The ongoing crisis:
"Fuzzy-wuzzy was a bear. Fuzzy-wuzzy had a penis! HAHAHAHA!"
A fifth grader of our acquaintance came up with that, and it must be admitted that it was a screaming success with its intended audience-- his grade-school brothers. It followed, after all, Rule One of fifth grade humor: "Include the word penis." But by college age, or at least the late forties, one is expected to have developed a bit more sophistication.
But the week's latest scandal-- Clinton's alleged affair with a young intern, Monica Lewinsky-- is nothing but fifth-grade titillation indulged in on a national scale. Clinton's presidency is said to be in danger. I am amazed at this; but not, as you will see, speechless.
The punditocracy is shocked, shocked, to hear that a politican may have had sex with a young woman. The President's defenders fall silent. Accusations of financial wrongdoing, abuse of FBI files, campaign finance irregularities, and poll-driven whipsawing hardly faze them; but sex-- now sex, it seems, is enough to bring down the Presidency.
Have I missed something here? Lewinsky, at the time of the alleged affair, was an adult. She is not accusing Clinton of sexual harrassment or rape; the relationship was consensual. If the rumors are true, all she suffered at the hands of Clinton was the shabby but hardly inexplicable refusal to continue or deepen the relationship. She is not (his) victim; she didn't even bring it up to anyone but a "friend". What is the problem? Why isn't this between her and Clinton; and of course between Clinton and his wife?
Oh, but adultery is a "character issue", don't you know? Really? That would have eliminated John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Warren Harding, Woodrow Wilson, and Grover Cleveland, at the least, from the Presidency.
You Republicans are inclined to gloat, perhaps? Well, if you accept the evidence so far used against Clinton-- scurrilous, unproven accusations mounted by political opponents-- then Ronald Reagan and George Bush are also adulterers, unfit for the Presidency, and so was Thomas Jefferson. And if adultery is a "character issue", what about divorce? That neatly gets rid of Reagan, Bob Dole, and Newt Gingrich. How about premarital sex? That gets rid of Pat Robertson- good riddance-- and Reagan again.
The most disturbing aspect of this whole affair, in fact, is the deep scurrilousness with which Clinton was ambushed. Lewinsky was taped talking to a "friend", on the advice of a long-time Republican political operative, Lucianne Goldberg. Naturally the taping was without Lewinsky's consent, and therefore illegal. The "friend" then betrayed Lewinsky by giving the tapes to the Fourth Branch-- the prosecutor hired seven years ago to track down irregularities in Arkansas banking (as if that was the only place there was any), and who has since turned his office into a permanent, state-supported investigation into anything that can be dug up against the White House, and on the side does the anti-Clinton speech circuit.
Now Lewinsky is negotiating for immunity from prosecution. For what exactly? Even according to the rumors she didn't have intercourse with Clinton. No matter; the media and the trash-diggers are going to spent the next few months screwing her senseless. She's going to be the center of a media circus; her private life is going to be-- is already being-- dug up for public consumption; a Presidential scandal is going to be given her name. Her reputation and her future will be trashed-- and for what? So a clique of far-right sleazeballs can try to bag a President. And get President Gore instead.
I almost hope they succeed. It's what they deserve; Gore is a man who doesn't seem to know what sin is.
The media class knows what sin is-- it's the stuff that sells papers-- but they obviously have no deeper insight into it than the fifth graders. The fifth graders giggle uncontrollably when they hear the word penis; the pundits go into shock (or should I say, into schlock?) when they hear the word sex.
People, get a grip. Richard Nixon was thrown out of the Presidency for burglarizing and wiretapping the Democratic Party, burglarizing a doctor's office in search of smear material against a political opponent, using the IRS, the CIA, and the FBI to harass political opponents; and covering up their involvement in these operations-- paying hush money, obstructing the legal investigation, and lying to Congress and the American people.
So the idea now is to throw Bill Clinton out of office for, uh, what? Having hanky-panky with a consenting adult.
Now, no one can exactly approve of this; but there is simply no gain in giving into the usual American confusion of law with morality, and morality with sex.
Will the moral climate somehow improve if Clinton is kicked out of office? Don't be naive. All that will happen is the strengthening of the current climate of permanent political mud-slinging. Do the Republican operatives who are so fond of this tactic really think that it's all going to stop if they get one of their own men into the office? What they reap, they shall also sow.
Would it represent some sort of social reprimand for adultery? Get serious. Discussions of the President's sex life, legal inspections of the President's genitalia, and news reports on the "semen-stained gown" can only have the same effect cultural conservatives blame on the movies: an increase in the prominence and the profitability of sex in the media. The Christian Right has helped bring a level of nastiness to the evening news that the NEA couldn't dream of.
Christians may respond that adultery is after all a sin. Yes it is; and Christ told the crowd who had caught an adulterer, "He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone." That crowd at least had the decency to slowly slink away.
It is not a concern for sin that motivates the modern mob-- only a fifth-grade titillation over bodily functions. A Christian concern for sin does not mean revelling in other people's sexual misdemeanors. It means concern with our own sins, coupled with concern for the sufferings of others. Too many Christians today have inverted Christ's teachings. They blithely ignore the suffering of God's children and teach that Jesus-- homeless when he was on earth and cautious in assessing a rich man's chances of entering the kingdom of heaven-- rewards his followers with "prosperity." They spend little time thinking about their own sins, and much time worrying about those of others--homosexuals, immigrants, artists, journalists, poor people, pregnant women, television characters, and Democrats.
