No one who ever passed through an American public high school could have watched the current president of the United States running for office in 1992 and failed to recognize the familiar predatory sexuality of the provincial adolescent. The man was, Jesse Jackson said that year to another point, “nothing but an appetite.” No one who followed his appearances on The Road to The White House on C-SPAN could have missed the reservoir of self-pity, the quickness to blame, the narrowing of the eyes, as in a wildlife documentary, when things did not go his way: a response so reliable that aides on Jerry Brown’s 1992 campaign looked for situations in which it could be provoked.
The famous tendency of the candidate to take a less than forthcoming approach to embarrassing questions had already been documented and discussed, most exhaustively in the matter of his 1969 draft status, and he remained the front-runner. The persistent but initially unpublished rumors about extramarital rovings had been, once Gennifer Flowers told her story to the Star, published and acknowledged, and he remained on his feet. “I have acknowledged wrongdoing,” he had told America during his and his wife’s rather premonitory 60 Minutes appearance on Super Bowl Sunday of that year. “I have acknowledged causing pain in my marriage. I think most Americans who are watching this tonight, they’ll know what we’re saying, they’ll get it, and they’ll feel that we have been more than candid. And I think what the press has to decide is, are we going to engage in a game of gotcha?”
Nothing that is now known about the current president of the United States, in other words, was not known before the New Hampshire primary in 1992. The implicit message in his August testimony to the Office of the Independent Counsel was not different in kind from that made explicit in January of 1992: I think most Americans who are watching this…they’ll know what we’re saying, they’ll get it, and they’ll feel that we have been more than candid. By the time of the 1992 general election, the candidate was before us as he appears today: a more detailed and realized character than that presented in the Office of the Independent Counsel’s oddly novelistic Referral to the United States House of Representatives but recognizably drawn to similar risk, voraciously needy, deeply fractured, and yet there, a force to contend with, a possessor of whatever manna accrues to those who have fought themselves and survived. The flaws already apparent in 1992 were by no means unreported, but neither, particularly in those parts of the country recently neutralized by their enshrinement as “the heartland,” were they seized as occasions for rhetorical outrage: “With 16 million Americans unemployed, 40 million Americans without health care and 3 million Americans homeless, here’s what we have to say about presidential aspirant Bill Clinton’s alleged previous marital infidelity,” the Peoria Journal-Star declared on its editorial page at the time of the 60 Minutes appearance. “So what? And that’s all.”
There were those for whom the candidate’s clear personal volatility suggested the possibility of a similar evanescence on matters of ideology or policy, but even the coastal opinion leaders seemed willing to grant him a laissez-passer on this question of sex: “To what degree, if any, is the private action relevant to the duties of the public office?” the Los Angeles Times asked on its editorial page in January 1992. “Shouldn’t our right to know about a candidate’s sex life be confined…to offenses such as rape, harassment or sex discrimination?” The New York Times report on the 60 Minutes interview, which was headlined “Clinton Defends His Privacy And Says the Press Intruded” and appeared on page A14, was followed the next day by an editorial (“Leers, Smears and Governor Clinton”) not only commending the candidate for having drawn a line “between idle curiosity and responsible attention” but noting that “he won’t provide details and he need not, unless it develops that his private conduct arguably touches his public performance or fitness for office.” The same day, January 28, 1992, A.M. Rosenthal wrote in the Times that Governor and Mrs. Clinton had “presented to the American public a gift and a testing opportunity”:
The gift is that they treated us as adults. The opportunity is for us to act that way…. We can at least treasure the hope that Americans would be fed up with the slavering inquisition on politicians’ sexual history and say to hell with that and the torturers. That would be a thank-you card worthy of the gift from the Clinton couple—the presumption that Americans have achieved adulthood, at last.
