Sound Bites and Fury


As the impeachment beast dies and pundits move on to fresh meat, intellectuals have begun the task of reading the creature’s entrails. What happened here? What did it all mean? Now that it’s time to talk subtext, academics—regardless of their personal feelings about Bill Clinton—are probably the only people in America having fun with this thing.

Why, for example, did the House managers insist on a show trial, even though its outcome was a done deal, the evidence already divulged, disseminated, and digested. It had to be a performance of some sort. Not that the managers were “acting”—their rage at the president was palpable in their body language. Some of them were trembling. On talk shows, fellow true believers displayed the bright eyes and set lower jaw of the dog before it bites, conveying their passion but failing to sell it to the rest of America.

Was the intention in the Senate to conduct a shaming ritual for Bill Clinton? Richard Schechner, the theater innovator and NYU drama professor who’s studied ritual around the world, says, “It’s more like Macbeth. They’ve stepped in so deep that they don’t have a way out.” And the production was a fiasco. “The basic audience for whom it’s played, the voters, are throwing tomatoes and saying, ‘Get off the stage.”‘

Schechner thinks it didn’t play because the punishment didn’t fit the crime. “It’s like getting hauled in for a misdemeanor and then facing capital punishment. People don’t like that. What the Republicans should have done was see the maximum damage they could inflict and get away with. They potentially could have really embarrassed him.” Perhaps they could have used a dramaturge to help them build toward censure, since now, as Schechner observes, “Even if they pass censure, it’s an anticlimax. I don’t think Clinton’s going to be shamed at all. He’s really lucky to have an enemy like Ken Starr. If you have a witch hunter as your enemy—even if you’re a witch—you turn out good.”

Who is Clinton? Here’s where the syllabus might begin: Schechner has written a piece for the upcoming Drama Review casting Clinton as Oedipus, living dangerously and wanting Dad to punish him, while Hillary plays Jocasta, the more-or-less forgiving wife and mother.

But Clinton (like Ronald Reagan) is a postmodern prez, a pure screen onto whom so many roles can be projected. “Clinton is Hamlet,” says Linda Kauffman, author of the cultural studies text Bad Girls and Sick Boys. “He’s the one who has to be sacrificed to make the state clean again, the something rotten in Denmark.”

Many invoked Hollywood’s hottest new writer, Shakespeare, but all chose a different play, and that must mean something too. That the impeachment isn’t one kind of tragedy? That it might even be a comedy? A senator who refused to identify himself to The New York Times made an obvious reference: Much Ado About Nothing. But cultural historian Ann Douglas cited Edmund in King Lear as Clinton-esque. He’s a villain, but in Elizabethan times, audiences went wild for his famous speech: “Now, gods, stand up for bastards.”

Henry Hyde also sampled the Bard’s Henry V in that dizzying blizzard of quotations that passed for a closing argument: “We few, we happy few,” he labeled his grim House managers. Schechner points out that Hyde looks like the idiotic authority figure Pere Ubu, the most famous character in the Theater of the Absurd: “He’s pear shaped, he waddles, he spouts this nonsense.”

Hyde’s last speech even toyed with outright abjection as he posed the question of whether, after the culture war—after the acquittal of this rogue president—there would still be an America “worth fighting for.” This was a genuinely absurd performance, an attempt to weave a mantle of statesmanship and nobility for his cause from Bartlett’s.

He blew it. That summarizes the conflict at the heart of this drama. Jose Muñoz, a performance studies scholar, says it’s all about southern masculinity. (Clinton, Starr, and most of the managers are white southern men.) “Part of the transgression is that Clinton ruined it for the rest of these people,” Muñoz observes. “He has appeared as a lot of the toxic stereotypes they would like to keep under wraps.” First, the Bubba tropes—womanizer, cheater, “product of a broken home”; then the proximity to people of color. “They’d rather have that lid closed.”

Critic Ellen Willis, however, casts the drama as a conflict between sexual secrecy and sexual privacy. “Politicians have always been judged on their conformity to ‘family values.’ The only difference is that we had this trade-off where as long as they supported marital respectability and family values in public, they could do what they wanted in private, and the press wouldn’t interfere. The basic idea was to uphold conservative norms and give the impression that the people in authority actually practiced the values they preached and also to keep the facts of sex and people’s sex lives away from women and children as far as possible. The breakdown of this is really a breakdown of Victorianism. So in the historical view, it’s a good thing.

“On the other hand, it isn’t yet established that consensual sex is nobody else’s business. So in that gap there’s an opportunity for sexual witch hunters and it creates a cognitive dissonance, particularly among these neoliberal journalists who on the one hand are scandalized, and use privacy as the reason they’re scandalized, but what they really want is secrecy so that patriarchal morality can go on undisturbed. And so they’re now very angry at Clinton for having blown this.”

Feminists have seen their old mantra, “the personal is political,” transformed from critique into moralism. Media scholar Laura Kipnis is perturbed by “the depoliticization of feminism. You get all these women enacting grievances with men, using feminist language and idioms but detached from a feminist politics. Newt Gingrich calling Clinton a misogynist: that was my favorite line of the last year. All these men get a chance to strut their virtue and become the protectors of women.” The impeachment was the moment for the right wing’s redefined politics of the personal to flower. Instead, it sprouted and died.

Eternal verities. What remains alive is the virulence of stigma. “Clinton ends up functioning like the Jews do in these 19th-century British novels,” says Fred Moten, who teaches performance studies. “They’re absolutely important for the circulation of capital, but you don’t want them at your dinner table.” In other words, the Jew is useful but must be socially ostracized. This describes the ultimate paradox about the impeachment rite: the most powerful person in the world, our commander in chief, assumes the role of pariah. “So it seems to me that the trial is a perfect way to pay tribute to his extreme functionality,” says Moten, “but at the same time exclude him.” Not from power—this is America, after all—but from respectability.