Fearful Symmetry

Steven Hayward

August 1, 1998

If there is one thing that terrifies the Clintons and sends his spinners into hyperdrive, it is the comparison to Richard Nixon and Watergate. The possibility that Clinton might have to make his own “Checkers speech” has deepened the inevitable comparison between Slick Willie and Tricky Dick. But even if Clinton has lied, the spinners harumph, it is simply not comparable to the magnitude of Watergate.

They might be right, but there is another comparison that is much more apt than Watergate, and it still involves Nixon. Amazingly for all the nonstop media coverage of the last week, no one has yet observed that this week marks the 50th anniversary of the moment that Whittaker Chambers first testified to the House Un-American Activities Committee that Alger Hiss was a Communist. Hiss was firm in his denials of the charge. Freshman Congressman Richard Nixon was practically alone on the Committee in disbelieving the illustrious Hiss.

What followed, of course, was a perjury case, and this is where the “fearful symmetry,” to borrow Blake’s great phrase, begins. Hiss thought there was no evidence that could possibly back up Chambers’ charge, so he thought the case would dissolve into a “he said-he said” controversy, just as the President’s allegedly illicit relationship was supposed to dissolve into a “he said-she said” standoff. But unfortunately for Hiss, as for Clinton, there was other circumstantial evidence. For Hiss, it was microfilm documents and a typewriter; for Clinton it is a series of gifts and a dress. And perhaps the most ominous symmetry is that Hiss was ultimately indicted after he voluntarily appeared, against the advice of counsel, before the grand jury investigating the matter. Hiss’s denials were unconvincing.

There was more to the story than the facts of the case, however. There was the immense asymmetry between the stature of accuser and accused, just as there is today. The evidence of Hiss’s guilt was irrelevant to a certain cast of liberal mind that embraced Hiss precisely because he was on the side of the progressive angels, even if he had been misguided in choosing to have followed the fallen angel of Soviet Communism. Hiss became the victim-hero, and remained so even after the last shred of doubt about this guilt vanished. This outraged sense of “a good man wronged” fueled the resentment of liberals toward anti-Communism in general and Nixon in particular.

The celebration of Hiss came to mind as the scene of Clinton partying in the Hamptons played itself out over the weekend. Clinton is even more a hero to the cultural left at this moment precisely because the charges against him may be true. For the cultural left (i.e., nearly all of Hollywood and much of the elite media), contempt for middle class values is the chief posture by which they express their superiority over the great unwashed. If Clinton can successfully flout the nation’s middle class standards of fidelity and veracity, he will become to the cultural left an even greater icon than if he had succeeded in nationalizing health care. If he must leave office, he will become the hero-victim of the left for the next generation.

There are limits to this comparison, of course. Monica’s inevitable memoir should be titled Witless.

Steven Hayward is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.