It's not the Sin; It's the Cynicism

Vanity Fair, 12/98
12/7/98 Christopher Hitchens

(Posted for noncommercial, discussion purposes only.)

The recollection may fade, as many important people must hope it already has, but who can forget that moment on August 17 when seven whole months of a presidential year went straight through the looking glass? With Clinton’s grudging, resentful, surly, and hectoring "address" to the nation, which contained at least the bogus and counterfeit elements of an admission and an apology, an entire exhausting thesaurus of excuses and alibis turned into its mirror image. Judge Starr’s investigation protracted too long? After half a year of presidential prevarication, that one went into the memory hole with humiliating velocity. Indeed, only a few days later, Clinton’s lawyers and Hill partisans were bleating loudly at the indecent speed with which the independent counsel was presenting his findings to Congress. Judge Starr’s labors too costly? That unworthy mantra--it is not for the president as chief magistrate to complain about the cost of judicial proceedings--died away as the independent counsel presented a $44 million bill for the months wasted by Clintonian lying (and as a shower of ruinously expensive and hastily launched cruise missiles fell on the wrong targets in Sudan and Afghanistan). Let’s get this thing behind us and "move on"? That standby sound bite became harder to utter as it became clear that the swiftest route to a new beginning would be a corny and lip-biting speech of resignation. "It’s a private matter." Well, then, who claims the Oval Office as private space? "Why all this fuss about sex?" But the president says it wasn’t sex. Let’s get on with the agenda." Excuse me--what f*cking agenda? Clinton hasn’t had a press conference, except when hiding behind embarrassed foreign statesmen, since April, hasn’t been to anything much but fund-raisers on the domestic front, and on the international scene has sleepwalked through several major crises. Even if you think the original offense was nugatory, and the cover-up no more than venal, Clinton’s conduct since the original exposure has been hideous, and has revealed to us a very nasty and shady politician.

So, alter the moral and political disaster of August 17 a whole new set of jawbreaking private and public contrivances had to be deployed, at public expense, by demoralized and frazzled subordinates. And these fresh excuses all turned clumsily on language and meaning: the indispensable common coin of democratic discourse. Looking and sounding--and perhaps even feeling--like idiots, the president’s men fanned out to say that ejaculation in the mouth is not what ordinary and "normal" Americans consider to be sexual, that lying under oath is not exactly perjury, and that terms like "alone" and "is" represent postmodern conundrums of signification. Any child of average intelligence knows what is going on here. It’s Through the Looking-Glass for real:

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean-neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Mice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

People often omit the last line of the exchange, where the bulbous egg-shaped figure replies coldly: "The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master--that’s all."

* * *

As we know that ovoid fictional monster of linguistic torture and arrogant caprice "had a great fall" and couldn’t be patched up even by the efforts of all the king’s men, to say nothing of his horses. (How I love to recall, in these "traumatic" times for all of us, that Bill Clinton’s original backer, Don Tyson of Tyson Foods, designed his own corporate sanctum as an exact replica of the Oval Office, with the doorknobs in the shape of chicken eggs.) Now Bill Clinton has had a bad fall by any measure. But how amazing that, should this omelette-like breakage turn out to be irreparable, millions of intelligent Americans will still be determined to make a mystery out of its causes. We hear that the stupid haggling over the meaning of lies and sex is "a fine distinction." I would be pompous if I said that I live for language, but I do make my living by it, and I do think that a nuance is a lovely thing. These "distinctions" are not "fine" at all. They are not even distinctions. They are crude and panicky evasions, cobbled together by mediocre lawyers and exhausted political hacks. David Kendall, Clinton’s ludicrous attorney, stormed out of a Washington TV studio when asked if the fragrant Mrs. Kendall agreed with his "legally accurate" definition of sex. He was, he said, insulted. But does it occur to him that he has insulted everyone else? Or try a thought experiment. The president told the grand jury on that fine August day that he was using the definition of sex that "normal" Americans employ. Did he tell any of his staff, when they asked him if Monica Lewinsky’s story was true, "No, it isn’t. I got her to suck me off and I screwed her with a cigar but there was no sex"? Perhaps he doesn’t think his underlings meet the commonly understood definition of "normal." And perhaps they don’t at that, since they incurred large legal fees to appear before a grand jury and swear that the Oval Office, its occupant included, was as monastic as ever. What did they later feel, when they saw the president casually telling the grand jury, "She’s basically a good girl. . . . But I knew . . . she would talk about this." How did they meet each other’s gaze, when they saw him smirkingly address a credulous congregation in August and announce, "This business of asking for forgiveness--it gets a little easier the more you do it."