Few in the mainstream press, in 1992, demanded a demonstration of “contrition” from the candidate. Few, in 1992, demanded “full remorse,” a doubtful concept even in those venues, courtrooms in which criminal trials have reached the penalty phase, where “remorse” is most routinely invoked. Few, in 1992, spoke of the United States as so infantilized as to require a president beyond personal reproach. That so few did this then, and so many have done this since, has been construed by some as evidence that the interests and priorities of the press have changed. In fact the interests and priorities of the press have remained reliably the same: then as now, the press could be relied upon to report a rumor or a hint down to the ground (tree it, bag it, defoliate the forest for it, destroy the village for it), but only insofar as that rumor or hint gave promise of advancing the story of the day, the shared narrative, the broad line of whatever story was at the given moment commanding the full resources of the reporters covering it and the columnists commenting on it and the on-tap experts analyzing it on the talk shows. (The 1998 Yearbook of Experts, Authorities & Spokespersons tellingly provides, for producers with underdeveloped Rolodexes of their own, 1,477 telephone numbers to call for those guests “who will drive the news issues in the next year.”) In Spin Cycle, a book in which Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post endeavors to demonstrate the skill of “the Clinton propaganda machine” (similarly described by Joe Klein, despite impressive evidence to the contrary, as “the most sophisticated communications apparatus in the history of American politics”) at setting the agenda for the press, there appears this apparently ingenuous description of how the press itself sets its agenda:
A front-page exclusive would ripple through the rest of the press corps, dominate the briefing, and most likely wind up on the network news. The newsmagazine reporters were not quite as influential as in years past, but they could still change the dialogue or cement the conventional wisdom with a cover story or a behind-the-scenes report. Two vital groups of reinforcements backed up the White House regulars…one was the columnists and opinion-mongers—Jonathan Alter at Newsweek, Joe Klein at The New Yorker, William Safire and Maureen Dowd at the New York Times, E.J. Dionne and Richard Cohen at the Washington Post—who could quickly change the zeitgeist…the other was the dogged band of investigative reporters—Jeff Gerth at the Times, Bob Woodward at the Post, Glenn Simpson at the Wall Street Journal, Alan Miller at the Los Angeles Times…
Once the “Zeitgeist” has been agreed upon, any unrelated event, whatever its significance, becomes either non-news (Robert Scheer, in his Los Angeles Times review of Spin Cycle, noted that its index included eighteen references to Paula Jones and sixteen to John Huang but none to Saddam Hussein) or, if sufficiently urgent, a news brief: on August 16 of this year, after hearing flash updates on the Omagh bombing in Northern Ireland (“worst attack in almost thirty years of violence…latest figures as we have it are 28 people dead…220 people injured, 103…still in hospital”) and on the American embassy bombings in East Africa, Wolf Blitzer, on a two-hour Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer otherwise exclusively devoted to the “legal ramifications, political considerations, and historic consequences” of Monica Lewinsky, said this: “Catherine Bond, reporting live from Nairobi, thanks for joining us. Turning now to the story that has all of Washington holding its breath….”
In 1992, as in any election year, the story that had all of Washington holding its breath was the campaign, and since the interpreters of the campaign, taking their cue from the political professionals, had early on certified Governor Clinton as the most electable of the Democratic candidates, his personal failings could serve only as a step in his quest, a test of his ability to prevail. Before the New Hampshire primary campaign was even fully underway, Governor Clinton was reported to be the Democratic candidate with “centrist credentials,” the Democratic candidate who “offered an assessment of the state of the American economy that borrows as much from Republicans like Jack Kemp as it does from liberals,” the Democratic candidate who could go to California and win support from “top Republican fundraisers,” the candidate, in short, who “scored well with party officials and strategists.” A survey of Democratic National Committee members had shown Clinton in the lead. The late Ronald H. Brown, at the time chairman of the Democratic Party, had been reported, still before a single vote was cast in New Hampshire, to have pressured Mario Cuomo to remove his name from the New York primary ballot, so that a divisive favorite-son candidacy would not impede the chosen front-runner.
By the morning of January 26, 1992, the Sunday of the 60 Minutes appearance and shortly after the candidate sealed his centrist credentials by allowing the execution of the brain-damaged Rickey Ray Rector to proceed in Arkansas, William Schneider, in the Los Angeles Times, was awarding Governor Clinton the coveted “Big Mo,” noting that “the Democratic Party establishment is falling in line behind Clinton.” In a party that reserves a significant percentage of its convention votes (18 percent in 1996) for “superdelegates,” the seven-hundred-some elected and party officials not bound by any popular vote, the message sent by this early understanding among the professionals was clear, as it had been when the professionals settled on Michael Dukakis for 1988: the train was now leaving the station, and, since the campaign, as “story,” requires that the chosen candidates be seen as contenders who will go the distance, all inconvenient baggage, including “the character issue,” would be left on the platform. What would go on the train was what Joe Klein, echoing the note of romantic credulity in his own 1992 coverage of the candidate Bill Clinton (that was before the Zeitgeist moved on), recently recalled in The New Yorker as the “precocious fizz” of the War Room, “the all-nighters…about policy or philosophy,” the candidate who “loved to talk about serious things” and “seems to be up on every social program in America.”
It was January 16 of this year when Kenneth W. Starr obtained authorization, by means of a court order opaquely titled “In re Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan Association,” to extend his languishing Whitewater inquiry to the matter of Monica Lewinsky. It was also January 16 when Monica Lewinsky was detained for eleven hours and twenty-five minutes in room 1016 of the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Pentagon City, Virginia, where, according to the Office of the Independent’s Counsel’s log of the “meeting,” the FBI agent who undertook to read Miss Lewinsky “her rights as found on the form FD-395, Interrogation, Advice of Rights” was, for reasons the log does not explain, “unable to finish reading the FD-395.” Miss Lewsinsky herself testified:
Then Jackie Bennett [of the Office of the Independent Counsel] came in and there was a whole bunch of other people and the room was crowded and he was saying to me, you know, you have to make a decision. I had wanted to call my mom, they weren’t going to let me call my attorney, so I just—I just wanted to call my mom and they—Then Jackie Bennett said, “You’re 24, you’re smart, you’re old enough, you don’t need to call your mommy.”
