Annie Murphy Paul


When the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal is over and done with (oh, let it be over and done with!), we’ll no doubt be left with a few lasting if shabby remnants: we’ll think twice before we share the details of an affair with an apparently trustworthy friend. We’ll make sure our extramarital amours launder their clothes. We’ll never look at a cigar in quite the same way.

And, perhaps, we’ll think about the emotion of outrage a bit differently. Outrage has taken a star turn in this scandal, basking in its sweaty spotlight, speaking for sound bites and posing for photo-ops. Everyone, it seems, is talking about outrage, spinning it, polling it, analyzing it, deflecting it.

Or even demanding more of it. According to William Bennett, national scold and author of The Death of Outrage (Simon & Schuster, 1998), the public’s collective shrug over Clinton’s sins demonstrates that a “morally exhausted” U.S. is no longer capable of feeling righteous indignation.

But a glance at the newspapers quickly proves Bennett wrong: American outrage is in full flower, though not, perhaps, where he’s tried to plant it. Widespread revulsion greeted the story of James Byrd, a black man dragged to death behind a pickup in Jasper, Texas. Universal loathing has been directed at David T. Cash Jr., who ignored his friend’s assault and killing of seven-year-old Sherrice Iverson in a Primm, Nevada, casino. And fury over the fatal beating of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming, has led to candlelight vigils across the country and a 4,000-person march through the streets of New York City To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of outrage’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

Outrage also lives on in the public’s reaction to the Clinton-Lewinsky matter. Here, however, we trade the crystalline purity of outrage felt on behalf of the weak for a motive that’s distinctly muddier. This outrage is full of irony and paradox, of incongruities and inconsistencies. Its aim is scatter-shot, triggered by the violation of laws and the violation of privacy, by the betrayal of marriage and the betrayal of friendship, by the partisan excess of outrage and the public lack of it. And its ends are varied: it leads some to line up at the polls, and others to stay at home; it makes some tune in for the details, while others tune out in disgust.

Though our outrage undoubtedly tells us something about ourselves, it’s not clear just what that something is. When we give credence, or at least air time, to the outrage of a moral crusader, does that mean that we value virtue and integrity–or that we reward showmanship and self-promotion? When we express outrage at the media even as we avidly watch, when we denounce Clinton’s actions even as we maintain his approval rating, have outrage and apathy become this scandal’s strangest bedfellows?

The very vehemence of outrage makes it a warped mirror, a roiling reflection of our values, exposing our contradictions as often as our convictions. To name a few:

There’s too little outrage. Bennett has been joined in his complaints by leaders of the religious right like James Dobson of the organization Focus on the Family, who writes that “the willingness of my fellow citizens to rationalize the President’s behavior” means that “our greatest problem is not in the Oval Office. It is with the people of this land.” And before Bennett and Dobson, there was Bob Dole, who wandered through the 1996 Presidential campaign wondering, “Where is the outrage?” Its scarcity, they say, signals a dangerous slide into moral laxity.

There’s too much outrage. It was just a year or two ago that “civility” in public discourse was all the rage among America’s pundits and pointy-heads. More recently, linguist Deborah Tannen’s book The Argument Culture (Random House, 1998) has observed that we can’t have a public conversation anymore without each side becoming outraged on its own behalf. This reflexive animosity, the author maintains, trivializes the issues under discussion and precludes negotiation and compromise.

Those who are outraged are pure. Moral purity is the new prerequisite for outrage, it seems: get too indignant over someone else’s sins, and you may have your own outed by vengeful opponents or a scandal-hungry media, and get called a hypocrite to boot (see politicians Henry Hyde, Helen Chenoweth and Dan Burton, whose own sexual peccadilloes have been exposed). Those who live in concrete bunkers are the only ones allowed to throw stones these days.

Those who are outraged are prurient. More than one observer of the outrage over Clinton’s indiscretions has detected in it a certain sexual frisson. Response to Independent Counsel Ken Starr’s report to Congress, in particular, seemed equal parts outrage and arousal, with each reaction feeding off the other. In this view, indignation might be merely a convenient cover for titillation, or it might be something more deviously Freudian: the expression of sublimated sexual desire.

Outrage is for real. An eruption of outrage is often reported in the slightly awed tones used to describe a force of nature: as a rising tide or howling wind of emotion that can’t be controlled but only allowed to run its course. Those who cower before outrage’s terrible thunder are convinced that we can’t feign it, or subdue it, any more than we can whip up a tornado or tame a hurricane.

Outrage is for show. Of course, there are those who have harnessed the power of outrage for their own ends, whose outrage is at their beck and call. Congressmen making floor speeches, White House staffers manufacturing spin, lawyers for both sides pleading their case–all use outrage as an elevated platform for oratory. The highly theatrical (and potentially manipulative) properties of outrage were never on more ostentatious display than in Clinton’s steely-eyed declaration: “I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me. I did not have sexual relations with that woman–Miss Lewinsky.” (The wagging finger was an inspired touch.)

Outrage is naive. There are those who see something juvenile or immature in outrage, something of the child’s eternal lament: “But that’s not fair!” Did you really think that every man was faithful to his wife? ask the world-weary. Do you really think the President should be a moral leader as well as a political one? For some reason, this clash of codes is inevitably cast as the New World versus the Old, the American Puritan versus the European Sybarite (though the Germans and the French are full of outrage over the investigation’s intrusions into the President’s private life).

Outrage is cynical. Artlessly earnest though it may sometimes be, outrage can also be utterly calculated in its intent and effect. Its sly strength lies in its ability to assume the high ground–the perfect spot from which to launch an attack.