And what was Clinton thinking, for those seven months, as he saw his vice president and secretary of state and all the others (wife and helpmeet too) appearing on the networks to back up his falsehood? How did he register, when he watched his colleagues--people he met every day--neglecting their jobs and upsetting their friends and families and going worriedly before the grand jury? This is the only scandal in presidential history where aides--"rogue" or "overenthusiastic"--cannot be blamed for anything. When it came to his own turn, as it had to, he bombastically insisted that the grand jury come to him. But then he, of course, had known the truth all along, and thought it might be tactically smart to tell perhaps half of it. (The nearest he ever comes to telling the truth, on anything from Vietnam to drugs to campaign finance, is when he concedes, under pressure and ridicule, that he half lied on every other occasion.) He lies even when it won’t do him any good--a bad sign. Take his prepared statement to the grand jury: "I regret that what began as a friendship came to include this conduct." He regrets that what began as a what came to include what?

* * *

Writers I have long admired, such as Gore Vidal and William Styron and Joan Didion, and many other smart people, and almost every friend of mine who lives overseas, knit their brows needlessly at this point and speak darkly about American Puritanism, sexual McCarthyism, and the right to privacy. You even hear that only a cad tells the truth about "affairs." It’s as if Clinton had kept some pouting little mistress in the Virginia suburbs and pleasured her zealously on weekends with the adult complaisance of his worldly wife. A moment’s reflection is enough to make this comparison as remote as Pluto from the real facts of the case. Obviously, if such had been the president’s practice, he would be in no legal trouble now (Nor, if we judge from the "approval ratings," would he be in any political difficulty.) He could even have invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, something he arrogantly declined to do when refusing to answer direct questions from grand jurors.

Perhaps I should stipulate that one of the many things I found loathsome about Richard Nixon (at whose graveside Clinton "forgave" so exorbitantly) was the too obvious fact that he didn’t have a sex life. Perhaps I should also stipulate that I wouldn’t care even if it were a boyfriend Clinton were keeping on the side--possibly an ex-staffer like Rahm Emanuel, who I presume must at least have offered by now to relieve the pressure. That’s how broad- minded and nonjudgmental I can be. And would I like an inquiry into my own past arrangements, as one is often and so aggressively asked? In a word (and how about that for a difference?), NO. But then, as I tend to say-brightening somewhat--I am not the nation’s chief law officer. Here’s what the man who is the nation’s chief law officer did do:

1. He engaged in a rather tacky affair, with an obviously volatile junior employee, in the Oval Office, during the hours which he is hired to spend on public service. (At the time, lest we forget, he was leading a re-election campaign and was the named defendant in a sexual-harassment lawsuit.) He then repeatedly and time-consumingly involved his personal secretary his chief of staff, the Defense Department, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and many other public servants either in concealing the affair or in finding the minx a job, or both. He also arrived in something of a state for a meeting with the president of our closest southern neighbor. Resorting to the commercial sector, Clinton involved his fixer of choice, Vernon Jordan, bestower of Revlon’s largesse, who was already under investigation for his part in supplying $60,000 of Revlon money to the disgraced Webster Hubbell-- Clinton’s crooked gift to the Justice Departmen--at the precise time when Hubbell was a potential witness against the Clintons. It was this connection alone that licensed Starr’s bridging of the two investigations. I don’t wish to seem prudish, but such conduct on the part of a president doesn’t meet any definition of "privacy."

2. He then repeatedly lied under oath, and continues to lie when unsworn, about the sexual nature of this "private" distraction, indulged in on the national dime. He was not asked, "Mr. President, have you ever committed adultery?" as Anthony Lewis and Frank Rich and about a billion other simple people seem to believe. And anyway, adultery is not a crime. He lied in a deposition about sexual harassment, which is a crime. At least, it is a crime if you look up Amendments 413 and 415 of President Clinton’s much-trumpeted "law ‘n’ order" crime bill, signed into law with his own pen in September 1994. By virtue of these clauses, inserted at Clinton’s insistence as part of his political debt to the women’s movement, those accused of sexual harassment may be asked in court about their own sexual history. Moreover; the Supreme Court had ruled unanimously that a sitting president--if you can still bear to hear the expression--could be made to answer charges brought by a lowly civilian. (No bad thing, by the way, to live in a country where this can be done.) Furthermore, the president had already taken a solemn and binding oath to uphold all the laws of the land: an oath from which he has not yet been released.

