I’m reading an excellent book by Shelby Steele: White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Betrayed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era. Written as scattered essays and articles, it doesn’t cohere like a single-purpose book, but it’s filled with fascinating nuggets about race relations in America.
For instance, Steele sets up this tantalizing parallel. Imagine that in 1958, President Eisenhower had been caught having an Oval Office fling with a female intern. Because sexual behavior was the dominant moral concern of that era, and because the public did not make a distinction between private and public behavior as concerns sex, Steele argues plausibly that Ike would have been forced to resign within days, crushed by condemnation from everywhere. (Imagine the response of Billy Graham.) Regardless of Eisenhower’s accomplishments as a leader in war and peace, he would have been seen as irredeemably tainted.
Steele then discusses rumors that Ike, like many people of his time, often used crude racial terms like the “N” word while golfing or enjoying cigars with his buddies. If the media had any proof of this, they never printed it. If they had printed it, few white Republican voters would have cared. A handful might have winced, but they would have seen the slurs as minor, private behavior that was incidental to Ike’s real work as president.
Fast forward to Bill Clinton and his fling with Lewinsky. By the 1990s, sexual morality had become largely a private matter, and what people did with their bodies and beds was considered off limits to public scrutiny. The nuclear family and the sanctity of wedding vows were nowhere near as important as in Ike’s day.
Everyone scolded Clinton. But several national polls showed that the majority of Americans did not want the president to resign or be impeached over this matter. Most people viewed the sex as incidental to his real work as president.
As everyone knows, Clinton survived the episode; today, he’s probably more respected than ever, despite disgracing himself and his family in front of the world.
But, Steele writes, what if Clinton had been caught, on tape or by reliable witnesses, using a string of N words, telling crude jokes about blacks?
Steele believes that Clinton would have been driven from office within days. Not only would he have offended a major voting bloc of the Democratic Party, but his moral authority would have disintegrated. He survived “that woman,” but Steele makes a good case that he would never have survived “that N____.”
Why? Because we have flip-flopped with 50’s morality. Our dominant moral concern today is race. Sex is private.
Theirs was sex. Race was private.
America today can tolerate a lecher in the White House, but not a racist.
Makes you think, doesn’t it?