Clinton as the first black president
New Yorker, October 1998
Thanks to the papers, we know what the columnists think. Thanks to round-the-clock cable, we know what the ex-prosecutors, the right-wing blondes, the teletropic law professors, and the disgraced political consultants think. Thanks to the polls, we know what "the American people" think. But what about the experts on human folly?
This summer, my plan was to do very selective
radio listening, read no newspapers or news magazines, and leave my television
screen profoundly, mercifully blank. There were books to read, others to
finish, a few to read again. It was a lovely summer, and I was pleased
with the decision to recuse myself from what had become since January The
Only Story Worth Telling. Although I wanted cognitive space for my own
pursuits, averting my gaze was not to bury my head. I was eager for information,
yet suspicious of the package in which that information would be wrapped.
I have been convinced for a long time now that, with a few dazzling exceptions,
print and visual media have thrown away their freedom and chosen jail instead--have
willingly locked themselves into a ratings-driven, moneybased prison of
their own making. However comfortable the prison may be, its most overwhelming
feature is loss of the public. Not able, therefore, to trust reporters
to report instead of gossip among themselves, unable to bear newscasters
deflecting, ignoring, trivializing information--orchestrating its minor
chords for the highest decibel--I decided to get my news the old-fashioned
way: conversation, public eavesdropping, and word of mouth.
I hoped to avoid the spectacle I was sure
would be mounted, fearing that at any minute I might have to witness ex-Presidential
friends selling that friendship for the higher salaries of broadcast journalism;
anticipating the nausea that might rise when quaking Democrats took firm
positions on or over the fence in case the polls changed. I imagined feral
Republicans, smelling blood and a shot at the totalitarian power they believe
is rightfully theirs; self-congratulatory pundits sifting through "history"
for nuggets of dubious relevancy.
I did not relinquish my summer plans, but
summer is over now and I have begun to supplement verbal accounts of the
running news with tentative perusal of C-SPAN, brief glimpses of anchorfolk,
squinting glances at newspaper--trying belatedly to get the story straight.
What, I have been wondering, is the story--the one only the public seems
to know? And what does it mean?
I wish that the effluvia did add up to
a story of adultery. Serious as adultery is, it is not a national catastrophe.
Women leaving hotels following trysts with their extramarital lovers tell
pollsters they abominate Mr. Clinton's behavior. Relaxed men fresh from
massage parlors frown earnestly into the camera at the mere thought of
such malfeasance. No one "approves" of adultery, but, unlike fidelity in
Plymouth Rock society, late-twentieth-century fidelity, when weighed against
the constitutional right to privacy, comes up short. The root of the word,
adulterare, means "to defile," but at its core is treachery. Cloaked
in deception and secrecy, it has earned prominence on lists of moral prohibitions
and is understood as more than a sin; in divorce courts it is a crime.
People don't get arrested for its commission, but they can suffer its grave
Still, it is clear that this is not a narrative
of adultery or even of its consequences for the families involved. Is there
anyone who believes that that was all the investigation had in mind? Adultery
is the Independent Counsel's loss leader, the item displayed to lure the
customers inside the shop. Nor was it ever a story about seduction--male
vamp or female predator (or the other way around). It played that way a
little: a worn tale of middle-aged vulnerability and youthful appetite.
The Achilles' heel analogy flashed for a bit, but had no staying power,
although its ultra meaning--that Achilles' heel was given to Achilles,
not to a lesser man--lay quietly dormant under the cliché.
At another point, the story seemed to be
about high and impeachable crimes like the ones we have had some experience
with: the suborning of federal agencies; the exchange of billion-dollar
contracts for proof of indiscretion; the extermination of infants in illegal
wars mounted and waged for money and power. Until something like those
abuses surfaces, the story will have to make do with thinner stuff: alleged
perjury and "Lady, your husband is cheating on us." Whatever the media
promote and the chorus chants, whatever dapples dinner tables, this is
not a mundane story of sex, lies, and videotape. The real story is none
of these. Not adultery, or high crimes. Nor is it even the story of a brilliant
President naive enough to believe, along with the rest of the citizenry,
that there were lines one's enemies would not cross, lengths to which they
would not go--a profound, perhaps irrevocable, error in judgment.
In a quite baffling and frustrating manner,
it was not a "story" but a compilation of revelations and commentary which
shied away from the meaning of its own material. In spite of myriad "titles"
("The President in Crisis"), what the public has been given is dangerously
close to a story of no story at all. One of the problems in locating it
is the absence of a coherent sphere of enunciation. There seems to be no
appropriate language in which or platform of discourse from which to pursue
it. This absence of clear language has imploded into a surfeit of contradictory
languages. The parsing and equivocal terminology of law is laced with titillation.
Raw comedy is spiked with Cotton Mather homilies. The precision of a coroner's
vocabulary mocks passionate debates on morality. Radiant sermons are forced
to dance with vile headlines. From deep within this conflagration of tony,
occasionally insightful, arch, pompous, mournful, supercilious, generous,
salivating verbalism, the single consistent sound to emerge is a howl of
But revulsion against what? What is being
violated, ruptured, defiled? The bedroom? The Oval Office? The voting booth?
The fourth grade? Marriage vows? The flag? Whatever answer is given, underneath
the national embarrassment churns a disquiet turned to dread and now anger.
African-American men seemed to understand
it right away. Years ago, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation,
one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first
black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be
elected in our children's lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost
every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class,
saxophone-playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas. And
when virtually all the African-American Clinton appointees began, one by
one, to disappear, when the President's body, his privacy, his unpoliced
sexuality became the focus of the persecution, when he was metaphorically
seized and bodysearched, who could gainsay these black men who knew whereof
they spoke? The message was clear "No matter how smart you are, how hard
you work, how much coin you earn for us, we will put you in your place
or put you out of the place you have somehow, albeit with our permission,
achieved. You will be fired from your job, sent away in disgrace, and--who
knows?--maybe sentenced and jailed to boot. In short, unless you do as
we say (i.e., assimilate at once), your expletives belong to us."
For a large segment of the population who
are not African-Americans or members of other minorities, the elusive story
left visible tracks: from target sighted to attack, to criminalization,
to lynching, and now, in some quarters, to crucifixion. The always and
already guilty "perp" is being hunted down not by a prosecutor's obsessive
application of law but by a different kind of pursuer, one who makes new
laws out of the shards of those he breaks.
Certain freedoms I once imagined as being
in a vault somewhere, like ancient jewels kept safe from thieves. No single
official or group could break in and remove them, certainly not in public.
The image is juvenile, of course, and I have not had recourse to it for
the whole of my adult fife. Yet it is useful now to explain what I perceive
as the real story. For each bootstep the office of the Independent Counsel
has taken smashes one of those jewels--a ruby of grand-jury secrecy here,
a sapphire of due process there. Such concentrated power may be reminiscent
of a solitary Torquemada on a holy mission of lethal inquisition. It may
even suggest a fatwa. But neither applies. This is Slaughtergate. A sustained,
bloody, arrogant coup d'éat. The Presidency is being stolen from
us. And the people know it.
I don't regret my "news-free" summer. Getting
at the story in that retrograde fashion has been rewarding. Early this
week, a neighbor called to ask if I would march. Where? To Washington,
she said. Absolutely, I answered, without even asking what for. "We have
to prevent the collapse of our Constitution," she said.
We meet tonight.--Toni Morrison