Plainly put, a man who has often been accused of humping the help, or hitting on the help, was asked--under ordinary penalties of perjury and also under a law he had initiated--if he was getting any action while on the White House payroll. He lied with the same clever-stupid facile ease that had extracted him from tight comers before. And thus, his problems have become ours. (The transition from feeling our pain to making us feel his was., it must be admitted, smoothly made.) This is not quite like Al Gore being asked about an "arcane" and "19th-century" law governing vice-presidential fund-raising. In this case, there was a clear "controlling legal authority" and Clinton knew it.

* * *

So it seems to me both idle and fatuous to go on moaning, as most of my journalistic colleagues in Washington love to moan, about the grimy details and the way that they are forced to dilute their own--no doubt very elevated-- standards by covering them from dawn till dusk. (I know, I know, they’d rather be reassigned to write about the budget agreement and NAFTA.) In the October Washington Monthly, editor Charles Peters was typical: "And what does the case consist of? Evidence that the president tried to cover up an adulterous relationship. That’s it." It’s hard to credit that anyone, on either side of the famous Beltway, could have been paying as little attention as that. In the same issue, I was given (without having asked for it) a "Washington Monthly Journalism Award," which I hereby return. In order to prove the perjury, the affair had to be proved first. Proof of the affair is proof of perjury. "It’s all he-said-she-said," the wiseasses used to say. No, it isn’t. It’s she said--and he lied. For once, the Clinton team has not denied anything asserted by one of the president’s women. That’s an astonishing thing in itself. The cigar; the deception and exploitation of the Secret Service men, trained to take a bullet for the president; the involvement of eve ry level of the staff; the whacking-off in the sink; the congressmen who didn’t get the undivided attention of the chief executive; the crazed, egomaniacal flurries at the very threshold of American power: it’s all true.

If Judge Starr hadn’t marshaled this overwhelming proof, does anyone doubt what would have happened? The usual team would have been on every airwave. "He’s got nothing . . . He’s got a dirty mind . . . It’s a witch-hunt . . . Real lawyers don’t rely on rumor and innuendo . . . Time to fire him and move on." (If Starr really was a smut merchant and McCarthyite, he could have asked Ms. Lewinsky about the writhe-making "distinguishing characteristics" on the presidential member; as featured in the Jones case. Or he could have dialed up Gennifer Flowers.) As it was, there were a few lame White House efforts to say that Monica Lewinsky was the stalker and fantasist and predator--the old cover-up reflexes kicking in one last time--and then a sulky silence. "Drag a hundred- dollar bill through a trailer park," said the tasteful and gallant James Carville about Paula Jones a while back, "and there’s no telling what you’ll find." By October, the president’s lawyers were offering to split the difference between a million and half a million with this same Ms. Jones, which is not bad by trailer-park standards. (This offer came, we are seriously told, without any admission: it was just a gift, really. That’s what they take us for.) And now we know what you get when you drag such lures through trailer parks, and deal in defamation and chicanery from the White House itself. You get James Carville as your main man. You get Mrs. Clinton saving that it’s only other people being snobbish about Arkansas. And you get a president telling a federal judge and a grand jury that it’s not sex when there’s nothing in it for the chick. (And telling that very chick that of course he never crushed Kathleen Willey’s widowed hand against his own ghastly pudendum, because who has time for a woman with such small tits? This guy can charm the birds, or at least the feminists, off the very trees.)

No wonder liberals want to change the subject. One way of doing this is to ratchet up the odds. Not that he did anything, they screech, but should he be impeached for it? And would this not overturn the results of two elections? Well, the removal of Nixon both did and did not "overturn the results of two elections." It did in that it made some voters honestly wonder if they should have fallen for him in the first place, and it didn’t in that it left the unimprisoned members of his Cabinet, and his congressional allies, and his tame veep, all in place. That’s why we have a Constitution, and also why that great document mentions impeachment so specifically. Posing the issue in this way shows the pathetic panic into which the Democrats have let themselves be driven. But it also very handily "triangulates" the matter in Clinton’s favor. You know I won’t quit, he says, because I won’t spare you anything as long as I have a chance to save my own hide. (How easily, by the way, this arrogant formulation has become accepted by those who just meekly "want it to be over.") So you can either put up with me, laughingstock presidency and all, or have a "full-dress," as it were, constitutional crisis.

* * *

"Triangulation" raises the gibbering specter of Dick Morris from the coffin which he is forced to occupy in daylight hours, emerging only when the eerie lights of Fox News flicker through the encircling gloom. Mr. Morris is, in my opinion, the missing key to this scandal and this president. Like the scandal --and like the president--he is part absurd and part sinister.

