The secret life of a scandal

The secret life of a scandal: Americans forgive Clinton and Lewinsky because they understand the truth about sex, lies and legal obsessions

Published July 16, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

In the Real America, outside Washington and beyond the borders of whatever sovereignty of meaning the legal and political and media establishment likes to believe it rules, the Monica Lewinsky scandal lives a secret life. In the collective thinking of real people who live real lives, lives that involve daily decisions about sex and love and right and wrong, in the collective consideration of real people who must routinely and instinctively prioritize morality in terms of the momentous and mundane, in a collective American psyche that has an unspeakable understanding of transgression and forgiveness, the Monica Lewinsky scandal has a secret past, a secret present, a secret future.

In this secret life, secret assessments of cause and effect have already been made. Secret decisions about event and culpability have already been reached, secret conclusions concerning ramification and import have already been drawn. For some months now, beginning as what seemed a reasonable observation that slowly but inexorably evolved into an absurd mantra, commentators of all stripe have said over and over that this scandal is not about sex, it's about lying. The legal establishment says this because, in the strictest terms, which are the only terms the legal establishment understands, it's true. The political establishment says this because by ripping the scandal free of sex, the scandal may then be transformed from a personal matter into a matter of state and also, on an increasingly ideological political landscape, be bleached of human ambiguity, which is the enemy of ideologues everywhere. The media establishment says this because it's torn between its roiling tabloid instincts, which exploit sex to sell the product, and its desperate and increasingly quaint pretensions of credibility and legitimacy.

The result has been an unwitting collusion among lawyers and politicians and reporters to convince the public of what they may have even convinced themselves: that sex distorts the meaning and significance of whatever happened between Monica Lewinsky and President Clinton. The public knows differently. It has known differently for months. For months it has known that sex is not what distorts this scandal; rather it's the establishment's effort to take the sex out of the scandal that distorts it. The public already knows that this scandal is not about sex and it's not about lying. It's about Lying About Sex.

Though the public may not say so, and though it may offend moral philosophers, Lying About Sex is secretly considered by most people a different moral species of lying. It's a lie by which marriages are sometimes preserved, by which friendships sometimes continue, by which children sometimes are spared a premature loss of innocence. It's certainly not a "good" lie. But it is a lie that is sometimes, in some circumstances, marginally better than a harsh and irrevocable truth, which is to say it sometimes causes people less pain than the truth and has less terrible consequences. It's a lie that many, maybe even most, people have told at least once in their lives. It's even -- and this is the biggest secret of all, that all the lawyers and politicians and reporters either fail to grasp or darkly suspect but recoil from expressing -- a lie many consider justified in telling, and would consider others justified in telling, even under oath, even if the other was the president of the United States.

They would consider it justified because, one's wife or husband aside, the truth about a person's sex life is something they believe no one, particularly the government, has the right to ask. In the case of President Clinton, commentators contend that the public wants the president to "level with them." They argue that until the public hears his explanation, it will "suspect the president of wrongdoing." They insist that the public "wants to know the answer" to whether something happened between the president and his White House intern. Of course this is nonsense. Of course the public already knows the answer. The public already knows something happened. The public, in fact, has no interest in the least in hearing the president address the subject; to the contrary, the public adamantly wishes he would not. They have already forgiven Clinton not only for his dalliance but for lying about it, and they have forgiven him not because they are indifferent to it, not because they don't care, not because "the economy is good," not because they find the behavior admirable, but because what they cannot forgive is Kenneth Starr's asking about it in the first place.

Since these days every viewpoint about this scandal is accompanied by an agenda of some sort, this is probably a good point to address what some may perceive as the agenda of this article. So first let's acknowledge that the nature of the scandal would change dramatically should the president's sexual behavior prove to be compulsive or, worse, predatory, as a number of thus-far-unfounded rumors and charges about him over the years have suggested. Second and more important, since the Pandora's box of this scandal has already been opened, let's acknowledge that if one were a member of the United States Senate sitting in judgment of the president during an impeachment trial, and it was demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that he had indeed conspired to obstruct justice, which is to say he suborned perjury in others, any conscientious juror who took seriously either the law or the Constitution would have to vote for his conviction. Such a senator would be so obligated because one salient principle would demand it -- and this principle is absolutely the only thing the Monica Lewinsky scandal shares with the Watergate scandal of 25 years ago -- and that is the principle that no man is above the law. In a free nation of laws, the betrayal of this particular principle is simply impossible. Its preservation is worth the betrayal of any number of lesser principles, including freedom of privacy.

