Surely 1998 will not go down in the annals of American history as a year ennobling for the president, productive for the Congress, or triumphant for the press. To the extent that the health of our democracy depends on the good judgement, restraint, and public regardingness of political elites, the year was downright depressing. Fortunately, the other key actor in the polity—the citizenry—stepped into the void when no responsible adults were to be found in Washington. Expressing themselves initially through the much maligned polls and eventually in the November elections, they (as someone clever noted) turned James Madison on his head. Rather than the mob whose passions had to be cooled by their more deliberate leaders, the public refined and enlarged the views of the Washington community and, in so doing, provided some much-needed perspective and incentives for politicians to refocus their at tention on matters of genuine importance to the country.
Until news first broke in January of the president’s sexual relationship with a former White House intern and of the investigation by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr of possible perjury and obstruction of justice in the civil suit brought against the president by Paula Jones, the year had already shown signs of promise, in spite of the lame-duck status of the president. With federal budget deficits rapidly turning into surpluses, the president seemed well positioned to rally his party behind government initiatives on tobacco, education, and health and to begin a national conversation on how best to ensure the long-term financial stability of Social Security.
Free speech shouldn’t be a partisan issue, but it has been drawn into the larger dynamics of polarization in this country.