans appear more disgusted by Mr Starr than disappointed in Mr Clinton. But the degree of self-pity from supposedly the most powerful man in the world, is revealing. Bill Clinton sees himself as a victim, like King Lear, a man more sinned against than sinning.

Monica Lewinsky is also a victim - either of Mr Clinton, or Mr Starr, or of a prurient political culture, or perhaps all of these. Depending on your political stance, the American people are victims too, either of a wicked president or, the polls currently suggest, of Starr's expensive and ludicrous crusade to bring Bill Clinton down.

The trouble is that America's new-found love of victimhood is eating away at what many of its citizens used to consider it meant to be an American. Every nation needs its myths, and the cowboy ideal of rugged individualism and self-reliance is disintegrating. In its place there is a new national image of John Wayne, or Bill Clinton, on the psychiatrist's couch claiming that nobody understands him any more. President Harry S Truman had a sign on his desk proclaiming "The Buck Stops Here". Bill Clinton, characterised by one of his Arkansas woman friends as someone suffering from a "sexual addiction", more properly should have the motto of the nation of victims on his desk: "It's Not My Fault - Don't Blame Me".

As Mr Clinton put it in his speech asking - nay, demanding - forgiveness from the clergy at a Washington prayer breakfast: "I have been on quite a journey these last few weeks to get to the rock bottom truth of where I am and where we all are". American voters are embarked not merely on a moral, legal and political journey which could end with the impeachment of a President, they are also passengers on Victim Bill's rollercoaster ride to find himself. The Clinton years, which began as a promise to bring change from the "brain-dead politics of the past", are about to end in the psychobabble of a 12-step addiction recovery programme.

It is a cliche to say that Western culture is now in a post-heroic age. We raise up heroes only to humiliate and debunk them later, and political heroes - with the possible exception of Nelson Mandela and Aung Sang Suu Kyi - simply do not exist. But the culture of victims, the habit of blaming others for our misfortunes, has spread like a rash through the United States, and is undoubtedly coming to Britain if it has not already arrived.

Charles Sykes, in his book Nation of Victims, delivers dozens of examples. He writes of an FBI agent who embezzled $2,000 and blew the money in an afternoon gambling at Atlantic City. He was reinstated at work after a court ruled his gambling was a "handicap". In Philadelphia, a school district employee was fired after being consistently late. The employee sued, claiming he was a victim of "chronic lateness syndrome". Then there was the convicted murderer who argued he was the "victim" of foetal alcohol syndrome. (Your mother drinks so it's okay to kill people?)

In this victim-cherishing society, the most powerful man in the world claiming he is really Rubashov in a jail cell is not so hard to understand. But there is one variant of victim culture which applies most especially to the Clinton presidency. It was first noticed by the art critic Robert Hughes, and it angers Americans most of all. Hughes calls it "linguistic Lourdes". It is a kind of verbal political correctness which hopes that all pain is healed by softening words to change their meaning.

In linguistic Lourdes, workers are "downsized" or "rightsized", when everyone knows they were fired. People who were once "handicapped" are now "challenged", though their problems remain the same. Bill Clinton, of course, has been drinking the waters of linguistic Lourdes for years. He "avoided" the Vietnam draft but did not "dodge it". He managed to smoke marijuana without inhaling it, and he even had an "inappropriate" relationship with Monica Lewinsky which only recently has become "wrong". It is hardly surprising that Mr Clinton can manage a Kama Sutra of the mind by having oral sex yet claim under oath that it was not really sex after all. In linguistic Lourdes that is not perjury. He was merely being "legally accurate", as opposed to telling the truth.

The president obviously runs a huge risk if he continues with these nonsensical legalistic evasions because they remind Americans precisely why they always had such mixed feelings about the man once nicknamed "Slick Willie".