It was January 17 when President Clinton, in the course of giving his deposition in the civil suit brought against him by Paula Corbin Jones, either did or did not spring the perjury trap that Kenneth Starr either had or had not set. By the morning of January 21, when both Susan Schmidt in The Washington Post and ABC News correspondent Jackie Judd on Good Morning America jumped the stakes by quoting “sources” saying that Monica Lewinsky was on tape with statements that the President and Vernon Jordan had told her to lie, the “character issue” had gone from idle to full throttle, with Sam Donaldson and George Stephanopoulos and Jonathan Alter already on air talking about “impeachment proceedings.”
In most discussions of how and why this matter came so incongruously to escalate, the press has of course been criticized, and has in turn been quick to criticize itself (or, in the phrasing preferred by many, since it suggests that any objection rests on hair-splitting, to “flagellate” itself), citing excessive and in some cases erroneous coverage. Perhaps because not all of the experts, authorities, and spokespersons driving this news had extensive experience with the kind of city-side beat on which it is taken for granted that the DA’s office will leak the cases they doubt they can make, selective prosecutorial hints had become embedded in the ongoing story as fact. “Loose attribution of sources abounded,” Jules Witcover wrote in the March/April Columbia Journalism Review, although, since he tended to attribute the most egregious examples to “journalistic amateurs” and “journalistic pretenders” (Arianna Huffington and Matt Drudge), he could still express “hope,” based on what he discerned in March as “a tapering off of the mad frenzy of the first week or so,” that, among “established, proven professional practitioners,” the performance had been “a mere lapse of standards in the heat of a fast-breaking, incredibly competitive story of major significance.”
For the same CJR, the cover line of which was “Where We Went Wrong… and What We Do Now,” a number of other reporters, editors, and news executives were queried, and expressed similar hopes. The possibility of viewer confusion between entertainment and news shows was mentioned. The necessity for more careful differentiation among different kinds of leaks was mentioned. The “new technology” and “hypercompetition” and “the speed of news cycles these days” were mentioned, references to the way in which the Internet and the multiplication of cable channels had collapsed the traditional cyclical presentation of news into a twenty-four-hour stream of provisional raw takes. “We’re in a new world in terms of the way information flows to the nation,” James O’Shea, deputy managing editor for news of the Chicago Tribune, said. (The Lewinsky story had in fact first broken not in the traditional media but on the Internet, in a 1:11 AM January 18 posting on The Drudge Report.) “The days when you can decide not to print a story because it’s not well enough sourced are long gone. When a story gets into the public realm, as it did with the Drudge Report, then you have to characterize it, you have to tell your readers, ‘This is out there, you’ve probably been hearing about it on TV and the Internet. We have been unable to substantiate it independently.’ And then give them enough information to judge the validity of it.”
That the “story” itself might in this case be anything other than, in Witcover’s words, “a fast-breaking, incredibly competitive story of major significance” was questioned by only one panelist, Anthony Lewis of The New York Times, who characterized “the obsession of the press with sex and public officials” as “crazy,” but allowed that “after Linda Tripp went to the prosecutor, it became hard to say we shouldn’t be covering this.” The more general attitude seemed to be that there might have been an excess here or an error there, but the story itself was important by definition, significant because it was commanding the full resources of everyone on it—not unlike a campaign, which this story, in that it offered a particularly colorful version of the personalized “horse race” narrative that has become the model for most American political reporting, in fact resembled. “This is a very valid story of a strong-willed prosecutor and a president whose actions have been legitimately questioned,” Walter Isaacson, the managing editor of Time, said. “A case involving sex can be a very legitimate story, but we can’t let our journalistic standards lapse simply because the sexual element makes everybody over-excited.”
This, then, was a story “involving sex,” a story in which there was a “sexual element,” but, as we have so frequently heard, it was not about sex, just as Whitewater, in the words of one of the several score editorials to this point published by The Wall Street Journal over the years, was “not merely about a land deal.” What both stories were about, of course (although in the absence of both sex and evidence against the President one of them had proved a harder sell), was which of the contenders, the “strong-willed prosecutor” or his high-placed target, would go the distance, win the race. “The next 48 to 72 hours are critical,” Tim Russert was saying on January 21 on MSNBC, where the daily recalibration of such sudden-death scenarios would by August raise the cable’s Nielsen households from 49,000 a year before to 197,000. “I think his presidency is numbered in days,” Sam Donaldson was saying by Sunday of the same week.
