America after Monica

Washington, D.C.    One of the first things that a visitor to this US capital city asks to see is the White House, the official residence of the US president.  Nowadays, he may also ask where the Oval Office is.

It is of course impossible to get a view of the narrow corridor where Monica Lewinsky made a name for herself.  But only the tourists, it seems, are still interested.  Washington is surprisingly quiet these days where it concerns the president and his private life.

In Capitol Hill itself, the home of the US Congress, what occupied the attention of congressmen in the past week was the budget.  On what was supposed to be the day of the final vote, I peeked into the session hall hoping to get a glimpse of the Republicans in action, and found only a handful of bored legislators going through the motions of lawmaking.  Clinton got his budget through without much trouble from the opposition Congress.

America is gearing up for the November 3 midterm elections, but none of the excitement is visible here in D.C.  This federal city, the seat of American power and glory, has no voting congressmen or senators to represent it.  Its highest elected official is the mayor, and incumbent Mayor Marion Barry Jr. is not seeking reelection.  The US Congress practically abolished his office after he was found to be administratively inept and morally unfit.  A board had been appointed to straighten out the city’s accounts, and today the man who reversed the financial problems of the city, a non-politician, is running for mayor virtually unopposed.

The real excitement, I am told, is to be found in the very few states like New York and North Carolina where the results can go either way. Out of the 435 congressional seats and one-third of the 100 senate seats being contested, up to 95% of the incumbents are expected to keep their seats. The Republicans control both houses of Congress, and in a midterm election, American voters tend to vote against the president’s party.  With Clinton’s personal troubles in the background, the odds are clearly against the Democrats.

The one thing going for the incumbent Democrats is that the economy has been good, and American voters, when they feel financially secure, tend to reward their officials with reelection.  The Asian financial crisis, with its possible repercussions on the US economy, seems farthest from the consciousness of the average American voter. Which is why, for all the shaming to which he has been publicly subjected, President Clinton enjoys a 62% job approval rating, the highest in his 6-year presidency.  He is as popular as Ronald Reagan was at the end of his first term, and more popular even than Eisenhower.  Curiously, most Americans also think he is not a good role model.

The Republicans have capitalized on the president’s private troubles by styling themselves as the party of moral and family values.  Nearly every political analyst I have heard says there are no other issues in this “high stakes, low-issues” election. The biggest fear of Democrats, as always, is that their members and supporters might stay home on election day, either because they feel no special urgency to vote or are demoralized by the president’s problems.  No more than 35% of US voters vote during elections, and this can go down to 25% in a midterm election.

Clinton himself has also not been as active on the campaign trail as he might have been without the Lewinsky issue. Over the weekend, he canceled a fund-raising appearance in California so that he could spend a few more days mediating between Benjamin Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat in an effort to resume the stalled peace process in the Middle East.  The Monica scandal seemed appropriately remote from the president’s mind as he sat down patiently to prevent the Palestinians and the Israelis from walking out on one another. Americans like seeing their leaders play such global and high-minded roles.  It is part of what they regard as the moral identity of their nation.

That moral identity is what Washington D.C. is all about.  Its secular monuments and memorials are the equivalent of the cathedrals, shrines and temples of other cultures.  At the Lincoln Memorial, I watched Americans young and old repeat the words of Lincoln on their lips as they followed his engraved speech in which he argued why it was worth going to war against the South to preserve a union free from slavery.  I saw the same thing at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorial.  No other nation has so perfected the art of monumental history.

To me, however, the most intriguing and impressive was the Vietnam War Memorial.  Most Americans now think it was wrong to have gone to war in Vietnam.  Thus a memorial to Americans who fought in that war could run the risk of celebrating an act of aggression, contrary to the ideals of freedom so eloquently celebrated in the other memorials. But what I found in the Vietnam memorial was a fascinating tribute to human dignity, to the complexity of human existence, and to the endless struggle to capture meaning from senseless war and death.

The memorial is a simple granite wall, tapered on both ends, symbolizing how the war escalated from a few incidents.  There is no celebration here but only remembrance.  No sense of victory nor defeat. The names of about 60,000 veterans, dead and missing, are etched on the black surface.  From a distance, one can see visitors’ faces and bodies reflected on the black wall carrying the names of those now dead.  It is a powerful vision.  Was it a just or an unjust war?  The memorial is silent; its sole purpose is to remember, not to judge.  If only for these, I thought, the American presidency will definitely survive Monica.


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