Mr. Morris is at least as "right-wing" as many of those who are supposed to be engaged in a vast reactionary conspiracy against the White House. He is the nephew of Roy Cohn, for whom he retains surreptitious admiration, and his political client of choice was Senator Jesse Helms. But he has often assisted Clinton when the latter’s electoral and political fortunes have dipped. As a result, he has three holds on the president that I can think of:

1. When he was an adviser to Governor Clinton, he boasted, he used to procure women for him on visits to New York. (See Marjorie Williams’s profile of Dick Morris in the November 1996 Vanity Fair.)

2. During the 1996 election cycle, it was at Dick Morris’s behest that the Clinton-Gore campaign went greedy and crazy for early money to launch a pre- emptive political advertising blitz, and made the series of incautious and illegal decisions that now threaten it with yet another special prosecutor. (Morris was consulting simultaneously for Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi --a perfect instance of the bipartisan style.) The campaign strategy of "triangulation" was a very simple one: adopt the Republican slogans, and harvest the usual Republican donors before they can.

3. He is a good eavesdropper and snooper with a taste for low politics. As he rather imprudently told CNBC’s Equal Time earlier this year, "Under Betsey Wright’s supervision in the 1992 Clinton campaign, there was an entire operation funded with over $100,000 of campaign money, which included federal matching funds, to hire private detectives to go into the personal lives of women who were alleged to have had sex with Bill Clinton. To develop compromising material--blackmailing information, basically--to coerce them into signing affidavits saying that they did not have sex with Bill Clinton."

Yet this man--this pimp and bagman--remained the president’s closest crony even after he was dumped from the 1996 campaign, not for any funny business about money but for retaining a hooker in the Jefferson Hotel and allowing her to listen while he got the president’s direct line the White House. (Did he or did he not blanch when he read that Clinton likes to do a similar thing? The pair of them could have made the perfect phone-sex tableau.) According to an undenied passage in Judge Starr’s report, and to Morris himself, Morris was the only person to whom Clinton told anything like the truth when Monica broke cover in January 1998. Here’s how their chat went, according to Morris:

CLINTON: Oh God. This is just awful. . . . I didn’t do what they said I did, but I did do something. . . . And I may have done enough so that I don’t know if I can prove my innocence. . . . There may be gifts. I gave her gifts . . . and there may be messages on her phone-answering machine.
MORRIS: There’s a great capacity for forgiveness in this country and you should consider tapping into it.
CLINTON: But what about the legal thing? You know, the legal thing? You know, Starr and perjury and all.

This is intensely interesting, first because it shows that Clinton did have a dim if panicky awareness that private and consensual sex was not his problem, and second because the strategy--of "tapping into" the national capacity to forgive--is what, coldly applied, we have been enduring ever since.

Anyway on the fateful day, Dick Morris offered to take a private poll, to test the temperature of the voters. With the president’s agreement, he went ahead. (I am curious to know how this sample was conducted, and also who paid for it.) The finding, as Morris told Clinton later that night, was that voters were more understanding about adultery than about perjury or obstruction of justice. He added that no early confession was advisable The chief executive replied "Well we just have to win, then." How appropriate that Mr. Poll-Driven got sideswiped by listening to "the numbers."

But who is this "we"? At one end is Dick Morris, who brags that. while in 1992 Clinton and Bush each spent about $40 million on TV advertising, "in 1996. the Clinton campaign and, at the president’s behest, the DNC spent upwards of eighty-five million dollars on ads--more than twice as much!" And at the other end is Ms. Monica Lewinsky, who--we forget at our peril--got her "job" at the White House only because her mother’s chum had kicked in the better part of half a million to the D.N.C. (There is, in Clinton’s Washington, always affirmative action for such cupcakes.) Morris and Lewinsky had different claims on Clinton’s libido, but they both were borne his way on currents of temptation and corruption.

Actually, the "we" intended by the president must be himself and his fearsome spouse. It was Hillary Clinton who, time and again, called Dick Morris back into action. It was also the First Lady who tenderly described Clinton’s private time with Miss Monica as a form of "ministering." So what have we here, as the small denials get ever bigger, and as the inconvenient female acolytes are defamed and cast out as shameless Jezebels and skits, and as the swelling chorus of "I have [legally accurately] sinned" rises at the inedible "prayer breakfasts." and as banquets paid for by the poor and simpleminded are gobbled down by the rich, and as the Lincoln Bedroom and the Oval Office become mere sinks of cupidity and lust, and, yea, as even Arlington National Cemetery gives back its tainted and lying and campaign-financing dead? What we have here is Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker; reconditioned and retooled for liberal mainstream saps.