“On the high-status but low-interest White House beat, there is no story as exciting as that of the fall of a president,” Jacob Weisberg noted in Slate in March. The President, everyone by then agreed, was “toast.” The President “had to go,” or “needed to go.” The reasons the President needed to go had seemed, those last days in January and into February, crisp, easy to explain, grounded as they were in the galvanizing felony prospects set adrift without attribution by the Office of the Independent Counsel: obstruction of justice, subornation of perjury. Then, as questions threatened to slow the story (Was it not unusual to prosecute someone for perjury in a civil suit? Did the chronology present a circumstantial case for, or actually against, obstruction? If someone lied in a deposition about a matter later ruled not essential to and so inadmissible in the case at hand, as Lewinsky had been ruled in Jones v. Clinton, was it in fact perjury?), the reasons the President “needed to go” became less crisp, more subjective, more a matter of “the mood here in the capital,” and so, by definition, less open to argument from those not there in the capital.
This story was definitely moving, as they kept saying on MSNBC. By April 1, when US District Judge Susan Webber Wright rendered the possibility of any felony technically remote by dismissing Jones v. Clinton altogether, the story had already rolled past its inconvenient legal (or “legalistic,” a much-used word by then) limitations: ten weeks after America first heard the name Monica Lewinsky and still in the absence of any allegation bearing on the President’s performance of his duties, the reasons the President needed to go were that he had been “weakened,” that he would be “unable to function.” The President’s own former chief of staff, Leon Panetta, had expressed concern about “the slow, drip-drip process and the price he’s paying in terms of his ability to lead the country.” When congressional staff members were asked in late March where they believed the situation was leading, 21 percent of Democratic staff members (43 percent of Republican) had foreseen, in the absence of resignation, impeachment proceedings.
The story was positioned, in short, for the satisfying long haul. By August 17, when the President confirmed the essential fact in the testimony Monica Lewinsky had given the grand jury eleven days before, virtually every “news analyst” on the Eastern Seaboard was on air (we saw the interiors of many attractive summer houses) talking about “the President’s credibility,” about “can he lead,” or “still govern in any reasonably effective manner,” questions most cogently raised that week by Garry Wills in Time and, to a different point, by Thomas L. Friedman in The New York Times. Proceeding from a belief both in President Clinton’s underlying honor and in the redemptive power, when he was faced with crippling harassment, of the “principled resignation,” Wills had tried to locate the homiletic possibilities in the dilemma, the opportunities for spiritual growth that could accrue to the country and the President through resignation. The divergence between this argument and that made by Friedman was instructive. Friedman had seemed to be offering “can he lead” mainly as a strategy, an argument with which the professionals of the political process, who were increasingly bewildered by the public’s apparent disinclination to join the rush to judgment by then general in the columns and talk shows, might most adroitly reeducate that “substantial majority” who “still feel that Mr. Clinton should remain in office.”
In other words we had arrived at a dispiriting and familiar point, and would be fated to remain there even as telephone logs and Epass Access Control Reports and pages of grand-jury testimony floated down around us: “the disconnect,” as it was now called, between what the professionals—those who held public office, those who worked for them, and those who wrote about them—believed to be self-evident and what a majority of Americans believed to be self-evident. “If you step back a bit, it still doesn’t look like a constitutional crisis,” former federal prosecutor E. Lawrence Barcella told the Los Angeles Times to this point. “This is still a case about whether the President had sex with someone half his age. The American people have understood—certainly better than politicians, lawyers and the press—that if this is ultimately about sex, it’s really no one else’s business. There are acceptable lies and unacceptable lies, and lying about someone’s sex life is one of those tolerated lies.”
Ten days after the President’s August 17 admission to the nation, or ten days into the endless tape loop explicating its failings, Mr. Clinton’s own polls, according to The Washington Post, showed pretty much what everyone else’s polls then showed and would continue to show, notwithstanding the release first of Kenneth Starr’s “narrative” and “grounds for impeachment” and then of Mr. Clinton’s videotaped testimony and 3,183 pages of “supporting documents”: that a majority of the public had more or less believed all along that the President had some sort of involvement with Monica Lewinsky (“Cheat once, cheat twice, there’s probably a whole line of ’em,” a thirty-four-year-old woman told Democratic pollster Peter Hart in a focus session attended by the Los Angeles Times), continued to see it as a private rather than a political matter, believed Kenneth Starr to be the kind of sanctimonious hall monitor with sex on the brain they had avoided during their formative years (as in the jump-rope rhyme Rooty-toot-toot! Rooty-toot-toot!/There go the boys from the Institute!/They don’t smoke and they don’t chew/And they don’t go with the girls who do), and, even as they acknowledged the gravity of lying under oath, did not wish to see the President removed from office.
The charge that he tried to conceal a personally embarrassing but not illegal liaison had not, it seemed, impressed most Americans as serious. Whether or not he had ever asked Vernon Jordan to call Ron Perelman and whether Vernon Jordan had in fact done so before or after the subpoena was issued to Monica Lewinsky had not, it seemed, much mattered to these citizens. There had seemed to be, outside the capital, a general recognition that the entire “crisis,” although mildly entertaining, represented politics-as-usual, particularly since it had evolved from a case, the 1994 Jones v. Clinton, that would have probably never been brought and certainly never been funded had Mr. Clinton not been elected president. For Thomas L. Friedman, the way around this was to produce more desirable polling results by refocusing the question, steering the issue safely past the shoals of “should he be president,” which was the essence of what the polls were asking. “What might actually influence the public most,” Friedman wrote, “is the question of ‘can’ Mr. Clinton still govern in any reasonably effective manner.”
