September 1, 1998
It’s hard not to be furious with Bill Clinton. Not because he fucked—or sucked, or got sucked by, or spurted all over—Monica, or because he cheated on Hillary, or because he lied to the country. The First Adulterer’s real crime is that he didn’t take advantage of his wrecked presidential image by also blowing American sexual hypocrisy to smithereens.
Read his lips: “Yes, I had sex, I enjoyed it, I did exactly what I wanted to do, and you all should be so lucky. You guys wanna impeach me for getting a blowjob? Go right ahead.” If Clinton had dared to say something so nakedly honest, maybe we wouldn’t have had to ask if he was merely asserting his masculinity when he decided to bomb Afghanistan and Sudan. Lies and half-truths can get ugly, especially if you have to send friends, colleagues, and an entire government out to cover up on your behalf.
Integrity, alas, has always been far too revolutionary a concept for politics. Some pols even like to argue that it’s detrimental to effective leadership. Many of Clinton’s signature compromises were built on sexual hypocrisy (just ask Joycelyn Elders or gays in the military). Even after admitting to Gennifer Flowers and dodging Paula Jones, he’s still making a public show of going to church, Hillary in one hand and a Bible in the other.
Clinton bows his head about apparently consensual sex at the same time that a whorehouse is busted in New Jersey and half the businessmen in town are on the premises. When New York cops are getting caught using a brothel. And as ever, politicians are keeping mistresses on the side, or they’re ditching their dying wives, or they’re really gay, but so what? The joy of being a guy is getting to do what a guy gets to do. What’s the point of being Horatio Alger if you can’t reap the rewards?
For men in America, the reward is clearly unbridled sex. Wilt Chamberlain beds 20,000 women. Teddy Kennedy reportedly has intercourse on a table in the secluded room of a posh Washington restaurant. Rock stars gorge on an unending feast of groupies. (Superstar women, by contrast, earn the privilege of bearing children out of wedlock.) The entire capitalist apparatus is set up to sell women as reward: what’s the come-on in the bottom of all those liquor-ad ice cubes? Why do you need some sultry babe to sell a car? Why wouldn’t you want to be like John Kennedy, anyway? Who wouldn’t want to fuck Marilyn Monroe?
Not surprisingly, the media has decided that the drama in the Clinton scandal revolves around women: Hillary’s heartbreak, Monica’s welcoming lips, Tripp’s betrayal, Goldberg’s dirt, Currie on the cross. Indeed, the only time male sex gets called into question is when it somehow fucks up a career. On those rare occasions when the luck of the double standard runs out, the rest of the male establishment snaps to attention. If a guy needs nookie so bad it’s about to cost him his job, something freakish must be going on: it’s for moments like this that terms like sex addict and compulsion were invented. But Clinton’s no sex addict: he’s just another guy who thinks success gives him an inalienable right to whatever he desires.
There is a compulsion that links Clinton to other pols at the center of sexual scandal—not the lascivious behavior, but the childish, self-destructive acting out that starts up when it seems they might really be held responsible for their actions. Back when men were men, it was understood that they could preach monogamy unto death in public and keep a harem in private. Progressive politicians, with their prowoman agenda, pay lip service to a world in which there must be a little more accountability than that. Which is why the guys who behave most bizarrely when they get caught in flagrante delicto tend to be liberals.
First, of course, was candidate Gary Hart, who opened the door on every politician’s bedroom by taunting the media with cries of “Come and get me.” And then there was Senator Bob Packwood, defending the feminist agenda by day and pinning women to his desk by night. Amazingly, Packwood also pulled a Hart. Congress demanded his diaries, and he complied, but kept on writing them, admitting his own lies and cover-up. And, if a recent Drudge Report is to be believed, Clinton fits the same mold: he goes on TV and says he made a mistake, but he allegedly wears Monica’s tie while doing it. As one Drudge source said, that could be construed as Clinton’s “finger to the world.”
But it’s no surprise he’s enraged. In his set, vows are something that can be winked at—unless the little woman is cheating on you. Being suddenly held to the sexual rhetoric that tells Clinton he can only have sex with one woman for the rest of his life must make him want to slit his throat. Hell hath no greater fury than a person whose privileges are suddenly denied. What if you’re a hot young stockbroker and they give you a lousy seat at Le Cirque 2000? What if you’re trying to hail a taxi and they treat you like a black person and won’t pick you up? What if you’re a man who thought that the whole point of power is to get laid and then it turns out you can’t do it anymore? Clinton’s fury was the only authentic emotion in his speech. He’s as angry as every single other Angry White Male we’ve seen over the years.
The president is pissed. Where does Starr get off telling him what to do? How come the most powerful man in the free world can’t get the sexual privilege god gave a jock? Marv Albert’s going back on the air, for god’s sake! Athletes can still get away with raping women! And the president can’t get a blowjob? (Probably the only comparable case of denied privilege in sports is O. J. Simpson’s—like Packwood, he seems to flirt with the idea of confession, and like Clinton, he’s utterly mystified that anything could tarnish his golden glow. But even in this society, murder is going too far. For that, you’ve got to sell the mansion.)
If only Clinton had called a blowjob a blowjob, he might have started an adult conversation about sex, relationships, power, and privilege. He might have helped remake America as a nation that could have real scandals, like Italy or Japan. He could have disrupted the narrative of Hillary as victim and sparked a more intelligent discourse about the possibility of a union in which the bonds may not be primarily sexual. It would be fascinating to hear Hillary discuss such a marriage, except that she too is wedded to fake story lines. She may have replaced the previous months’ incessant hand-holding with an equally suspect distance, but that’s most likely just Bill’s scripted punishment. When she permits his redemption, will the whole country follow suit?
Clinton could have contributed something really useful to the public exchange in that speech of his. But no. And so the same old tired songs play nauseatingly on.