While bombs have exploded, shots have been fired, cancer and AIDS have done their miserable business as usual, the most important issue according to the media has been whether Monica Lewinsky did or did not give Bill Clinton a blowjob in the Oval Office.
This is not necessarily a bad thing.
Yes, the issue is staggeringly trivial. But its very triviality, and the way prosecutors have pursued it, and the way the American public has responded, tell a story about a change in the national mindset, a coming of age in the American people.
This column is not a defense of Clinton. It needs to be said at this point that I hate President William Jefferson Clinton. I have nothing against Bill Clinton the man. I've never met him. I don't know him, and don't care to. As far as I'm aware, Bill Clinton, Esquire, has never done anything really terrible to anyone. But William Clinton, President of the United States, is vile. And I hate him.
I hate him for his cowardice and lack of principle. For abandoning his supposed commitment to health-care reform. For playing politics with the death penalty. For his pandering to China, a regime so cruel that no democratic country should have anything to do with it. I hate him for his business-oriented conservatism and his liberal mask. I hate him for his faux compassion, for the platitudinous sound bites he delivers while governing a wealthy country with the highest rate of child poverty of any industrialized society.
I hate him because he's one of the worst presidents this country has ever had.
But I don't hate Clinton as much as I despise Kenneth Starr and his pathetic, personal vendetta against the president. And, as much as I hate Clinton, I'm not too blinded to see that he has been persecuted by Starr's witch hunt. A man's personal life is supposedly his own business. Not in this case. A hearing before a grand jury is supposed to be secret. Not in this case. Any investigation of suspected wrongdoing is supposed to be fair and impartial. Not in this case.
Starr, a right-wing zealot who can't separate his ego from his work, has become increasingly desperate to get some dirt on Clinton. As he spent more and more millions investigating the president for political and business corruption, and continued to turn up nothing solid, it became more and more urgent for him to find something, anything, to justify his budget. Finally, with no real ammunition to fire at Clinton, Starr delved into Clinton's sex life.
When Starr discovered that Monica Lewinsky claimed--in private--to have had an affair with Clinton, he went after it as though he'd just discovered Watergate. And the media joined in, presenting this as a major political scandal.
It wasn't--although Starr's response certainly was.
There was nothing political about it. It was hormones, not politics, that made president and intern get together. Monica Lewinsky, as far as anyone knows, didn't play the presidential skin flute for political purposes. And we can be fairly sure that, whatever was on his mind while she did it, it wasn't policy.
This was a middle-aged guy cheating on his wife with a young woman. And it was a young woman, starry-eyed at working in a high-powered environment, having an affair with her married boss.
That's all it was. It was purely personal. It affected no one but the guy, his wife and his lover. And so it was no one else's business.
But Kenneth Starr made it his business. He tried to make it the public's business. He tried to make us see it as our business, see it as something important.
So far, he hasn't succeeded.
We wouldn't have had to put up with this soap opera if Bill Clinton weren't such a moron, and if he were less arrogant. When he was accused of having an affair with Lewinsky, he could have burst Starr's bubble by either refusing to discuss it or just admitting it. Confessing wouldn't have done him much damage politically. His affair with Gennifer Flowers came to light during his first presidential campaign, and he still got elected. The whole thing may actually have helped him, by humanizing him in the eyes of the public.
So he could have confessed to the affair with Lewinsky, saying that it was his business and nothing to do with his job. Even better, he could have treated the question with the contempt it deserved and refused to answer or discuss it.
But Clinton didn't do the sensible thing. By responding to Starr's accusation, he accepted its validity, accepted that Starr had the right to ask such a question. And, by denying the affair, he may have committed perjury.
On August 17, he went on national TV and confessed. But, he assured us, he hadn't committed perjury, he hadn't actually lied, because the sex he'd had with Lewinsky didn't meet the criteria used in his deposition to define an affair.
But, whether he's technically right or not, he's still a liar. Because, last January, he declared, "I want you to listen to me. I'm going to say this again. I did not have sexual relations with that woman."
Unless he can tell us how you can get a blowjob from someone and not have sexual relations with them--a platonic blowjob, in effect--he's a liar.
And we, the American public, know it. And he knows we know it. What he doesn't know is that we don't care.
That's why he's trying to manufacture a war. It's why he ordered armed strikes against Sudan and Afghanistan, supposedly because these countries were harboring terrorists. How he knows this has not, as I write this column, been revealed. Nor has he explained why, if he's such a hardass, he has allowed Saddam Hussein to laugh in the face of the United Nations, refusing to allow weapons inspections.
These military attacks are simply an attempt to reinvent himself as a tough war leader (minus any actual war), and make us forget the Lewinsky business. It's a tactic that works. It worked nearly two decades ago for then-British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, whose popularity was at an all-time low. Knowing she was close to being kicked out of office, Thatcher started an armed conflict with Argentina over ownership of the Falkland Islands, some insignificant scraps of land that no one had ever cared about. She drummed up so much gung-ho nationalistic fervor that the voters forgot that she'd destroyed the mining industry and had four million people on the dole.
It worked for Thatcher with the Falklands. It worked for Reagan with Libya. And it would work for Clinton now . . .
Except that it doesn't have to. He doesn't need to regain popularity--because he hasn't really lost it. If there was an election today, Clinton would get voted back in.
It's not that people have fallen for his lies. They haven't. They know he's a liar. They know he cheats on his wife, and they know he shows no loyalty to the women he has affairs with, dumping them and turning against them when things get hot for him.
He's a sleaze. The American people know that, and they don't care. All they care about is that they think he's a good president.
That is a good thing.
And it's why this whole farce has been worthwhile. Because the public response tells us that America as a country is now an adult, and not the acne-scarred, sniggering adolescent it used to be regarding matters sexual.
During the past seven months, we have seen the adolescent America lose to the adult America. Kenneth Starr, and the minority of close-minded, hypocritical finger pointers who share his mindset, are the adolescent. Their chosen method of discourse is to yell, "Look at him! He's dirty!" It's clear that they are becoming anachronistic.
At one time, their tactics would have worked. You could have ruined a politician by revealing his sexual indiscretions, even if most of us had been guilty of the same indiscretions at some time in our lives.
But not anymore. It looks like we're all grown up now. We know JFK cheated on his wife. We know he was doing Marilyn Monroe, and we're (guiltily) excited by the idea. We know that people in power have tempting sexual opportunities, and we know that they often fail to resist the temptation. For the first time, we have a president admitting to it.
And it makes no difference to us. Some of us enjoy the story as it unfolds. Others are bored by it. But all we care about in the end is whether the guy is good at his job. As a society, we think he is (even if I don't). And we don't care what he does in the privacy of his bedroom, or, in Clinton's case, his office.
In the '60s, talk of a sexual revolution was premature. What America has undergone is not a revolution, but an evolution. Although the Clinton debacle has given us cause to be pessimistic about the quality of the leaders we elect, we have much greater cause for optimism about our societal maturity.
Contact Barry Graham at his online address: [email protected]