Since taking this argument to its logical conclusion raised, for a public demonstrably impatient with what it had come with reason to see as a self-interested political class, certain other questions (If the President couldn’t govern, who wouldn’t let him? Was it likely that they would have let a lame duck govern anyway? What in fact was “governing,” and did we want it?), most professionals fell back to a less vulnerable version of what the story was: a version so simple, so sentimental, as to brook no argument, no talking back from “the American people,” who were increasingly seen as recalcitrant children, fecklessly resistant to responsible guidance. The story, Will-iam J. Bennett told us on Meet the Press, was about the “moral and intellectual disarmament” that befalls a nation when its president is not “being a decent example” and “teaching kids the difference between right and wrong.” The story, Cokie Roberts told us in the New York Daily News, was about reinforcing the lesson “that people who act immorally and lie get punished.” The story, William Kristol told us on This Week, was about the President’s “defiance,” his “contempt,” his “refusal to acknowledge some standards of public morality.”
Certain pieties were repeated to the point where they could be referred to in shorthand. Although most Americans had an instinctive sense that Monica Lewinsky could well have been, as the Referral would later reveal her to have been, a less than entirely passive participant in whatever happened, we heard about the situational inviolability of interns (interns were “given into our care,” interns were “lent to us by their parents”) until Cokie Roberts’s censorious cry to an insufficiently outraged congresswoman (“But with an intern?”) could stand alone, a verdict that required no judge or jury. We heard repeatedly about “our children,” or “our kids,” who were, as presented, avid consumers of the Nightly News in whose presence sex had never before been mentioned and discussions of the presidency were routine. “I’d like to be able to tell my children, ‘You should tell the truth,”‘ Stuart Taylor of the National Journal told us on Meet the Press. “I’d like to be able to tell them, ‘You should respect the President.’ And I’d like to be able to tell them both things at the same time.” Jonathan Alter, in Newsweek, spoke of the President as someone “who has made it virtually impossible to talk to your kids about the American presidency or let them watch the news.”
“I approach this as a mother,” Cokie Roberts said on This Week. “We have a right to say to this president, ‘What you have done is an example to our children that’s a disgrace,”‘ William J. Bennett said on Meet the Press. The apparent inability of the public to grasp this Kinder-Kirche point (perhaps because not all Americans could afford the luxury of idealizing their own children) had itself become an occasion for outrage, and scorn: the public was too “complacent,” or too “prosperous,” or too “fixed on the Dow Jones.” The public in fact became the unindicted co-conspirator: “This ought to be something that outrages us, makes us ashamed of him,” Mona Charen complained on Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer. “This casts shame on the entire country because he behaved that way and all of the nation seems to be complicit now because they aren’t rising up in righteous indignation.”
This was the impasse (or, as it turned out, the box canyon) that led many into a scenario destined to prove wishful at best: “The American people,” we heard repeatedly, would cast off their complicity when they were actually forced by the report of the Independent Counsel to turn their attention from the Dow and face what Thomas L. Friedman, in the Times, called “the sordid details that will come out from Ken Starr’s investigation.” The report, Fox News promised, would detail “activities that most Americans would describe as unusual.” These details, Newsweek promised, would make Americans “want to throw up.” “Specifics about a half-dozen sex acts,” Newsday promised, had been provided “during an unusual two-hour session August 26 in which Lewinsky gave sworn testimony in Starr’s downtown office, not before the grand jury.”
This is arresting, and not to be brushed over. On August 6, Monica Lewinsky had told the grand jury that sexual acts had occurred. On August 17, the President had tacitly confirmed this both in his testimony to the grand jury and in his televised address to the nation. Given this sequence, the “unusual two-hour session August 26” might have seemed, to some, unnecessary, even excessive, not least because of the way in which, despite the full knowledge of the prosecutors that the details elicited in this session would be disseminated to the world in two weeks under the Referral headings “November 15 Sexual Encounter,” “November 17 Sexual Encounter,” “December 31 Sexual Encounter,” “January 7 Sexual Encounter,” “January 21 Sexual Encounter,” “February 4 Sexual Encounter and Subsequent Phone Calls,” “March 31 Sexual Encounter,” “Easter Telephone Conversations and Sexual Encounter,” “February 28 Sexual Encounter,” and “March 29 Sexual Encounter,” certain peculiar and warped proprieties had been so pruriently observed. “In deference to Lewinsky and the explicit nature of her testimony,” Newsday reported, “all the prosecutors, defense lawyers and stenographers in the room during the session were women.”