But casting such a vote wouldn't contradict the disgust that attended such a vote, the disgust that the matter had ever been allowed to come to this. Forty-five years ago, during the McCarthy era, this country decided there was something fundamentally unjust, even undemocratic, about the state compelling an individual to account for political associations that were not criminal, no matter how unpopular or unsavory. It also decided there was something fundamentally unjust, even undemocratic, about criminalizing the disinclination to answer questions about those associations that the state never had the moral right to pose. It's stupefying that something the public understands intuitively seems to completely elude those now investigating and reporting this scandal: that if the state cannot and should not compel one to account for his political associations, then compelling one to account for his sexual associations is an outrage even more personal and profound, quite literally out of the last 50 pages of Orwell's "1984."

Thus, long ago the investigation of this scandal ceased to be about justice, or even truth. Instead it became about obsession -- to a lesser extent the obsession of those involved in the scandal's exploding cottage industry (including the writer of this piece), but mainly the obsession of a special prosecutor whose professional conduct must now appear to almost any objective person to verge on a kind of institutional dementia.

At this point it's clear that whatever Clinton's obsession with women may be, it has been entirely superseded by Starr's obsession with Clinton. One nearly hopes that Starr's obsession is indeed ideological, because that's the only way it almost makes sense, the only way it's almost rational. Because if in fact Starr's defenders are right, that this isn't about ideology, then it is at best an obsession with law that's become completely disconnected from any true interest in justice. It's the obsession of a man of so little human empathy and so removed from the needs and compulsions that drive and dictate daily life as most people live it -- needs of the human heart and compulsions of the human body -- that he can actually stand before television cameras and say about a sex act between two consenting adults that "there's no room for white lies, there's no room for shading the truth." And if he can say this only because in the eyes of the law he's correct, then it's only as a cyborg of litigation that such a man is capable of existing at all.

Justice, on the other hand, is more complicated. Justice isn't the mere execution of law but the commingling of law with reason, fairness, compassion and most of all a sense of moral proportion. When moral proportion is lost, morality itself is lost. The smallest wrong becomes tantamount to the greatest, and the very process of making moral evaluations and distinctions is rendered moot. Four years ago, the investigation of Clinton began chiefly as a story about an allegedly corrupt real estate deal. Today all the original reasons for that investigation have vanished, either overturned by judges or thrown out of courts altogether or, in some instances, dropped as silently and inconspicuously as possible by the special prosecutor himself when he found no facts to bear out his suspicions. The Whitewater story is gone, the Travelgate story is gone, the Vince Foster story is gone, the Paula Jones story is gone, the Webster Hubbell story is gone. Four years and $30 million later, the only story left, if some of the most recent reports are true, is whether a young woman touched a middle-aged man in a naughty place on his body and had phone sex with him.

As local prosecutors around the country have pointed out, a sense of moral proportion would have led almost anyone else except Starr to question, upon first being presented the case of Monica Lewinsky, whether this was something that warranted legal pursuit. Almost anyone else would have questioned whether the nation or the workings of its government were really served by such a pursuit. "These are very serious charges," one guest after another intones on one talk show after another on one Sunday morning after another. But the public, whose collective sense of values is shrewder and harder-won and more grown-up than the elite that aspires to speak for it, doesn't think this is serious. The public thinks this is silly.

The secret life of the Monica Lewinsky scandal is a secret because the legal, political and media cultures consumed by the scandal have completely relinquished to the public all responsibility of moral proportion. Given the choice, the public almost surely wishes Clinton had left Lewinsky alone, or vice versa, or whatever. Given the situation, the public almost surely finds the president's conduct adolescent at best, and probably tawdry. But given the vast scheme of the moral universe, which has at one time or another in the past included concerted efforts by presidents to subvert the Constitution by using the government's various agencies to harass political opponents or by selling weapons to terrorist nations for the purpose of illegally supporting counterrevolutions in Central America, not to even mention prosecutors' entrapping suspects, reneging on immunity deals, secretly taping the telephone conversations of private citizens and forcing parents to testify against their children, the public suspects that two people having some kind of illicit moment and lying about it perhaps does not occupy the darkest corner of human behavior.

By Steve Erickson

Steve Erickson's new novel, "The Sea Came in at Midnight," will be published next spring by Bard/Avon.

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