Now that's a profoundly immoral spectacle.
For the curious: Waterbraguette is one of the cute names the French media have come up with for the scandal. A braguette is a pants fly.
A correspondent points out that I didn't mention the perjury issue above. However, the media frenzy hasn't been about perjury; it's been about sex. I can't make much of the proposition that the alleged adultery is no problem, but the alleged lying about it is unforgivable. You can make a better case that you should lie about things that are none of the prosecutor's damn business.
And again, what about Lewinsky? Is she supposed to fall on her own sword to keep Ken Starr's job going? If the law requires trashing this young woman further and treating her as a criminal, it's bad law.
Update (23 July): Rationality hasn't yet set in-- no one has yet explained why Monica Lewinsky should be legally harassed and media-whipped over this, and politicians have not renounced the smear campaign or thought through what will happen when their tactics are turned on them. But it turns out that Americans as a whole were wiser than I gave them credit for. When the media realized this, it calmed down considerably.
It's an open bet at this point whether the institution of the Special Prosecutor will remain as one more source of gridlock and malice in our public life, or whether the pointlessness of this scandal and the totalitarian abuses of Ken Starr will serve to kill it off.
Was it another Watergate? Only in the Marxian sense: history repeats itself the second time as farce.
18 August. OK, you can take a couple of the "alleged"s out. Other than that, I can't see that Clinton's speech changes anything. Snicker at him if you like-- he deserves that. But every attempt to do more than that has done more harm than good.
18 Sep.. So it turns out that Henry Hyde, chairman of the committee which will be conducting the kangaroo court against Clinton, is himself an adulterer, having had a 5-year affair with a (married) beautician. Other notable Republican adulturers in the House include Helen Chenoweth of Idaho, who seems to have a policy that Democratic but not Republican adulterers are unfit for office; and Dan Burton of Indiana, who fathered an illegitimate child. (For details, see CNN.)
The Republicans just don't get it, do they? As I said above: what they reap, they shall also sow. Or from the same shrewd source: judge not, lest you be judged; and he who lives by the sword will die by the sword. The Republicans have made the sexual smear the preferred campaign strategy, if not the main content of politics itself. Let them enjoy the same treatment.
Hyde is even bleating about "attack dogs" and "intimidation", as if Republican attack dogs haven't been offering money to anyone who can smear mud on Clinton, not to mention illegally wiretapping suspected paramours. And if Hyde wants to talk about impeachable offenses, he needn't go further than his colleague Tom DeLay's attempt to sic the FBI on Salon magazine. That's called abuse of power, folks. It's one of the things that got Nixon thrown out of office.
Oh, but it's not the sex, it's the lying. If you think this, you still don't get it. The only reason Hyde could cheat on his wife and not lie to the press and the special prosecutor about it is because, before the Republican attack dogs got started, journalists and prosecutors didn't ask about politicians' private sex lives. Would Hyde have lied to people besides his wife and his constituents if they had?
9 Nov.. So, the Republicans have learned that a national policy that consists solely of attacking a President with a 65% approval rating doesn't get them very far. (I'm virtually paraphrasing a number of Republicans quoted on CNN here.)
And despite Hyde's denials, is it pure coincidence that just after this electoral setback, the impeachment inquiry is going to be expedited? Sounds to me like an admission that the inquiry was basically political from the start. You don't backtrack on principle. You do backtrack on what proves to be bad politics.
29 Jan. 1999. So what is it exactly, Republicans? Is it like picking at a scab until the wound opens up again, just because for some reason you have to?
That November blush of reason faded quickly-- just in Washington, which is why I belatedly changed the title of the page. It's not America whose mind is out of whack. The story is increasingly coming to be, not what even Clinton's supporters feared it was a year ago-- the moral failure of the first Baby Boomer Prexy-- but the drawn-out death wish of the Republican Party.
Obviously there was the hope all along that it would be Watergate all over again-- that the President they hated would go away, would lose that infuriating popularity, would make 1996 not happen. Something would happen like that fateful slip in the Watergate hearings, when an aide mentioned that Nixon taped all his meetings-- the revelation that ultimately led to his downfall.
Not this time. Instead, it becomes increasingly likely that this whole ordeal will be seen by history as an agonizingly slow replay of the partisan fiasco of 1868.
And if the Republicans wanted to return to minority party status, they couldn't have done a better job. They've alienated two thirds of the population, they threw away Gingrich, they've wasted their time on a losing personal vendetta instead of pursuing their constituents' interests, and they're still short a Gore-beater for next year.
This, folks, is why I never buy conspiracy theories. The world isn't run by fiendishly clever cabals. It's run by idiots whose worst enemy is themselves.
For a solid quarter of the country, Clinton is just a total scumbag (or even a traitor and murderer), and they just can't understand why everyone else doesn't see it. Thus Helprin's position, that the Senators should simply have ignored the case they were trying, and voted on what really matters: the innuendo.
Well, if you view politics as entertainment, we're going to have some very entertaining years ahead of us. I think it'd be great if Hilary is elected Senator. Won't that be a hornet in the pants for these people?