Since the “explicit nature of the testimony,” the “unusual activity,” the “throw-up details” everyone seemed to know about (presumably because they had been leaked by the Office of the Independent Counsel) turned out to involve masturbation, it was hard not to wonder if those in the know might not be suffering some sort of rhetorical autointoxication, a kind of rapture of the feed. The average age of first sexual intercourse in this country has been for some years sixteen, and is younger in many venues. Since the average age of first marriage in this country is twenty-five for women and twenty-seven for men, sexual activity outside marriage occurs among Americans for an average of nine to eleven years. Six of every ten marriages in this country are likely to end in divorce, a significant percentage of those who divorce doing so after engaging in extramarital sexual activity.
As of the date of the most recent Census, there were in this country 4.1 million households headed by unmarried couples. More than 35 percent of those households included children. Seventh-graders in some schools in this country were as early as the late 1970s reading the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective’s Our Bodies, Ourselves, which explained the role of masturbation in sexuality and the use of foreign objects in masturbation. The notion that Americans apparently willing to forgive a dalliance in the Oval Office would go pale at its rather commonplace details seemed puzzling in the extreme, as did the professed inability to understand why these Americans might favor the person who had engaged in a common sexual act over the person who had elicited the details of that act as evidence for a public stoning.
But of course these members of what Howard Fineman recently defined on MSNBC as “the national political class,” the people “who read the Hotline or watch cable television political shows such as this one,” were not talking about Americans at large. They did not know Americans at large. They occasionally heard from one, in a focus group or during the Q&A after a lecture date, but their attention, since it was focused on the political process, which had come to represent the con-cerns not of the country at large but of the organized pressure groups that increasingly controlled it, remained remote. When Howard Fineman, during the same MSNBC appearance, spoke of “the full-scale panic” that he detected “both here in Washington and out around the country,” he was referring to calls he had made to “a lot of Democratic consultants, pollsters, media people and so forth,” as well as to candidates: “For example one in Wisconsin, a woman running for the Democratic seat up there, she said she’s beginning to get calls and questions from average folks wanting to know what her view of Bill Clinton is.”
“Average folks,” however, do not call their elected representatives, nor do they attend the events where the funds get raised and the questions get asked. The citizens who do are the citizens with access, the citizens with an investment, the citizens who have a special interest. When Rep. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) reported to The Washington Post that during three days in September he received five hundred telephone calls and 850 e-mails on the question of impeachment, he would appear to have been reporting, for the most part, less on “average folks” than on constituents who already knew, or had been provided, his telephone number or e-mail address; reporting, in other words, on an organized blitz campaign. When Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council seized the moment by test-running a drive for the presidency with a series of Iowa television spots demanding Mr. Clinton’s resignation, he would appear to have been interested less in reaching “average folks” than in galvanizing certain caucus voters.
When these people on the political talk shows spoke about the inability of Americans to stomach “the details,” then, they were speaking, in code, about a certain kind of American, a minority of the population but the minority to whom recent campaigns have increasingly been pitched. They were talking politics. They were talking about the “values” voter, the “pro-family” voter, and so complete by now was their isolation from the country in which they lived that they seemed willing to reserve its franchise for, in other words give it over to, that key core vote.
“People are not as sophisticated as this appears to be,” William Kristol had said hopefully on This Week the day before the President’s televised address. “We all know, inside the Beltway, what’s in that report,” Republican strategist Mary Matalin said on Meet the Press. “And I don’t think… the country needs to hear any more about tissue, dresses, cigars, ties, anything else.” George Will, on This Week, assured his co-panelists that support for the President would evaporate in the face of the Referral. “Because Ken Starr must—the President has forced his hand—must detail graphically the sexual activity that demonstrates his perjury. Once that report is written and published, Congress will be dragged along in the wake of the public…. Once the dress comes in and some of the details come in from the Ken Starr report, people—there’s going to come a critical mass, the yuck factor—where people say, ‘I don’t want him in my living room any more.”‘ The person most people polled seemed not to want in their living room any more was “Ken” (as he was now called by those with an interest in his story), but this itself was construed as evidence of satanic spin on the part of the White House: “The president’s men,” William J. Bennett cautioned in The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals, “…attempt relentlessly to portray their opposition as bigoted and intolerant fanatics who have no respect for privacy.” He continued:
At the same time they offer a temptation to their supporters: the temptation to see themselves as realists, worldly-wise, sophisticated: in a word, European.
That temptation should be resisted by the rest of us. In America, morality is central to our politics and attitudes in a way that is not the case in Europe, and precisely this moral streak is what is best about us…. Europeans may have something to teach us about, say, wine or haute couture. But on the matter of morality in politics, America has much to teach Europe.
