ON THE DAY Kenneth Starr’s report to the U.S. House of Representatives was to be released, President Clinton began the day with a choked-up speech at the annual White House Prayer Breakfast. Assembled before him were religious leaders from all denominations–Episcopal to Sufi–many of whom had been charged by their parishes to censure Mr. Clinton for his admitted dalliance with intern Monica Lewinsky.
“I have been on quite a journey these past few weeks,” Mr. Clinton said, as if his public whipping were some sort of exalted vision quest. “I have sinned,” he said, but also, “I have repented.” Like the preacher Jimmy Swaggert after his sex scandal swept away his billion dollar ministry, the President resorted to stagey soul-searching, trying to make the pious men and women before him believe he “would try to continue on a path of repentence.”
The rhetoric the President used throughout his speech was Scriptural, and harkened back to that Southern Baptist past, broadcasting his deepest feelings to the back benches, hoping they could see that we’re all fallen, all sinners in the eyes of God. Then suddenly he took a rabbi’s musings on atonement a friend had given him and made it his own, rocked it and rolled it, even got one or two preachers in the crowd to “Uh-huh!” and “Yes!” with his points. But only one or two. This was by no means a revival meeting.
As TV drama, though, the pre-emptive speech was lush as a soap opera, and just as predictable. Mr. Clinton has been accused of not being sorry enough in his public speeches (especially a major primetime speech a few weeks ago, in which he spent most of his time attacking Starr), so this morning he made sure to humble and abase himself, show an abjectness so far lacking. The mighty had fallen and it hurt, that was the message.
Amazing, I thought, somehow the media has the President of the United States groveling over a blowjob.
“I am a broken spirit,” he said, and you could almost believe he wasn’t lying.
Of all the desires we attribute to Bill Clinton–beyond the appetite for fast food and women–the one that has never wavered, never once been in question, is his desire to be the President. Like Nixon, he wanted the job even when he was a teenager. Professionally, everything he has done in the last thirty-five years has been with the aim of gaining and holding that position. And he’s done a relatively good job. Despite a strong paper trail and ample opportunity, Kenneth Starr could not snag him in the web of Whitewater. Politically, he’d avoided his greatest danger, and easily, it seemed. So his sexual appetite (and terrible judgment) seems a strange and fatal flaw, a blind spot, and there’s no doubt he’s paying for it. Whether it was an act or not, standing in front of the prayer breakfast crowd, Mr. Clinton seemed to not want to be the President anymore. He seemed tired and overcome by events that had not yet happened. Publicly, Nixon would have never given the media or his accusers that satisfaction.
But contrition was what was called for, and the President did his best to project it, even apologizing to Miss Lewinsky herself, saying he was seeking pastoral help, and possibly professional help. His handlers were surely pleased with the result, thinking he’d said what the American public needed to hear. True repentence means a second chance, a clean slate, a fresh soul, and who in this forever new-again country could be against that? Hadn’t our original European settlers come to escape not only persecution by other governments but the persecutions of one’s own less-than-blameless past?
Commentators for all the major TV networks speculated as to how this speech would play to the American people, throwing up a number of instant polls that showed 60% thought the President should stay in office. I think that number’s probably accurate. While most people are disgusted with the President’s behavior, they also don’t see what will be gained by kicking him out. It will be a waste of time, some say; why not let him just finish hs term, it’s not that long and he’s crippled politically anyway. And 100% of Americans do not want Al Gore for President. So let the President stay; it will be shame enough. Republican partisans and Clinton-haters say he should go; his behavior was reprehensible and then he lied to the grand jury. He’s been lying all along, and even before we elected him we knew he was morally reprehensible. His actions, they claim, just show how naive and even stupid the people who voted for him are (not like us, who presumably voted for those paragons of virtue Nixon (Laos, Cambodia, Watergate) and Reagan-and-Bush (Iran-Contra)). The 60-40 split falls pretty much along party lines, the conservatives or right-wingers demanding he be impeached, the centrists saying he should stay. As of 1998, there is no organized left-wing party of any size in the U.S., though I’d posit that they would either choose for Clinton to stay, fearing the alternative to him, or abstain from the debate, calling it puerile and damning everyone in the system.
The fact is that at this point it really doesn’t matter what the public thinks. It probably has never mattered, yet TV needs to cultivate that personal relationship between viewer and event (Next on NewsChannel 12, What the Uraguayan Earthquake means to you!), otherwise, they think, why would we watch? But the decisions that matter are not up to the people. The Independent Counsel’s Report will go to the House Judiciary Committee, led by the Republican Henry Hyde. The Committee will then decide what recommendation to give the House as a whole–whether there truly are grounds for impeachment or not. It will all be handled inside the halls of Congress; that is, it has nothing to do with public opinion and everything to do with politics. Clinton has been fair game since the beginning of the Whitewater investigation, and now Starr has come up with something that will stick. The President’s fate will be decided by how many votes each party can muster, or what deals might be cut behind closed doors.