Outrage has to come from within. Though in public outrage often clamors and carries on, in private it speaks in a small, still voice, according to those who believe that outrage emerges from a reckoning with one’s own conscience. The conviction that everyone is entitled to their own opinion about the Clinton-Lewinsky affair is evident in the constant polling it has inspired. What do you think? ask the pollsters. And you, and you?

Outrage can be imposed from without. Leaders of the religious right see the matter quite differently: those who don’t adopt the appropriate attitude can and should be shamed into it by their moral betters. To them, outrage isn’t a private choice but a public responsibility, like voting or recycling or giving blood. It’s their duty to lead you to the light, and your shame if you choose to close your eyes.

Though resentment at being told how to feel has helped spur a backlash against Republicans, goading others into outrage has a long, proud history. Think of Thomas Paine, whose pamphlet aroused outrage among the colonists over taxation without representation, or of America’s abolitionists, who encouraged their audiences to feel outrage over slavery. Whether today’s champions of outrage are heirs to this honorable tradition depends on two questions: Is their own outrage genuine? And is the Clinton-Lewinsky affair a worthy object of wrath?

We should all be outraged at the same things. Clinton’s actions offend me, so they ought to offend you, and if not, then we must be witnessing the decline of civilization–or so goes this line of thought. Those who would make outrage uniform presume a universal moral boiling point, an exact temperature that is the same the world over. And if water should stand still at 100 [degrees] C, what else can that mean but the end of the world?

We are all outraged by different things. The long, complicated and compulsively documented Clinton-Lewinsky scandal has offered ample occasions for outrage, allowing each of us to choose our moment (see box, right). In place of the precise universals of physics, this event has offered us the endless variety of zoology, each creature more baroque and bizarre than the next.

Outrage is in your face. These days, we tend to judge the authenticity of outrage by its decibel level. If it doesn’t foam at the mouth and burst at the seams, then it isn’t outrage–mere anger, perhaps, or extreme irritation, and much less telegenic. So the slow smolder of outrage is fanned into a three-alarm fire, the better to make the morning paper or the six o’clock news.

Outrage is in your heart. This spectacle of smoke and flame may make us forget that outrage can burn with a quiet intensity, and be all the more effective for its restraint. It’s easy to mistake the outward expression of outrage for its inward experience, and in so doing diminish its power to remind us of what matters. The petty indignities and partisan point-scoring of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal have led many to cry outrage too often and too casually. If the word itself has lost its weight, I’d say that’s an outrage.


A survey of PT’s offices uncovered universal outrage over the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, but no consensus on just what is outrageous about it. Some of our outrage flashpoints:

* “I remember the morning that CNN was scheduled to broadcast the tape of Clinton’s grand jury testimony. What outraged me was not the tape itself, but the lather that the media worked themselves into over it. They showed a picture of the guys in the control room, cueing up the tape, as though that were a story. And that’s when I thought, `This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen.'”

* “I was outraged when I read that Starr had known about Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky early on and set out to trap him in his testimony for the Paula Jones case. Starr was out to get Clinton from the very beginning.”

* “I was most outraged when I learned that Linda Tripp had taped her conversations with Monica. Tripp acted like a friend and even a mother to Monica, got Monica to trust her, and then broke that trust. She was only thinking about herself. It’s terrible to do that to somebody for your own gain.”

* “I was outraged that after denying over and over that he had an affair with Gennifer Flowers, Clinton casually admitted during his deposition for the Paula Jones case that he had, in fact, had sex with her. He made a big deal about it and got people to believe him, and all along he was lying.”

* “I was outraged when I read about Lucianne Goldberg’s plan to turn this whole thing into a book. She was willing to ruin other people’s lives, just to get the ultimate scoop. And she was so proud of herself.”

* “I was pissed off that Clinton expected us to buy his carefully worded answers and agree that what he did with Monica wasn’t sex. I would have been much happier if he had said, `Yeah, I did it, it was a mistake,’ than for him to claim that what he did wasn’t sex and expect the American people to agree with him. That’s insulting.”

* “I was outraged when I heard Linda Tripp say at her news conference that the reason she taped Monica was to protect herself. That doesn’t sit well with me, to do something sleazy and then say, Well, I had to do it.”

* “Somehow, I didn’t feel much outrage over this whole thing until I found out that Start had consulted with Paula Jones’s lawyers and failed to disclose that to the Attorney General. All the other things that happened seemed like ordinary human mistakes. But Starr was acting in deliberate bad faith.”

* “I lost it during Clinton’s speech to the nation in August. He admitted that he had lied, but he said it with no contrition, with no change in his demeanor that would suggest that he was telling the truth this time. He gave me no reason to believe him.”

* “What really upset me was when they put the Starr Report on the Internet without giving anyone a chance to take a breather. How dare they deny Clinton the courtesy of letting him read it first! I was like a maniac. I was throwing things at the TV.”

ANNIE MURPHY PAUL knew it was time to analyze outrage when the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal prompted an outpouring of the hotheaded emotion (page 32). Despite William Bennett’s recent book heralding The Death of Outrage, the wagging fingers of conservative politicians–and angry backlash from left-wingers–provided Paul with ample fodder for arguing that outrage is, in fact, alive and well. “People like Bennett act as though outrage is something that’s straightforward and simple,” she says, “when it’s an emotion that’s actually much more complicated.” PT’s Senior Editor, Paul reported on the troubles in Northern Ireland for the December issue. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

COPYRIGHT 1999 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group