The cost of producing a television show on which Wolf Blitzer or John Gibson referees an argument between an unpaid “former federal prosecutor” and an unpaid “legal scholar” is significantly lower than that of producing conventional programming. This is, as they say, the “end of the day,” or the bottom-line fact. The explosion of “news comment” programming occasioned by this fact necessitates, if viewers are to be kept from tuning out, nonstop breaking stories on which the stakes can be raised hourly. The Gulf War made CNN, but it was the trial of O.J. Simpson that taught the entire broadcast industry how to perfect the pushing of the stakes. The current crisis in American politics began as and remains a situation in which a handful of people, each of whom believed that he or she had something to gain (a book contract, a scoop, a sinecure as a network “analyst,” contested ground in the culture wars, or, in the case of Starr, the justification of his failure to get either of the Clintons on Whitewater), managed to harness this phenomenon and ride it. This was not an unpredictable occurrence, nor was it unpredictable that the rather impoverished but generally unremarkable transgressions in question (John Kennedy and Warren Harding both conducted affairs in the Oval Office, more recently known as “the workplace,” or “under the same roof where his daughter lay sleeping”) would come in this instance to be inflated by the rhetoric of moral rearmament.
“You cannot defile the temple of justice,” Kenneth Starr told reporters during his many front-lawn and driveway appearances. “There’s no room for white lies. There’s no room for shading. There’s only room for truth…. Our job is to determine whether crimes were committed.” This was the authentic if lonely voice of the last American wilderness, the voice of the son of a Texas preacher in a fundamentalist denomination (the Churches of Christ) so focused on the punitive that it forbade even the use of instrumental music in church. This was the voice of a man who himself knew a good deal about risk-taking, an Ahab who had been mortified by his great Whitewater whale and so in his pursuit of what Melville called “the highest truth” would submit to the House, despite repeated warnings from his own supporters (most visibly on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal) not to do so, a report in which his attempt to take down the government was based in its entirety on ten occasions of back-seat intimacy as detailed by an eager but unstable participant who appeared to have memorialized the events on her hard drive.
This was a curious document. It was reported by The New York Times, on the day after its initial and partial release, to have been written in part by Stephen Bates, identified as a “part-time employee of the independent counsel’s office and the part-time literary editor of The Wilson Quarterly,” an apparent polymath who after his 1987 graduation from Harvard Law School “wrote for publications as diverse as The Nation, The Weekly Standard, Playboy and The New Republic.” According to the Times, Mr. Bates and Mr. Starr had together written a proposal for a book about a high school student in Omaha barred by her school from forming a Bible study group. The proposed book, which did not find a publisher, was to be titled Bridget’s Story. This is interesting, since the “narrative” section of the Referral, including as it does a wealth of non-relevant or “story” details (for example the threatening letter which the President said he had not read, although “Ms. Lewinsky suspected that he actually had read the whole thing”), seems very much framed as “Monica’s Story.” We repeatedly share her “feelings,” as we might have shared Bridget’s: “I left that day sort of emotionally stunned,” Miss Lewinsky is said to have testified at one point, for “I just knew he was in love with me.”
Consider this. The day in question, July 4, 1997, was six weeks after the most recent of the President’s attempts to break off their relationship. The previous day, after weeks of barraging members of the White House staff with messages and calls detailing her frustration at being unable to reach the President, her conviction that he owed her a job, and her dramatically good intentions (“I know that in your eyes I am just a hindrance—a woman who doesn’t have a certain someone’s best interests at heart, but please trust me when I say I do”), Miss Lewinsky had dispatched a letter to the President himself, the letter that “obliquely,” as the narrative has it, “threatened to disclose their relationship.” On this day, July 4, the President has at last agreed to see her. He accuses her of threatening him. She accuses him of failing to secure for her an appropriate job, which in fact she would define in a later communiqué as including “anything at George magazine.” “The most important things to me,” she would then specify, “are that I am engaged and interested in my work, I am not someone’s administrative/executive assistant, and my salary can provide me a comfortable living in NY.”
At this point she cries. He “praised her intellect and beauty,” according to the narrative. He says, according to Ms. Lewinsky, “he wished he had more time for me.” She leaves the Oval Office, “emotionally stunned,” convinced “he was in love with me.” The “narrative,” in other words, offers us what is known among students of fiction as an unreliable first-person narrator, a classic literary device whereby the reader is made to realize that the situation, and indeed the narrator, are other than what the narrator says they are. It cannot have been the intention of its authors to present their witness as the victimizer and the President as her hapless victim, and yet there it was, for all the world to read. That the authors of the Referral should have fallen into this basic craft error suggests the extent to which, by the time the Referral was submitted, the righteous voice of the grand inquisitor had isolated itself from the more wary voices of his more strategic allies.
