America, grow up!

David Downie reports on how the French and the Italians are viewing the Clinton brouhaha.

Published January 29, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

An unseasonbly warm January breeze billowed the awnings at the Primula cafe on Camogli's sunwashed seafront promenade. Billowing in counterpoint were dozens of Italian newspapers spread like sails, blocking the Riviera view -- with the faces of President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.

"Sexygate," screamed one title. "Pantyville," echoed another, drawing a parallel to Italy's long-running Bribesville political corruption scandal. The regatta of colorful articles in the newspapers Corriere della Sera, Il Sole 24 Ore and Il Secolo XIX ranged from "No Sex with Monica" to "Puritan Allergies," "Caught Red Handed" and "The Risk of Being Ridiculous." Jazzing up the layouts were political cartoons, pie-charts, diagrams and photos (such as "The Metamorphosis of Monica" -- a series showing her at various ages, from awkward-looking teenybopper to unlikely femme fatale).

Italy, it seemed, had caught Clinton-Lewinsky fever.

Snickers, scoffs and imprecations smote the air of this tranquil seaside resort. "False moralists!" snorted one sporty senior as he rolled up his Corriere and struck at a pigeon. His markedly younger companion dipped her spoon into chocolate ice cream, careful not to drip it on her mink coat, and arched an elegant eyebrow.

"He drops his pants and the dollar falls with them," barked a businessman into his cellular telefonino. "When the dollar drops, caro, my prices go up, and my exports go down, and we all earn less. So basta with this comedy!"

A nearby table of locals, possibly in real estate or tourism, wondered worriedly when America would declare war on Iraq as an anti-Sexygate diversion, and how many fewer turisti would show up as a consequence.

I sighed, bought a bushel of newspapers from a stand in the port, and began preparing myself psychologically for the inevitable battery of questions from friends and colleagues. Americans living abroad are expected to shed light on the mysteries of their country -- in this case the mores and morals that made Sexygate possible. An arduous task indeed.

As I headed home, amorous couples mauled each other, balanced precariously on benches overlooking the beach. Kids practiced soccer acrobatics on a playground surrounded by battered fishing boats. Flocks of designer-clad peacocks strolled back and forth, arm-in-arm, chatting contemporaneously and answering their chirping telefonini. The bell of Camogli's gold-encrusted baroque church called in the faithful. I glanced west, toward the land Columbus -- a Genoese -- blundered upon. A land as distant and baffling to Europeans today as it was 500 years ago, despite airplanes, the Internet, globalization and the universal popularity of pesto and focaccia.

Over dinner with a group of friends from Genoa and Milan, Sexygate reared its head. "I understand there has been a rush of conversions," said one friend.

"Conversions?" I asked.

"Yes -- Italian men by the million are becoming Baptists. It's something about great oral traditions ..."

When they had wiped the tears of laughter away, one of them soberly paraphrased the doyen of Italian journalism, Indro Montanelli, who in a front-page Corriere della Sera editorial on Jan. 27 wrote of the "grotesque distinction between sex and oral sex" reportedly put forward by the Clinton camp. "A distinction," noted Montanelli, "that would shame even the most obtuse and medieval-minded Inquisitor of the Holy See, provided you could find one these days."

From the Italian point of view, the tragedy of Sexygate-Pantyville is not that Clinton may have cheated on his wife, and not even that he or Lewinsky allegedly lied under oath. The real tragedy is that the scandal could happen at all, and make everyone -- from the president on down -- look ridiculous and hence lose legitimacy and power in this mono-Superpower world.

Italians, like most Europeans, simply do not care about the private lives of their politicians, and certainly don't consider adultery a just cause for impeaching a president, particularly a popular and effective one.

"When it comes to a politician lying," added a Milanese woman friend as she savored her antipasti, "we are so used to that, that I think we would be startled if they told the truth. Besides, it wouldn't be very polite, or gallant, for any man or woman to speak openly about a lover. It's only natural for Clinton to expect Monica to remain silent."

Unless Americans really are hypocrites and neo-Puritans, and Clinton a consummate bungler in things amorous, the only explanation, it seemed to my friends, was a plot. The whole affair simply must be a right-wing conspiracy, they said, to remove the liberal, libertarian and possibly libertine Clinton and his long-suffering wife, who were foolish enough to propose sweeping social reforms in a profoundly anti-government country like America. In such a scenario the real culprits, according to the conspiracy theorists, would be Kenneth Starr, in concert with Big Business and vengeful Republicans still embittered by the fall of Richard Nixon.

"One thing is sure," concluded my journalist friend, "this could never happen here, no matter how much our society comes to resemble America. Across the political spectrum, no one would be foolish enough to tar a rival over adultery or peccadilloes, oath or no oath, no matter how vulgar, unaesthetic or downright stupid the people involved."

