Like the Christian morality plays of the late Middle Ages, the quasi-improvised piece of Republican dramatic literature currently being performed at interminable length in Washington is meant to educate the illiterate mob while it entertains. In the old plays, actors playing abstract embodiments of virtues and vices struggled for the soul of a human hero; here the story of Bill Clinton’s fall from presidential grace through fellatial infidelity is seen as grounds for impeachment, the Republicans’ rather pallid substitute for the church’s traditional threat of eternal damnation. If the angels of Congress so judge, Clinton will be driven from the White House with fire and sword, to wander the world eternally, never again presiding over an Easter egg roll on the South Lawn or a quick cigar in the Oval Office.
Unfortunately for the Republicans, while their analogy doesn’t hold up, their event has one further point of similarity to church productions of the 14th century: The audience adores the entertainment but could hardly care less about the doctrine being taught. They’re having a gossip holiday; whatever Congress does or doesn’t do, they’ll go contentedly back to work at the end of it. If the opposition party decides that Clinton’s lied too often to stay in the White House, they’ll learn to say “President Gore,” and not be one whit less cynical about the motives behind the uproar.
Granted, Clinton is nobody’s idea of a moral hero. But Mankind, Everyman, and similar figures at the center of the old plays are as bad if not worse. What sinks this particular drama is the patent phoniness of the characters we’re supposed to take as morally superior to him. Whatever god scripts these Republican dramas–presumably the god of Oral Roberts rather than oral sex–can have no notion of how tinny and anachronistic his figures seem. The hypocrite as a stage type belongs to a later, more sophisticated mode of drama, where he’s meant to be hard to detect; when hypocrites cast themselves as embodiments of virtue in these simple folk plays, the public can easily spot them a mile off for the fakes they are. Kenneth Starr’s far too pipsqueaky, too nakedly envious of his target, to bring much grandeur to the role of an Avenging Angel, while nothing looks sillier than Newt Gingrich trying to live up to the long white beard traditionally sported by the God of judgment, especially with nothing but a used cigar to wave about in lieu of the traditional orb and scepter. And there must surely have been some hilarity in the wardrobe room over trying to fit Orrin Hatch and Henry Hyde into the robes of St. Peter and the Archangel Michael. Who are these guys trying to kid? Traditionalist as I am about classic drama, I wish some avant-garde director could get hold of this production and reconceive it with the actors switching roles. Ask each high-ranking Republican how he would have testified in Clinton’s place, with seats on the Impeachment Committee to be withheld from those whose answers are obvious lies. I loathe the score of Les Miz, but “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” would be the only suitable song for the scene that followed.
Even if the cast were adequate, the drama would still have the problem of its essential triviality; morality plays are meant to deal with the biggest human questions, and this play ostensibly began with the large and ominous one of malfeasance in office. The public doesn’t clutter its memory with details, but it recalls buzzwords, and it knows that the $40 million it’s just spent on this investigation was supposed to have something to do with a matter called Whitewater. Instead of which they get–what? Alleged perjury and subornation of witnesses in a civil suit–or rather, not in a civil suit, since the whole line of testimony involved was ruled irrelevant by the judge in that case–plus the same stuff over again before Starr’s grand jury while it investigated the civil suit, which it wasn’t supposed to be investigating in the first place. And all over the one subject on which every adult human being alive regularly and consistently lies, in public and in private, for one reason or another: sex outside marriage. Even in the 15th century, they left that one for farcical interludes; moralities were about big subjects like lack of charity, greed, and arrogance in office–all specialties of the Republicans self-cast here as angels, virtues, and judges.
If sex is man’s downfall, the Republicans have at least chosen their protagonist correctly: Bill Clinton was never closer to the ordinary slob than he is on this topic. But that, of course, is precisely the drama’s unraveling. Since the Republicans’ peculiar proceedings leave no room for redemption, forgiveness, or mitigating circumstances, their elaborate maneuverings produce neither good Christianity nor good law: They’ve confused the morality play with its even older predecesssor, the mystery cycle. But Adam’s fall, on which they seem fixated, is only the prologue to an extended drama of salvation. Starr’s whole investigation has been based on a presumption of Clinton’s guilt, keeping the grand jury in session until it could find something to charge him with; the Congressional majority sounds off as if that guilt has been decided and only the degree of punishment remains to be weighed. That’s not justice; it’s Alice in Wonderland. “First the trial, then the beheading.” Its predictability makes it lousy drama, too.
It is good Christianity, unfortunately, in the sense in which American Christians have come to (mis)understand their religion over the last few decades. The real drama here isn’t about whose DNA is in the cum stains on Monica’s dress; it’s about how the postures and threats of Christianity got transformed into Republican political procedure, with the teachings of Jesus, especially any concept of atonement or forgiveness, carefully left out. Just as mystery cycles don’t end with Adam’s expulsion from Eden, morality plays don’t end with the hero being cast into the pit of eternal damnation. They end with the hero redeemed, and on his way to the pearly gates, with everybody singing a hearty Laudamus. But then, Jesus wasn’t much of a partisan in politics; he said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” and left it at that.
The Republicans aren’t about to render anything unto Clinton; they see Gingrich in his place. Consequently, that Bill let Monica blow him, and then didn’t care to discuss the matter, has to be the unforgivable sin of all time. The legislative body that shied away from impeaching Richard Nixon (whose crimes against the Constitution were beyond counting), and declined to censure Reagan and Bush (whose fiddling with arms to Iran was as close to treasonable as any presidential act on record), is now rolling merrily toward the impeachable quickie between consenting adults. In terms of American politics, this demonstration of petty-mindedness is a social tragedy of the highest order. As the morality drama the Republican leadership would like it to be, it’s a painful, embarrassing burlesque: the sternest, most puritanically judgmental hauteur being exercised by a gang of greedy, bigoted, self-indulgent thieves dressed up as ministering angels over a dumb schnook who has the pathetic habit of thinking with his dick. Whatever they do to him legally, in aesthetic terms the sanctimonious cartoon going on around him makes compromising, evasive, agenda-mucking, muddle-headed Slick Willie look, in contrast, more like a hero than ever. That he probably won’t get a happy ending only tells you again that the jerks pursuing him don’t understand the form of the drama they’re spending so much of your money to create. And you thought Broadway ticket prices were high.
One of four articles in our Clinton’s Sex Scandal feature.