That the voice of the inquisitor was not one to which large numbers of Americans would respond had always been, for these allies, beside the point: what it offered, and what less authentic voices obligingly amplified, was a platform for the reintroduction of fundamentalism, or “values issues,” into the general discourse. “Most politicians miss the heart and soul of this concern,” Ralph Reed wrote in 1996, having previously defined “the culture, the family, a loss of values, a decline in civility, and the destruction of our children” as the chief concerns of the Christian Coalition, which in 1996 claimed to have between a quarter and a third of its membership among registered Democrats. Despite two decades during which the promotion of the “values” agenda had been the common cause of both the “religious,” or Christian, and the neoconservative right, too many politicians, Reed believed, still “debate issues like accountants.” John Podhoretz, calling on Republicans in 1996 to resist the efforts of Robert Dole and Newt Gingrich to “de-ideologize” the party, had echoed, somewhat less forthrightly, Reed’s complaint about the stress on economic issues: “They do not answer questions about the spiritual health of the nation. They do not address the ominous sense we all have that Americans are, with every intake of breath, unconsciously inhaling a philosophy that stresses individual pleasure over individual responsibility; that our capacity to be our best selves is weakening.”
That “all” of us did not actually share this “ominous sense” was, again, beside the point, since neither Reed nor Podhoretz was talking about all of us. Less than 50 percent of the voting-age population in this country actually voted (for anyone) for president in 1996. The figures in the previous five presidential-year elections ranged from 50 to 55 percent. Only between 33 and 38 percent voted in any midterm election since 1974. The figures for those who vote in primary elections, where the terms on which the campaign will be waged are determined, drop even lower: only 27 percent of registered Democrats, or 7 percent of the voting-age population in the state of New York, voted in the 1992 New York Democratic primary. Ralph Reed and John Podhoretz had been talking in 1996, as William Kristol and Mary Matalin would be talking in 1998, about that small group of citizens for whom “the spiritual health of the nation” would serve as the stalking horse for a variety of “social,” or control-and-respect, issues. They were talking, in other words, about that narrow subsection of the electorate known in American politics as most-likely-to-vote.
What the Christian Coalition and The Weekly Standard were asking the Republican Party and (by logical extension) its opponents to do in 1996 was to further narrow most-likely-to-vote, by removing from debate those issues that concerned the country at large. This might have seemed, at the time, a ticket only to marginalization. It might have seemed, as recently as 1996, rather a vain hope that the country’s opinion leaders would soon reach general agreement that the rearming of the country’s moral life required that three centuries of legal precedent and even constitutional protections be overridden in the higher interest of demonstrating the presence of moral error, or “determining whether a crime has been committed,” as Kenneth Starr put it in the brief he submitted to the Supreme Court in the matter of whether Vincent Foster’s lawyer could be compelled to turn over notes on conversations he had with Foster before his death. Yet by August of 1998, here were two of those opinion leaders, George Will and Cokie Roberts, stiffening the spines of those members of Congress who might be tempted to share the inclination of their constituents to distinguish between mortal and venial sins:
G.W.: Cokie, the metastasizing corruption spread by this man [the President] is apparent now. And the corruption of the very idea of what it means to be a representative. We hear people in Congress saying, “Our job is solely to read the public opinion polls and conform thereto.” Well, if so, that’s not intellectually complicated, it’s not morally demanding. But it also makes a farce of being a…
C.R.: No, at that point, we should just go for direct democracy.
G.W.: Exactly. Get them out of here and let’s plug computers in….
C.R.: ….I must say I think that letting the [impeachment] process work makes a lot of sense because it brings—then people can lead public opinion rather than just follow it through the process.
G.W.: What a concept.
C.R.: But we will see.
To talk about the failure of Congress to sufficently isolate itself from the opinion of the electorate as a “corruption of the very idea of what it means to be a representative” is to talk (another kind of “end of the day,” or bottom-line fact) about disenfranchising America. “The public was fine, the elites were not,” an unnamed White House adviser had told The Washington Post about the difference of opinion, on the matter of the President’s “apology” or non-apology, between the political professionals and what had until recently been deferred to, if only pro forma, as the electorate. “You’ve got to let the elites win one.”
No one should have doubted that the elites would in fact win this one, since, even before the somewhat dampening polling on the Starr report and on the President’s videotaped testimony, the enterprise had achieved the perfect circularity toward which it had long been tending. “I want to find out who else in the political class thinks the way Mr. Clinton does about what is acceptable behavior,” George Will had said in August, explaining why he favored impeachment proceedings over a resignation. “Let’s smoke them out.”
That a majority of Americans seemed capable of separating Mr. Clinton’s behavior in this matter from his performance as president had become, by that point, irrelevant, as had the ultimate outcome of the congressional deliberation. What was going to happen had already happened: since future elections could now be focused on the entirely spurious issue of correct sexual, or “moral,” behavior, those elections would be increasingly decided by that committed and well-organized minority brought most reliably to the polls by “pro-family,” or “values,” issues. The fact that an election between two candidates arguing which has the more correct “values” leaves most voters with no reason to come to the polls had even come to be spoken about, by less wary professionals, as the beauty part, the bonus that would render the process perfectly and perpetually impenetrable. “Who cares what every adult thinks?” a Republican strategist had asked The Washington Post to this point in early September. “It’s totally not germane to this election.”
—September 22, 1998
October 22, 1998