We moved from trenette with pesto to Ligurian rabbit fricassied with pine nuts and herbs, the wine flowed and the mood grew increasingly vaporous. Someone remarked that it would be a miracle indeed if any of Italy's current or former leaders could be so lucky as to attract the attentions of a young lover and stir the passions of a nation. The land of Latin Lovers? Prime Minister Romano Prodi is nicknamed Mister Mortadella; President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, a pious-looking septuagenarian, speaks in a lispy whisper; and former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti (under investigation for alleged links to the Mafia) is known as the Hunchback or the Big Spider.

A few days later, as I sped home to Paris on the TGV high-speed
train from Milan, I made my way to the bar car through a forest of fluttering Le
Mondes, Le Figaros and Libirations, each overflowing with the latest on
the French are calling "Water Braguette" -- the Waterpanty Affair. Snowy
mountains glowed beyond the windows. A pair of Frenchmen stood at the bar
car's counter, wolfing mozzarella and tomato salads. "The food coming back
to Paris from Italy is always better," said one. "Yes, Alain, I hate to
admit it,"
agreed the other, "but it's true."

An Italian woman propped nearby laughed and nudged her partner.
"Did you hear that -- Frenchmen admitting that our food is better than
theirs! I
never thought I'd live to see the day!"

"We love your food," purred Alain, the Frenchman, in heavily
Italian. "We love many things Italian, and have much in common with you."

"Like what?" said the woman, startled that a Frenchman could
eavesdrop on a conversation in Italian.

"Well," clucked Alain, "we are Europeans, we are not American!" He tapped his newspaper, wrinkling the wire photo of a grinning Monica
"Absurde! Ridicule! May we offer you coffee? We certainly won't tell your
husbands ..."

Egad, I thought, I had better return to my seat. Fortress Europe
pulling up the drawbridge.

In Paris the following morning I found ice rimming the babbling
Bundled locals chugged under clouds of steam. The winter sun struggled to
top the tin-and-tile roofs. I threaded my way to a cafe near the Saint Paul metro. Smoke curled from a dozen brands of cigarette -- half of them
American. I sipped a grand crhme and munched on a croissant. Mixed in
among the pastries in a basket on the bar's counter were several Double
Pecan Brownies. Despite the cigs and gooey snacks, this was clearly not
America. And judging by the newspapers in the cafe, and the
expressions of disgust that met my innocent queries, Waterpanty was
having a deleterious effect on Franco-American relations.

Apparently here, as in Italy, the scandal had mesmerized the
fueling highbrow and cafe chit-chat for almost a week. The consensus was
the same: This could never happen here. But the tone was more acerbic in
France. Historian Pierre Chaunu, interviewed in Le Figaro, evoked
Renaissance King Henri IV as the proud forebear of generations of French
womanizer-princes. "Frenchmen generally don't carry on their affairs in
offices," he added, "they do things with a little more skill and panache."

Under the title "Very Happy to be French" in Le Parisien,
parliamentarians from across the political spectrum disparaged of the sordid histoire. "It's frightening to see the fate of the world hanging from the
American president's underpants," commented a Communist Party deputy.
Right-wing nationalist Christine Boutin, apparently voicing the sentiments
many French women, sniffed: "So the guy likes women, does he? That's just
a sign of good health!" On the center-left, Georges Sarre quipped,
want to condemn Clinton for having asked his mistress to keep quiet ...
rare, isn't it, for lovers to ask each other to send out press releases."

Other commentators evoked McCarthyism, the Inquisition,
Totalitarianism, Collective Madness and Hypocrisy.

From my office across town near Phre-Lachaise cemetery I called
novelist Tatiana de Rosnay, author of "Mariis, Phres de Famille" ("French
Husbands"), a collection of short stories about marital infidelity. "We are
amused and annoyed in equal measure," she said. "'Clintonian,' a neologism,
means sexual, in a positive way, as in, 'He feasted his eyes on me with a
Clintonian look.' That's amusing, it's true. You Americans fascinate us with your violence and your diversity as a nation, but we often have the feeling
you never grow up."

Hmmm, I thought, that's a bit severe. After all, it isn't the
people in the dock, and how many adolescent Puritans are there in America
these days?

"Remember Mazarine," added de Rosnay, summing up in two words
the unbridgeable Franco-American divide over the morals of politicians.
the news was finally leaked that President Frangois Mitterand had an
illegitimate daughter, Mazarine Pingeot, his popularity soared. At
funeral, Mazarine stood by his two legitimate sons; Mazarine's mother, Anne
Pingeot, stood in the same row as Mitterand's wife, Danielle."

Shaken by this icy return to my beloved, adopted city, I went for a
down the Boulevard de Minilmontant and confirmed that the local
McDonald's was packed, as usual. Then I strolled through Phre-Lachaise
cemetery and found the usual Jim Morrison groupies shivering by his grave,
singing, "Come on, lie my fahrye" with Clintonian gusto. As I had suspected
all along, the French, like the Italians, were secretly pleased to see America
squirm a bit over Waterpanty, Sexygate-Pantyville. In other words, all was
well in Europe.

By David Downie

David Downie is Salon Travel's correspondent in Paris.

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