Newsreal: Defending the right to pry

Many commentators, notably feminists, dismiss stories about the sex life of President Clinton as irrelevant to his public role. But this drawing of a line between public and private lives, says a homosexual writer, cannot work.

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

Well before Americans ever heard of Monica Lewinsky, the nation's most important feminist organizations turned silent on the subject of President Clinton's treatment of women like Gennifer Flowers. But then, who cared about Flowers, with her tall hair and cheap perfume. In the grand scheme of things, the need was for a "progressive" in the White House to advance a feminist agenda.

That still seems to be the case. Referring to Clinton's latest alleged scandal, Molly Ivins, a feminist journalist in Texas, declares in her cowboy prose style: "I, for one, do not think the president's sex life has squat to do with his job."

I disagree. I think Americans had every right to know that President John F. Kennedy was having an affair with a Mafia moll. Kennedy's famous libido, so carefully protected by the Secret Service and by crony journalists, jeopardized the entire nation.

History is full of famous disparities. The cruel dictator dotes on his granddaughters. The eminent educator abuses his children. But such lives are gross distortions. For us, there cannot be this clear line separating our public from our private life. The kind of people we are in private should influence the kind of people we are in public. And vice versa.

I say this as a homosexual man. All my life, heterosexual America has tried to draw a straight line between my private and public life. Political liberals, like President Clinton, think "don't ask, don't tell" is an acceptable compromise for having me in the military. Even good friends, frankly, would prefer I kept sexual matters to myself.

Feminists have, in our time, overcome age-old restrictions that kept women from public lives. Gays, similarly, are insisting on the light of day. The danger for both homosexuals and feminists is that our hunger for public freedom makes us blind to private contradictions.

The French like to say, after all, that Americans are Puritans. Americans turn prudish when the subject turns to sex. Ah, the French. They know wine and good food. They've also shown themselves to be moral cowards several times in this century.

My sense is that most Americans are not prudish but that we have become -- much like the French -- a cynical people. Many Americans, I fear, are inclined to live with a disparity between the public and the private, so ambitious have we become for the former. Many women, I know, tolerate the spectacle of a feminist president who mistreats female subordinates emerging from church, Bible in hand.

God knows, none of us are saints. The football star with his bright smile beats his wife. And Thomas Jefferson had sex with his slaves. And the priest favors blond altar boys.

For me, however, candor is all. I admire Malcolm X more than I admire Martin Luther King Jr. Both men were womanizers. But Malcolm X admitted his mistreatment of women and used his mistakes to teach a new generation of men. To be a true leader, after all, requires that one confronts one's failures.

"Oh, I feel so sorry for Chelsea," everyone sighs. What troubles me more is that we are teaching young people in this country to profess one set of ideas in public and then to behave privately in ways exactly opposite.

I like what a London newspaper said the other day about the first lady. Hillary Rodham Clinton -- the model of the "new woman" -- may be the problem, the London newspaper argued. She tolerates her husband the way a Victorian wife tolerated male misbehavior and arrogance.

She smiles. She stands by her man. When he turns his puppy eyes toward the camera and insists he never had a 12-year affair with Gennifer Flowers, she nods. She wants the public life too much to ask questions about the private man.

By Richard Rodriguez

Richard Rodriguez is the author of "Brown: The Last Discovery of America."

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Bill Clinton Hillary Rodham Clinton Martin Luther King