The process isn’t new, only the material of the scandal. All this time Kenneth Starr was supposed to be investigating Whitewater, trying to tie the Clintons (mainly Hilary) to a land scam that took place in Arkansas well before he was President. How the investigation proceeded to Paula Jones and then to Monica Lewinsky is a simple case of partisan politics. Starr obviously wanted to get the President, and would do anything to that end. A good half the people polled said they blamed not Clinton but Starr for all the trouble, and that the President’s sexual relations are a private affair.
But that too, is beside the point. It’s a public affair now, a true fullblown sex scandal, and we will have to grind our way to the very end of it–and even more so now that Mr. Starr’s Report has been released.
The anticipation with which the media awaited the release was delicious, a frenzy of team coverage and speculation not seen since the Watergate days (and what a lovely irony that Miss Lewinsky kept an apartment in the Watergate). The House vote to release or not release the report came as the President’s Prayer Breakfast wound up, with live coverage tallying the votes. It wasn’t close: 363 for, 63 against, with all 63 against Democrats. The procedure would now be: first, copies of the report delivered to the Republicans and Democrats; a copy for the White House; and a copy put up on the private House internet server; then, later, copies for the press and a copy on the World Wide Web.
Strangely, this may be the first major historical use of the World Wide Web. People with the government’s printing office were saying that, with the number of hits the websites were taking Friday morning, that the Report may be the most widely deseminated document ever. Several publishers in New York were contemplating rushing out copies, as they had in the ’60s and ’70s with reports on the riots of the Long Hot Summer, The Pentagon Papers, and of course the Watergate proceedings. How odd, I thought, that something like this could even pretend to rival the gravity and scope of LBJ’s or Nixon’s crimes.
All morning, CNN ruminated breathlessly about what might be in the Report, quoting unnamed sources that it “read like a novel,” and that it was full of “salacious details” of the sexual encounters between the President and Miss Lewinsky, trying, I suppose, to titillate us into reading it–which, they speculated, may have been Kenneth Starr’s reason for including such naughty bits. Onscreen, a reporter named Candy Crowley sat at a computer monitor watching the private House version of the website (publicly: www.house.loc.gov), waiting for the Report to pop up. Around the country, remote live broadcasts showed average Americans waiting at terminals for the same thing, as if for a performance of something rare and exciting.
Before the report hit Candy’s screen, the President’s lawyers issued a rebuttal to it. “A pre-buttal,” one reporter called it, and read some of the more acid paragraphs. The investigation was a partisan one, not truly independent; nothing about Whitewater or Travelgate had been addressed, let alone proved; the President’s sex life is private; and the President did not have sex with Miss Lewinsky under the definition of sex set forth in the Paula Jones case. Nothing new there.
“The President’s testiphony,” he says, messing up. Again, he says the Report reads like a novel. As a novelist, I’m getting a little pissed off.
The definition of sex in the Paula Jones case should be noted though. The definition is broad enough in one way, saying that any contact between genitals, breasts, buttocks, upper thighs, etc, to gratify a sexual desire is considered sex. And yet the definition completely leaves out the mouth–a shocking omission, considering the Jones case was a sexual harassment case, and that unprovoked and unwanted kissing is one of the most common forms of sexual harrassment. Just as Mr. Clinton is being disingenuous when he says he didn’t have a sexual relationship with Miss Lewinsky even though she performed oral sex on him, Mr. Starr is being just plain dumb (and ridiculously prim) in leaving the mouth off the list.
More leaks followed all afternoon. One reporter states that an unnamed source disclosed that there is phone sex on page 18 of the Report, and “unusual sex” on page 31, sex games on page 32, another sexual encounter on page 35, like a randy boy with a dirty novel folding down the corner of those pages with “good parts” on them.
Finally Candy gets the Report on her terminal. The camera zooms in so we can see the screen (but with that stroboscopic horizontal line that always shows up when a video camera takes a picture of a TV screen, the line eternally inching toward the top of the screen inside your screen as if their vertical hold is broken). Candy reads the text aloud as we read it at home. She chooses one stiffly written part and then a sexy part. This tactic doesn’t change: one bureaucratic utterance, one porno shot. The political news, it seems–on every level–has become an excuse to wallow in the sex lives of other people.
And when the Report finally does arrive on the public’s terminals, the bloodless political parts are immediately jettisoned. There is absolutely nothing new in Kenneth Starr’s charges, nothing new in the procedures to be followed. Everything that truly affects the President’s future is just as dull and unnewsworthy as it was months ago. Only the packaging is different, and that packaging is made attractive by the details of the romance between the President and Miss Lewinsky. In Hollywood, the question is always: Where’s the love interest? Well, here it is.
