ROBERT BLY, the poet and one of the great owls of American society, saw this coming. In his 1996 book, "The Sibling Society," he observed a cultural transformation in which adults regress toward adolescence, and adolescents, seeing this, refuse to become adults. Respect for elders disappears. Our social and political leaders strive not to be good, or great, but to be famous.
And, even more to the point, Bly saw a society in which "every detail of a president's life is used to discredit him." Of the current commander-in-chief, Bly wrote: "President Clinton has his faults, but no other American president has been put in the stocks so soon and left there so long." Bly blames both the media and partisan politics for this. He quoted Adam Gopnik's New Yorker essay of December 1994: "In the past 20 years, the American press has undergone a transformation from an access culture to an aggression culture. ... Aggression has become a kind of abstract form, practiced in a void of ideas, or even ordinary sympathy." (Larry Flynt rules!)
Gopnik could have been describing the debate that took place in Congress over the weekend - aggression practiced in a void of ideas, or even ordinary sympathy.
To those who were appalled at the Democrats' attacks on Republican supporters of impeachment over the weekend, a couple of reminders: We saw "Impeach Clinton" bumper stickers on the day of his inauguration in 1993. A year later, a Washington Post survey found that 20 percent of Americans "hated" Clinton and his wife. It's not hyperbole to suggest that this infamous impeachment will stand as the perfect symbol of the general degradation of American culture as well as the fin de siecle sibling society Robert Bly describes. It's a whole bunch of nya-nya, we gotcha!
"One sad result of this habit of [sibling] envy and aggression," Bly added, "is the utter discouragement and bitterness of voters."
We're discouraged and bitter because we keep looking into the TV set for leadership and seeing little to none. We watched the impeachment debate and saw grown-ups regressing - or, worse, the adolescents who have been in Congress all along.
Instead of doing the grown-up thing - condemning the president, then moving on to the nation's more pressing business - they capped their long campaign to oust an appealing Democrat who dared to appropriate their ideas and neutralize their attacks with centrist policies.
That's how it looks out here, beyond the Capital Beltway and Washington's poisonous swamp gases.
I was as turned off by the Democratic assertion that Clinton's impeachment amounted to a coup d'etat as I was by all that Republican moralizing. I grew as tired of Barney Frank's wisecracks as I did of Tom DeLay's treacly sermons. But in the end, what do we have? Impeachment. Overkill. A mess. There's an explanation for why the public's feeling about Clinton has been so different from that of the elected Republican majority in Congress:
Out here beyond the Beltway, most people have grown up in the real world, not in the political culture. They seem to understand, from living life, that no one is perfect. Most people are capable of ordinary sympathy, even forgiveness. Most people know that we all need room to be wrong and stupid at times. Most of us will even accord that room to a sitting president. Most of us - even the many who did not vote for the guy - are offended at the amount of time and money spent investigating Clinton.
But, as of Saturday at 1:19 p.m., we had history, the first impeachment of an elected president - not for selling weapons to our enemies, or for accepting bribes, but for lying about a consensual, extramarital affair.
It almost makes me feel sorry for Clinton, the No. 1 adolescent in our class.
In "The Sibling Society," Robert Bly noted that in the time of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, journalists were careful not to record the president's physical disability; photographers did not show FDR being moved from car to wheelchair. "It wasn't an attempt to hide failings," Bly wrote, "but to give him some place of dignity in his leadership."
Did Bill Clinton deserve such a place? The man who trivialized the presidency by first answering the boxers-or-briefs question, then by having sex with an intern in the Oval Office?
Our first baby boomer president - our sibling chief executive - has long been motivated by the adolescent desire to be liked by everyone; if there are 100 people in the room and 99 love him, Clinton's the type to flush out the one who doesn't and convince him (or her) otherwise. And I've long suspected that the Oval Office sex grew out of Clinton's desire to emulate his hero, John F. Kennedy, to the point of absurdity.
He loves playing the game - overcoming adversity, being the Comeback Kid. Clinton equates martyrdom with leadership. That's why, I suspect, he hasn't resigned to spare his family further humiliation. His Saturday afternoon speech from the Rose Garden, Clinton's expression of defiance and determination, was classic. Adolescents are notoriously self-centered.
These are trying times, my fellow Americans - we're a culture adrift, in dire need of grown-ups to man the lines.
Pub Date: 12/21/98