Despite his personal charisma and the obvious wealth of the richest nation in history, many Americans sense that their country has gone seriously wrong in the 1990s, and that President Clinton's dishonesty is a symptom of a wider rottenness. A study conducted by the Centre for National Policy in April 1996 concluded that Americans were unnerved by the widespread feeling that America is "rudderless" and that people no longer know what America "stands for". The sense was that "the rules (of the) American way of life had broken down".

In another study, Daniel Yankelovich found Americans had a deep sense of moral decay and "a sickness in the very soul of society to which they cannot give a name". Yankelovich suggested that this sickness meant the wonderful optimism which Europeans regard as a basic American characteristic had been replaced by "American cynicism, resignation and shoulder shrugging". Those words - cynicism, resignation and shoulder shrugging - prophetically sum up the attitude of many Americans now to the current Clinton scandals.

Americans are cynical about the motives behind the Starr inquiry, resigned to the prospect that the abject political torture of the president will continue, and they shrug their shoulders about the Faustian compact they made when they elected the charismatic but slick Bill Clinton in the first place.

The election of 1992 marked a cultural as well as political watershed. The torch passed to the first president whose formative years were rooted in the 1960s, not in the Second World War. To some Americans, Bill and Hillary were representatives of the "Bad Generation" which lost or refused to fight in Vietnam, as opposed to the "Good Generation" of George Bush and Bob Dole which won a glorious war against Nazism and then contained Communism. Bill Clinton did not fight in uniform as his father had done and Hillary pointedly reminded people she refused to stay home, have teas and bake cookies as her mother had done.

Gary Aldrich, an FBI agent in the White House, published a scathing attack on this new generation of bureaucrats in the Clinton administration in a book entitled Unlimited Access. Aldrich noted that unlike the military types at the heart of the Reagan-Bush years, the Clinton people were scruffy, long-haired and undisciplined. Some men wore earrings, women wore short skirts, and at least one woman wore no underwear. Mr Aldrich, perhaps as a result of his underwear inspections, formed the impression that the godless hippies from the Sixties had taken over America. This was confirmed by another agent who explained who the Clinton people really were by chanting one of the anthems of the 1960s anti-war protests.

"Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, the Viet Cong are going to win. That's who they are, Gary. They're the people we used to arrest."

The idea that Clinton associates are really counter-culture criminals might seem laughable, but it is precisely at the core of the campaign by the most virulent Clinton-haters to unseat him. Right-wing critics during his 1996 re-election campaign handed out posters insisting that a "Vote for Bill Clinton is a vote against God". Americans are now witnessing not just the unravelling of the Clinton presidency, but also the climax of the cultural battles begun more than 30 years ago.

To their detractors, the Clintons are people who do not see drug-taking or adultery as especially wrong, they have no real moral sense and they make up their ethical stance to fit each new situation. Ken Starr needs to lock them up before they do any more damage. But to their supporters the Clintons typify the liberation of 1960s culture - compassion, civil rights, coupled with a genuine belief in community activism and in a stronger role for women in public life and the home. It is the Clinton enemies who are hypocrites and bigots.

In the middle of the wreckage of this cultural and political war, there is one figure who emerges with credit, Hillary Clinton herself. More than anyone, Hillary could claim to be the "victim" of her husband's affairs and of the Starr inquiry, yet she resists victimhood so powerfully that if there is any American who can reclaim the mantle of the heroic cowboy myth it is now the First Lady.

Hillary remains the woman who's gotta do what she's gotta do. She is anything but a victim in her attitudes. She does not whine. Nor does she speak in the mealy-mouthed jargon of linguistic Lourdes. Somehow you suspect Hillary knows that oral sex is really sex. Hillary therefore remains a role model for many young American women trying to cope with careers, private lives, and the sometimes dismal behaviour of the men to whom they are attached. If there is anyone who can get John Wayne, Bill Clinton, and the rest of America off the psychiatrist's couch, it must be Hillary. Unless, of course, Ken Starr has some solid evidence on which to indict her.

Gavin Esler is a presenter of BBC News24