It was an unexpected moment: June 14, 2004, the unveiling of the official portraits of President Bill Clinton and the former first lady. Hundreds of Clinton loyalists had gathered in the East Room of the White House, anxious and uneasy in the presence of President Bush. Then the president turned to the Clintons, smiled warmly and (it seemed to me) authentically, and began: "President and Senator Clinton, welcome home." The reaction was spontaneous, a thunderous ovation that seemed to convert the negative feelings toward Bush into an outpouring of appreciation.
Bill Clinton replied: "The president by his generous words to Hillary and me today has proved once again that in the end we are held together by this grand system of ours that permits us to debate and struggle and fight for what we believe is right."
I must admit I felt a rush, a sense of awe and privilege that I had witnessed this brief moment in history when two successive presidents from different parties, with very different family backgrounds and political beliefs, had affirmed their mutual commitment to a politics of civil disagreement, not of personal destruction.
On reflection, I wondered how the cycle of scandal, attack and counterattack, this seemingly endless game of "gotcha" politics, started.
And more important, how do we stop it?
The bitter legacy of the 1960s and Watergate evolved over the last three decades of the 20th century into a scandal machine that progressively generated a level of viciousness and personal destructive power unlike anything seen in America before. The left and the right, Democrats as well as Republicans, all partisans on all sides—if we can be honest with each other for just a moment—share this much: sanctimony when it is the other guy getting the heat, outrage when it is your guy getting the heat, and enough hypocrisy to spread evenly across the spectrum in both parties.
There are no clean hands here, certainly not mine.
Not that there wasn't legitimate cause at times for investigations of criminal conduct. But the difference, especially in the 1990s, was the combined power of four new elements of scandal machinery that had never existed all at once before: the invention of the 24/7 cable news cycle; the power of the Internet and the misinformation echo chamber of Google and other search engines; the independent counsel, with unlimited budget and unaccountable power in search of crime; and the final evolution of hyper-partisanship and vitriol that led voices of hate and food-fight politics to dominate the body politic.
The American people are disgusted, and are telling both political parties: enough! Now the question is: Which leader from which party will bring the left and right together to join a broad center focused on solving problems rather than destroying the opposition?
Perhaps, just perhaps, people in the angry center will raise their voices so loud that they will give one or both of the 2008 presidential nominees the courage to step up. Perhaps one or both might just be able to ask us all, partisans on all sides, to sit back and think about what is best for the country and how we can end the gotcha political culture.
If they provide that leadership and if we as a nation can rediscover our common purpose and a willingness to sacrifice for the public good, then we can experience the vision of Thomas Macaulay in "Horatius":
Then none was for a party / Then all were for the state;
Then the great man helped the poor / And the poor man loved the great;
Then the lands were fairly portioned / Then the spoils were fairly sold:
The Romans were like brothers / In the brave days of old.
Lanny Davis is the author of Scandal: How "Gotcha" Politics Is Destroying America. A former special counsel to President Clinton, he is a partner in the law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe.
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