Toni Morrison

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 consequences.

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 revulsion.

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