Clinton's silvery web of words

President Clinton did not give the inspiring speech many had fantasized he would give, but teased us and left us hanging once again.

By Katie Roiphe
Published July 30, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

The president did not give the inspiring speech that many had fantasized he would give, the speech that would pull the country together and shut down the Starr investigation the way defense counsel Joe Welch's "Have you no sense of decency, sir?" shut down the McCarthy hearings. In spite of the president's stated desire to put the whole thing behind us, he did not, with his famous rhetorical dazzle, his ability to really speak to the American people, put the whole thing behind us.

Clinton's relationship with language is not unlike his relationship with sex. He is a tease. He sort of communicates. "I had a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was inappropriate," Clinton said last night. News commentators announced that he apologized. They announced that he admitted to an inappropriate physical relationship. But he didn't really apologize. He didn't really admit to any physical relationship. Clinton has perfected the art of double talk, of admitting and not admitting, and holding two contradictory truths in the silvery web of his words. He has from the beginning been artfully ambiguous, creating a kind of Rorschach inkblot of meaning for the public -- like the famous "60 Minutes" interview in 1992, when he and Hillary talked about Gennifer Flowers and some Americans thought he admitted to an adulterous relationship and others thought he didn't. He allows us to see what we want to see, to believe what we want to believe.

The front page of Tuesday's New York Times referred to Clinton's speech as "the most painfully personal public confession of his life," but it wasn't particularly personal, nor was it much of a confession, nor did much of the pain come across. Through a studied lack of vividness, a refusal to supply even the sketchiest account of his relationship with the ex-intern, Clinton has maintained his legendary elusiveness. He did not even use the word "sexual."

There is no doubt that Clinton handled his speech gracefully. In fact, it may be that he handled it too gracefully, that we wanted to see him falter a little. Reading stiffly from a teleprompter -- his words clipped, his face pale, his back straight, his blue eyes not exactly windows to his soul -- the president may have been too composed for his own good. If his four-minute speech left us feeling slightly unsatisfied, left even supporters like George Stephanopoulos and Dee Dee Meyers feeling unsatisfied, it is because it offered no heart or substance. The speech contained all of the elements it was supposed to contain -- an apology, an attack, a vague statement of fact, an admission of having misled people -- but it was like the skeleton of a speech, the bare bones, without the living spirit that would tell us in some meaningful way what happened.

Though most of the nation has a great deal of affection for Clinton and hostility toward Starr, Clinton has a delicate relationship with his public, as he must have with the wife and child who greeted him after his testimony. The public does not want to feel duped. Or manipulated. We want to feel appealed to. We want to feel as if President Clinton sat down over a cup of coffee and confessed his weakness. If he had truly apologized, then we could have forgiven him. If he had shown us some glimpse of vulnerability, we could have sympathized. As it is, the public is left after this long national drama without a role.

One of the most extraordinary things about the spectacle of President Clinton's testimony is that we are watching America's standards about lying change before our eyes. According to the Drudge Report, in 1974 Clinton himself said, "If a president of the United States ever lied to the American people, he should resign." But now we have developed a more sophisticated and evolved attitude toward lying. Of course, Clinton did not say that he lied. He said that his public comments and silence on the matter "gave a false impression." What was particularly brilliant and extraordinary about Clinton's tone last night was its self-righteousness: "I was very concerned about protecting my family." By lying, he was protecting his child. He was protecting all of our children. He was protecting the right to privacy itself. There is, his tone implied, a kind of honor in lying.

Clinton has thus far in his political career displayed an Indiana Jones-like capacity to evade certain destruction, to come out of the flames remarkably intact, and it is no surprise, judging from overnight polls, that he seems to have done it again. But the spectacle of his redemption engenders a peculiar psychological response; when people watch Houdini twist free of his chains, there is in his audience the slightest ripple of disappointment. On some unpleasant but deeply human layer of our psyches, we want to see the escape artist caught. We are waiting for the situation difficult and arduous enough to hold him. And there may be something of the same phenomenon with Clinton, even for his supporters. We breathe easier now that the speech is over, the economy can go back to normal, the government can govern. But last night, after being treated to replayed videos of Clinton slipping out of the net a number of times in the past, isn't there just the faintest trace of disappointment that he was not caught, stuck without "wiggle room" at least for a moment? That he did not struggle for the cameras? That he did not show some sort of pain or guilt or distress? Perhaps the slow-burning, stubborn energy Clinton displayed last night did not quite satisfy our need for resolution.

When Clinton talked about his privacy being invaded, he was not taking one crucial thing into account: Over these long months, he has certainly invaded ours. While we were sitting innocently over our Cheerios and bananas, reading our morning newspaper, Clinton was right there in our kitchen, with his stains and finger-shaking denials and hugs of plump and ecstatic girls; even people who didn't want to hear about Monica Lewinsky were confronted with it on cab radios and bar television sets, at dinner conversations and newsstands. (He may call her "Miss Lewinsky," but most Americans feel intimately enough involved with her to be on a first-name basis.) There was something reciprocal about this invasion of privacy: He couldn't hide from us and we couldn't hide from him. And for him to say, at this point, "Even presidents have private lives" is somewhat like a couple who has just had sex by an open window suddenly and indignantly pulling a shade.

There is no privacy left to preserve. Clinton said optimistically, "This matter is between ... me and my wife and our daughter and our God," when in reality it is a matter between him and the readers of tabloids and watchers of news broadcasts in Australia and Pakistan and everywhere in between. Our involvement in the president's private life was partly and unfairly imposed by the pathological prying of the Starr investigation, but it was definitely prolonged by the president's "false impressions." And as a result, many of us feel that, after following this long saga, we deserve to hear the details in all their splendid squalor. It is not the physical details we want because we already have enough of those, but the emotional details, or at least some of them. Some hint of real feeling. "It constituted a lack of judgment" does not have the confessional heat and urgency we might have hoped for. The reader and consumer of news is put in a very difficult position; even though we feel very strongly that Clinton's privacy should not have been invaded, we also think to ourselves, "Well, now that it has been ..." Since the whole unfortunate investigation dragged on, since the president lied and admitted he lied, and we decided to forgive him for lying, many of us felt almost as if we were owed something we could think of as the truth.

In his eagerness to be done with the whole sordid thing in four minutes, the president has forgotten one of the principles of closure: This is a story, and the story needs tension, it needs conflict, it needs resolution. And if columnists are going to stop hypothesizing about how Hillary Clinton feels and whether Chelsea Clinton will ever be normal, they need to be given some human reality to report. To take the story out of the hands of Ken Starr and out of the hands of the media, the clucking columnists and pyschologizing newscasters, Clinton would have to give us some version of his own, which he thus far has declined to do. Ironically, I think, the quickest route to privacy, and to closure, would have been through some sort of openness or even the illusion of openness. If Clinton had shown any strong feeling; if he had offered any shred of explanation, however thin; if he had said that he had struggled with this problem his whole life and he regretted his weakness; if he had said that he loved his wife and daughter and that he felt terrible betraying their trust and for his part in dragging the country through this ordeal, he would have given us the catharsis, the emotional climax, the magnificent speech that we needed to justify months and months of frustrating involvement in his private life.

And then, finally, as far as the public is concerned, it would have been over.

Katie Roiphe

Katie Roiphe is the author of "Last Night in Paradise: Sex and Morals at the Century's End" and "The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism on Campus."

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Bill Clinton Chelsea Clinton Hillary Rodham Clinton Privacy The New York Times