“‘Tis a Pity He’s a Whore”
OKAY. SO WE DON’T HAVE NIXON to kick around anymore; fortunately we have Joe Klein. I feel as if I owe the guy royalties, given the mileage I’ve gotten out of his whine some 15 years ago in Mother Jones — an irresistibly quotable classic in the annals of male liberal ressentiment — that the left had shamefully turned its attention from the poor to defending the liberties of “women, homosexuals, and marijuana smokers.” I hereby resolve to stop squeezing that one, on the grounds that Klein’s approach to cultural politics has gotten a lot more subtle, as evidenced by his bizarre piece of free association in last week’s Newsweek, “The Politics of Promiscuity.”
Klein starts out declaring that Paula Jones’s accusations against Bill Clinton, like Anita Hill’s against Clarence Thomas, are unprovable and ought to be of no interest to the media. Clinton’s enemies are “despicable,” motivated by ideology or greed. Besides, “it can be persuasively argued” that politicians’ private lives are irrelevant to their public performance; take John Kennedy (I forgo the obvious interjection). “Indeed,” says Klein, “those who have come to the presidency with a prior history of philandering have been more successful than those who haven’t, at least in the 20th century (as opposed to those who’ve come to the presidency with high IQs, who’ve mostly been failures).” (This in itself is a riveting piece of social analysis, which I will generously leave to other commentators to pick over.)
But. (You knew there was a “but.”) The issue won’t go away, because there have been so many previous “allegations of personal misbehavior” against the president and because “it seems increasingly, and sadly, apparent that the character flaw Bill Clinton’s enemies have fixed upon — promiscuity — is a defining characteristic of his public life as well.” That is, the dictionary definition of “promiscuous,” revolving around such concepts as “indiscriminate,” “casual,” and “irregular,” fits the style and substance of Clinton’s governing in both good ways — he is empathetic, skilled at bringing people together and finding common ground, able to disarm opponents and forge compromises — and bad — he lacks principle, wants to please everyone, has trouble saying no, fudges the truth, believes he can “seduce, and abandon, at will and without consequences.”
I can’t quarrel with Klein’s assessment of the moral vacuum at the center of Clinton’s operation, especially in foreign affairs. What bemuses me is the not-so-deep structure of this polemic, which unfolds more or less as follows: Sexual harassment charges against public figures are inherently nebulous and an intrusion of “private life” into public discourse. (Anita Hill, Paula Jones, Gennifer Flowers are all the same in the dark; sexual intimidation, marital infidelity, what’s the dif?) Since JFK displayed a suitable, manly decisiveness in public, “acting in a sober, measured — and inspired — manner during the Cuban missile crisis,” we can assume that he was able to contain his sexual weakness, to confine it to the bedroom, where it belonged; his expenditure of bodily fluids did not corrupt. With Clinton, in contrast, the press can be forgiven for breaching the proper boundary between public and private, because his own libidinal boundaries appear to be alarmingly porous. He is charming and seductive, wont to “wheedle” and “cajole.” “He conveys an impression of complete accessibility, and yet nothing is ever revealed: ‘I’ve had blind dates with women I’ve known more about than I know about Clinton,’ James Carville once complained …” In short, Bill is not only too feminine; his femininity is of the unreliable, manipulative, whorish sort. He has let sex invade the core of his being, as we all know women do (this is why it’s so much worse for a woman to be “promiscuous”); and it is this erotic spillover, this gender betrayal, that explains (or at least symbolizes) his abandonment of Haiti and Bosnia.
In conclusion, Klein quotes Clinton’s definition of character as “a journey, not a destination with ringing disapproval: “There is an adolescent, unformed, half-baked quality to it — as there is to the notion of promiscuity itself: an inability to settle, to stand, to commit … It’s not too much to ask that a leader be mature, fully formed and not flailing about in a narcissistic, existential quest for self-discovery.” Translation: not only has Clinton failed to develop a real masculine superego, he hasn’t sufficiently transcended his roots in the decade that dare not speak its name. To be worthy of power in this era of settling and committing, it’s not enough simply to refrain from inhaling — one must actively spit out. Live by the ’60s, die by the ’60s: having embraced the twin idols of Narcissism and Androgyny, it’s only fitting that Clinton should be zapped by their incestuous offspring, Personal Politics. All clear?
An emerging theme elsewhere on the Paula Jones beat has been the failure of her case to become Anita Hill II (“Paula stunned by feminists’ silence,” a Post headline observed, while in Sunday’s Times Maureen Dowd offered such tidbits as Bob Dornan, suddenly converted to the cause of fighting sexual harassment, sporting an “I Believe Paula” button). Do feminists have a double standard? Have conservatives promoted Jones’s case mainly to embarrass feminists by making them look like hypocrites? Etc., etc.
When Marx amended Hegel to specify that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce, he could have been talking about American popular culture. The outcry over Hill was not only, or even primarily, about sexual harassment per se, but about women’s concerns being ignored by a male-dominated society. It erupted as it did for a whole stew of reasons: the symbolism of the Supreme Court, in the midst of the right’s attempt to pack it with anti-abortion ideologues; the smug protectiveness of the old boys in the Senate; the decade-long, cumulative frustration of women in a political atmosphere that increasingly denied the legitimacy of their anger at men. The eruption transformed that atmosphere, putting gender conflict back on the pop cultural map. It has also had a more problematic effect, namely the push to expand the definition of sexual harassment to cover any kind of male sexual behavior or talk that offends a woman. Even with a relatively specific definition — mine is the deliberate use of sexual attention, or expressions of sexual hostility, as a weapon to punish a woman for presuming to take up public space as other than a sexual object-it’s not easy to draw the line between sexual harassment and plain, reflexive sexual piggishness. (I believed Hill’s account of what Thomas had said, yet listening to her rendition of his words — abstracted from their original context, his tone of voice, his body language — I never felt I could judge whether he was a harasser, or just a sexist jerk.) And to imagine we can change a piggish sexual culture simply by outlawing it (even if feminists agreed on what kind of sexual expression is sexist, which of course they don’t) suggests a naive and frightening faith in the state. In the wake of all the emotion over Thomas-Hill, many feminists have arrived at a quiet recognition of how messy this issue can get. So I don’t think the “silent” women’s groups are merely standing by their man; I think they feel a farce coming on.
The Making of Conventional Wisdom Department: in a recent column in Newsday, James P. Pinkerton of the conservative Manhattan Institute opines, “More than a quarter of all American babies are born outside of marriage. The rate among some groups is much higher, leading, everyone by now agrees, to the chaos and crime of the urban underclass.” Everyone agrees? I don’t think so. There’s been a fair amount of commentary, some of which I’ve written myself, disputing this latest attempt to blame the social and economic crisis of the (black) poor on women’s out-of-control breeding. What “everyone” means is “everyone who counts,” which includes ultraconservatives like Charles Murray (whom Pinkerton refers to as a “gloomy social scientist,” diplomatically omitting mention of his right-wing politics) but excludes anyone to the cultural left of, say, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. ■
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 12, 2020