Baldly, the facts are that Miss Lewinsky performed oral sex on the President less than a dozen times, and only twice to completion (with all the salacious detail, there’s not a word about her swallowing or not), one time staining the infamous blue dress with come. Accoding to her testimony, her fondled and kissed her bare brests, stimulated her to orgasm, and once placed his penis against her genitals. The “unusual sex” is that once the President slipped the tip of a cigar into her vagina and then put it in his mouth. There’s also phone sex, though that–like phone sex itself–is rather nebulous, its consequences never really brought out.
But the real story–this section is entitled “Narrative”–isn’t about sex, it’s about romance. If this is the part of the Report that reads like a novel (and the rest reads like a lab report), it is a bad romance novel written by a teenage girl. The story of the beautiful, innocent young intern meeting the fun, sexy President starts with their eyes meeting, moves on to playful flirtation and then a stolen kiss in a dark hallway, his strong hands on her soft and yielding, proud young breasts. It’s all Danielle Steel and Barbara Cartland, and narrated so sweetly by Miss Lewinsky that you really do feel for these star-crossed lovers. The blowjobs while he’s on the telephone to other political figures don’t quite fit the boy-meets-girl sappiness of the plot, but that’s just sex. What’s important is emotion–real feelings, you perverts. Miss Lewinsky didn’t expect she’d fall in love with the President, but, she admits, she did.
She gives him a tie which he wears just for her to send her a special message. They break up because Handsome (Bill, I mean, the President) thinks it’s not right. When they pass in the hall a month later, she asks where he got the neat tie, and he says, “from a girl with style.” He asks her to a movie (right there in the White House) but she declines because too many people might see her. Oh, the yearning! Can Fate really keep these two apart?
No, because Hillary (rarely mentioned by Miss Lewinsky, or only in connection to Handsome hinting that he might actually be single after this second term is over) is winging her way to Greece and Ireland and Denver and Prague and Budapest and Las Vegas and Bolivia. There are stolen moments in the windowless hallway, the bathroom, on the phone late at night. Mushy notes passed between them. “Hey, Handsome, I like your tie!”
The office, sure, but the gardener always seems to be peeking through the window, and Monica sees the President has his eyes open during their Christmas kiss, she’s angry. It’s not romantic, she says. But I’m only looking out for us, the Prez says.
It can’t go on. Girl loses boy. She’s hurt and angry, calls him up. He turns practical on her. “Every day can’t be sunshine,” he says.
So for Valentine’s Day lat year she puts a note in the Washington Post classified addressed to Handsome, a quote from Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2:
With love’s light wings did
I o’er perch these walls
For stony limits cannot hold love out,
And what love can do that dares love attempt.
It wins him back–or is it that they just naturally fall back together? For the first time, he comes during oral sex with her. He’s worried, says it isn’t right, that they really have to stop. I don’t want to get addicted to you, he says, and I don’t want you to get addicted to me. They seem to be getting closer, talking more. Earlier in his marriage, he says, he had hundreds of affairs, but since turning 40, he’s made an effort to be faithful. Unspoken here, I suppose, by either the President or Miss Lewinsky in her testimony, is that he simply could not resist her, that despite his conscious efforts to be good, his heart recognized that she truly was the one special woman for him.
And they have those old-style ditzy romantic-comedy moments. One time, she says, I was just babbling on about something, and he just kissed me, kind of to shut me up. Shut up and kiss me, you fool!
They part once more, though Bill says that in three years he might be alone. Monica thinks they’d make a good team. Bill jokes, what will they do when he’s 75 and needs to pee 25 times a day?
“I just know he was in love with me,” Monica says.
They see each other in August of last year, but when she tries to be romantic with him, he rebuffs her. It’s terrible. Tears, confusion in her lonely room. She sends a note: “It was awful when I saw you for your birthday in August. You were so distant that I missed you as I was holding you in my arms.”
He doesn’t return her calls, and she’s angry now, hurt. She says things she doesn’t mean, threatens him. And he’s angry back: if he’d known what kind of person she was . . .
Still, she doesn’t quit. Love doesn’t let that happen, you always come back. In November she mentions to him the interesting effect Altoids have on oral sex. Bill says he doesn’t have time.
In December, Monica writes: “I knew it would hurt to say goodbye to you; I just never thought it would have to be on paper.” And on December 28th last year, they have their last physical meeting. She gives him a book about the Presidents of the United States and a love note inspired by the movie “Titanic.”
It’s all so sad now, after all these terrible things have happened to spoil their love. But it’s nothing compared to Jack and Rose in “Titanic.” Doesn’t Celine Dion say, “I know that my heart will go on”? Near, far, wherever you are.