Managing Outrage

Washington Times  10.06.98
Balint Vazsonyi

No disrespect to the one and only William Bennett, but rumors about the death of outrage may have been somewhat premature.

The nation exhibited a generous dose of outrage between January 21 and 26, when news of Mr. Clinton's latest abuses first surfaced. Again, in the days following Mr. Clinton's performance of "Fingerwagging 2" on August 17, there was outrage aplenty.

What we have been witnessing subsequent to these bursts of natural reaction is the masterful management of public sentiment. The process requires unrelenting focus on the final goal, a rich arsenal of tools, and the coordination of action teams that complement one another. Those who have a vested interest to keep this president in office have got all three at their disposal.

Beginning with the last, the variety of teams is truly impressive. There is Team Academia, providing erudite explanations that lend the appearance of scholarship to crude political agitation. Then there is Team Hollywood providing the glitz of stars and starlets pontificating as if they were all constitutional experts and great humanitarians. They, of course, are interviewed by Team Journalism consisting increasingly of members with little training in journalism, but with extensive schooling in stacking the deck against those they consider "the enemy." Finally, there are the front-line troops who combine the zeal of missionaries with the ethics of mercenaries.

Truth be told, even the front-line troops were silenced by the first gust of outrage in January. Mr. Carville found his voice by Sunday, but it fell to Mrs. Clinton to issue instructions and show the way on NBC's Today after her husband's memorable performance of "Fingerwagging 1." Soon, the nation was in the grips of a kind of reverse outrage - directed against the president's detractors, causing those apparently inexplicable polling results. Given that the president has done next to nothing for some time, his "job approval" numbers in reality reflect the success of his team in managing outrage.

Round Two was a different story altogether. The outrage could no longer be contained by the standard litany of denial. The perpetrator himself admitted wrongdoing in prime time. The televised audacity of the offender literally took everyone's breath away. Extraordinary measures were required. Last reserves had to be deployed.

With regard to method, the emergency called for an instant release of tensions that had built up to a point where the most dependable socialists on television and on Capitol Hill were about to jump ship. With regard to personality, all hopes had to be pinned on someone untarnished by the wholesale fraud of the previous months, and enjoying universal esteem.

President and Mrs. Clinton have a rather limited supply of such personalities.

For reasons presumably to be debated over some time to come, Senator Joseph Lieberman obliged. His much-quoted speech on the floor of the U. S. Senate served as the safety valve. Much of the tension was instantly dissipated.

Was it a great speech, or was it merely the continued management of outrage?

Even immigrants from Hungary know all about Yogi Berra. He said, among other things, "When you come to a fork in the road - take it!"

At the end of his impassioned speech about the moral turpitude of our highest official, Senator Lieberman arrived at the point where the chips were down. He had to convert his beliefs into a call for action, or concede that he didn't mean any of it. In his role as "The Conscience of the Senate," Mr. Lieberman arrived at the fork of the road.

He took it.

Thus ended the brief period during which our national motto became "In Joe We Trust." And thus we experienced the return to business as usual. Some of the president's men were withdrawn, others deployed, but the teams took up their assigned positions once again. As Representative Maxine Waters reminds us every chance she gets, everyone and everything is on trial, except the president.

I have yet to speak of the arsenal of tools, or the unrelenting focus on the final goal. The enviable array of tools includes the seemingly inexhaustible wellspring of words. Who comes up with gems such as "Sexual McCarthyism"? And who communicates these to every potential guest of talking head shows, so that within 24 hours coordination is flawless? One will never know, one can only admire perfection from afar. Frank Sinatra became suspicious at the sight of everyone mechanically repeating the identical phrase in "The Manchurian Candidate," but Frank is no longer with us.

So what is this final goal upon which focus is unrelenting? What is this end that justifies literally any and all means? What is the purpose that will cause men and women to throw logic, ethics, morality, decency to the wind?

That is the question we must ask over and over, again and again, until the nation gets an answer.