August 19, 1998

Seeing 'Private Ryan'

By Robert Parry

At the end of Steven Spielberg's World War II epic, "Saving Private Ryan," an elderly Ryan returns to Normandy.

Ryan hobbles amid the grave markers of soldiers who died on the beach and those who died trying to save him. The old man turns to his wife and seeks reassurance that he has been a "good man," that he has led a life good enough to justify the awesome sacrifice of the men in the cemetery.

More than half a century after the United States led the alliance that defeated Adolf Hitler and his fascist underlings, Ryan's question is one that should be asked by all Americans, especially those entrusted to safeguard the democratic principles that the soldiers at Normandy and hundreds of other battlegrounds fought to protect.

Spielberg's movie comes at a moment when the political institutions of Washington and the news media are threatening to trivialize democracy beyond recognition.

For nearly six years, as part of a strategic political plan, conservatives have mounted a series of investigations of President Clinton, often over petty topics. This conservative scheme also looks to the future, with the hope of depressing voter turnout in November so the Republicans can gain more seats in Congress.

National journalists have aided and abetted this operation, especially this year with endless reporting and commentary about Clinton's sex life. The journalists justify the obsessive coverage with the explanation that the salacious stories boost TV ratings and newsstand sales. There's no longer even a pretense of serving some larger public good.

Despite this supposed prurient interest, many Americans have expressed outrage over the saturation coverage. Some have resorted to creative popular resistance. One woman organized a drive to mail dirty laundry, preferably in blue, to the office of conservative special prosecutor Kenneth Starr. The woman announced this "mail-in" despite an imperial warning from Starr's aides that any criticism of their boss might constitute obstruction of justice.

Clinton's Actions

All of this is not to say that President Clinton should not ask himself Private Ryan's heartfelt question, too. Clinton's dalliance with Monica Lewinsky -- whatever the details -- showed wretched judgment and a troubling lack of self-restraint. Clinton had already experienced the Gennifer Flowers episode, the "Troopergate" allegations and the Paula Jones suit. Whether fair or not, those precedents should have made abundantly clear how low his enemies would go to sink his presidency.

Lewinsky was an emotionally unstable young woman -- one who went to Washington with the intent of earning her "presidential knee-pads," who boasted about saving a semen-stained dress as a love trophy and who shipped the soiled garment to her mother for safekeeping.

To put the fate of the nation and the welfare of his family at risk in this way was irresponsible at best. Clinton's handling of the scandal has made matters worse. Clinton's dissembling has turned reporters who, last January, rushed out the uncorroborated claims about a semen-stained dress into this era's Woodward-and-Bernsteins.

Still, there have been heroes in this sorry saga: the American people. As they have done through so many national crises, the American people have demonstrated respect for fair play and common sense. Poll after poll found large majorities disgusted by the scandal and holding Clinton's accusers -- Starr, Lewinsky, the Washington media, etc. -- in lower regard than the wayward president.

As in "Saving Private Ryan," this uncommon decency in common people may be the redeeming element of a tawdry spectacle. If there is a positive that derives from the negative, it might be that the American people will judge that enough is enough, that their democratic will should not be thwarted, that the judgment of the elite media and the other power centers of Washington should not be trusted.

It also might be time for the careerists in national journalism -- as well as the clever operatives in the political world -- to pose their own version of Private Ryan's question: Have they been good enough to honor the sacrifice of the many men and women who have fallen in the noble cause of democracy?

Copyright (c) 1998

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