Before Pardongate there was Giftgate, starring red-handed Hillary; Officegate, set in posh Carnegie Hall Tower; Vandalgate, with that wacky White House staff; and Lootgate, in which Bill Clinton pilfers Air Force One on his way to New York. These shock-horrors join Travelgate, Chinagate, Cattlegate (featuring funny futures), Filegate, Fornigate, Fostergate—no fewer than 132 scandals, according to the right-wing Judicial Watch. Clinton’s enemies have accused him of 57 murders, not to mention abetting drug smugglers and fathering a black love child. Then there’s Whitewater and the most impeachable offense of all (no need to elaborate).
But the scandal most likely to sink Clinton—if only because he lacks the power to fight it—involves his penchant for profitable pardons. This time there’s no harm to the national interest in hounding him, so the dogs of punditry are set loose. A nation is urged to shun the symbol of its degradation. Except we don’t. All eyes are fixed on the Big Creep—and with three congressional committees gunning up investigations, we’ll be glued to Clinton for some time.
Meanwhile, George W. Bush acts the role of the country gentleman lifting his nose at the local lowlife and vowing to “move forward.” His failure to command attention strikes the press as evidence of a “tentative” style. But under the yuks, Bush is moving with dispatch to enact a program that would radically shift the position of classes and the status of groups in American society. Whether the Democrats stand up to this transformation remains to be seen, but the Clinton scandals have knocked the wind out of their already slack sails.
“Why Move On?” asks the conservative Weekly Standard. “This Is Too Much Fun.” And it’s true. As the faux Clinton on Saturday Night Live proclaimed last week, he’s a living Big Mac. You promise never to eat another, yet “you keep coming back because it tastes soooo good.” But what is actually being devoured in this happy meal? Before you swallow the case against Clinton, consider its uses.
As long as he was president, Clinton was the scandalizers’ chief target. Some of his associates also felt the wrath of Starr, as did the Whore of Babylon, his wife. But bringing him down was what gave the impeachment its ritual ring. And there is still an air of obsession in Clinton’s most fervent critics that recalls the fixation of the good old boys in Tennessee Williams’s Orpheus Descending who drag the young stud in a snakeskin jacket off to be castrated.
But it’s a mistake to regard this inquisition as a purely mythopoeic exercise. There is power at stake here, and for the right, that end justifies the means of scandal. This is why, in the current round, Clinton’s friends are taking center stage. While he held the Oval Office, the goal was to disable the president, but now that he is merely a member of the Harlem gentry, the idea is to make it difficult—if not dangerous—for any public figure to associate with the First Sinner.
For Clinton, this isolation would be a fatal blow. No former president—at least in modern times—has been so dependent on rich cronies. Until he purchased his Chappaqua digs (on a 30-year mortgage, no less) Clinton had no home of his own. Kill his connections, dry up his speaker fees, threaten his pension and you destroy him. But aside from primal vengeance, there’s another motive for this demonization—and it has to do with politics.
Whether you like the result or not, Clinton was the most politically successful Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson. His genius at finding and holding the center, not to mention raising money, remains a powerful weapon for his party. This ammo will be rendered useless if the Republicans succeed in making Clinton a stain on civic virtue. As liberals veer between helplessness and horror, scandal will once again be the instrument of right-wing power.
This is not to say that Clinton is the victim of superior forces, or of circumstance. He was our most Nixonian president since, well, Nixon. So perhaps the most important question is why such men give their enemies the means to destroy them.
The answer lies in the power of stigma to produce the very behavior its targets stand accused of. You can see this dynamic operating in every minority group that replicates the stereotypes about them. Only when the stigma is lifted, usually by social agitation, does it become clear that these people have the full range of character traits. The most astonishing thing about carrying the mark of Cain is that it is imbedded in your body, as Franz Kafka observed in his finest fable, In the Penal Colony. You are your crime.
For Clinton, the stigma he now bears must echo the conditions of his childhood. Born in Arkansas to a poor single mother, he was subject to the full brutality of the South’s class and caste system. So many qualities that are otherwise inexplicable—his slipperiness, grubbiness, and excess—are classic markers of a man who rose from trailer trash. These traits invite the mockery that other politicians, who show more class, are spared.
Despite all the jokes about W’s inherited connections, no one is hauling him up on morals charges. The tabs didn’t torment Ronald Reagan for accepting $2.5 million from his friends to finance his ranch or $2 million for two brief speeches in Japan. (Poppy Bush’s comment at the time was: “Everybody has to make a living.”) No one cried treason when Richard Nixon pardoned Jimmy Hoffa shortly before the Teamsters endorsed him. With Clinton, it’s the cheesiness as much as the corruption that enables the scandal.
Clinton is not just a personality, he’s a type: the glad-handing, quick-witted trickster who appears in Southern fiction as Brer Rabbit or Sporting Life. His most infamous trait—the gluttonous need for approval and affection—gives Clinton his formidable “common touch,” but it also makes him vulnerable to stigma, and likely to internalize it. There is no fitter explanation for Clinton’s calamitous behavior with Monica Lewinsky or for his politically catastrophic pardons. He has given his enemies everything they need by being what they want him to be.
Of course, there have been other presidents who grew up in hardship and endured outrageous calumny without losing their personal and political integrity. For that matter, many members of stigmatized groups resist their designated destiny. Whatever the source of this strength, it allows such people to take their cues primarily from within. Clinton lacks this capacity. That’s why he makes such a good victim, and why his torment is so entertaining.
Nothing satisfies sadistic impulses like the fall of a very powerful man. Nothing makes for better television—or more effective politics.
Research: Michael Corwin
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 27, 2001