The Clintons fired their surgeon general, the brave and capable Dr. Joycelyn Elders, for mentioning the word "masturbation" in a discussion of sexual health for adolescents. (And how about that for a laugh?) They have both preached--and Ms. Hillary argues piously in her book--that "sexual abstinence" should replace contraception as a teen solution. The president signed a bill saying that poor women who could not or would not name the fathers of their children could be thrown off welfare. He also signed the gay- baiting "Defense of Marriage Act" and bragged about the fact in 70 purchased spots on Christian radio. He says that gay men and women are not morally fit to wear their country’s uniform unles--aha!--they are willing to lie about it, and with a brazen sanctimony enforces the code against adultery in the armed forces, of which he is commander in chief. He and she support V-chips in every receiver, "zero tolerance" for drugs, and (perhaps the president wants to look at this one more time) school uniforms--arguably with berets. Hewing always to the righteous path, Bill and Hillary would not allow unmarried political donors to befoul the sheets of the Lincoln Bedroom. This is indeed Jim and Tammy Faye, with a very thin veneer of political correctness provided by the abortion issue, and by the fact that Mrs. Clinton once gave an award to Anita Hill (for the courage to speak out about hanky-panky at the office). How apt that such out-front Baptist and moralist hypocrisy should have been exposed to utter disgrace and ridicule, as much for its vote-getting sanctimony on sexual-harassment law as for its Bible Belt babble.

* * *

Look at it this way and you see the huge--the vertiginous--gulf between what the defenders of Clinton say for him and what he will say for himself. The defenders are keen to show that they have a grown-up and relaxed attitude to sex; Clinton (apart from having a mind at least as dirty as Judge Starr’s is said to be) is, on these matters, now more than ever at one with the Christian Coalition. You don’t hear him saying that consensual sex is nobody’s business. His defenders say that if it’s all right with Hillary--and even maybe with Chelsea?--then it’s all right with them too. The Clintons inflict talk of their family’s pain on all of us, and even discreetly (and shamefully) let it become known that Jesse Jackson as family confessor was their daughter’s idea. They’ll try anything. In this respect, Clinton is as much like Marion Barry as he is like Jim Bakker. He even used the same terminology ("set me up") in his video deposition about Paula Jones as Barry had ("bitch set me up") when busted with a crack pipe and a model. Barry, if you remember; cashed in on public dislike for the sting operation, went through an elaborate and emotional public theater of repentance and redemption, haunted prayer meetings and shout ‘n’ holler revivals, and eventually became the "comeback kid" of Washington, D.C.--to the deep and lasting detriment of every citizen of the town. Beware of those who just won’t go away because they have nowhere to go.

In the first weeks of the Clinton scandal, I went on Meet the Press with Gary Bauer, chief pulpit pounder for the "family values" lot. Mr. Bauer may or may not have been born again, but he does an almost faultless impersonation of a fetus. He gave it as his considered view that the president was, or should be, a role model and moral exemplar for the nation’s youth. What piffle! Bauer (not unlike Clinton) is looking for love in all the wrong places. What parent has ever encircled the shoulders of a growing lad and said. "Son, if you want to be a real man, just do as the chief executive does"? We need our elected politicians to perform quite different tasks, and to remember that they are, as Clinton himself reminded us the other day, "hired help." But they should be on hire to the voters, not to the highest bidders in the world of the thick envelope and the black bag. They should have as much of a sex life as they want, but probably in their spare time and out of the office.

* * *

William Bennett in his pharisaical work The Death of Outrage makes the same error as Bauer in proposing that a decent politician should also be a preacher. Church and state, as he will one day realize, are separate for a good reason. He makes other blunders, too. He denounces Nixon for violating the Constitution and the oath of office, which is pretty safe now; but he barely mentions the amazing extralegal actions of the Reagan administration, of which he was a member. Nor, as a leading Republican, does he have anything much to say about the horrors of campaign-finance corruption. Finally, he suggests that there is something in post-60s morality which "enables" the sleazy sex life of Clinton and also his pathetic efforts to cover it up. This is to miss the main charge--which is that Clinton cynically exploits a sexual broad-mindedness and tolerance which he does not share, either personally or politically.

So I think that the Lewinsky matter; with its Dick Morris and Vernon Jordan crossovers, is a minor metaphor for the political and financial corruption of Clintonism. I wish it had come out as a footnote to the larger campaign- finance inquiry, which still will hit Clinton like a truck if he manages to retain office. Meanwhile, this president has depraved the language, fooled around with the law, wasted great tranches of everybody’s time, betrayed all his friends and colleagues, and given fine old terms like "philandering" a dirty name. That’s at least five strikes. So should he be out? Hell, no. He should stick around, until all his admirers have had the same amount of "face time" with him and his old and disillusioned supporters already have. That could be a real political education.

(Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair, December 1998)