Letter from Baton Rouge

In Baton Rouge, folks are pretty bored with Clinton's sex scandal

Published August 20, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

BATON ROUGE, La. -- On Monday night, we in Baton Rouge, along with the rest of the nation, were glued to our TV sets. But by Tuesday afternoon -- splshtttt -- it was as if the whole televised spectacle hadn't even happened. I heard one lady in the supermarket compare the president's speech with premature ejaculation: all sweaty buildup, then over in a moment, and in the most embarrassing way. But in general, it hasn't been a big topic of conversation, at least in the circles I travel in, which, admittedly, are somewhat limited: the parents of my three kids' friends, my neighbors, my professor husband's colleagues at LSU, the other moms at my 9-year-old's bus stop.

Today when I got to the bus stop, the usual gang of (mostly) moms were gathered around their Chevy Suburbans, BMWs and mini-vans, chatting about this and that, but not about the president and Monica Lewinsky. Which in some ways is weird, because folks in this part of the world generally love talking politics. The bus stop is on the periphery of the Garden District, a well-heeled, tree-lined, blue-blooded neighborhood that's considered "old Baton Rouge" -- and the kids are from well-to-do, well-educated and well-informed families. But no one was interested in talking about the president. I had to press.

Finally they started talking to me. One of the moms -- who months earlier had told me the one about how the difference between the president and the Titanic is that only 325 women had gone down on the Titanic -- had this to say about the president's confession:

"What a scumbag. We all know he did it. My kids knew he did it. My dog knew he did it. Let's move on. Impeach him? Are you kidding. Let's look at the choices."

Donna, who is a friend of mine, the daughter of a Baptist preacher and the anchor of the local news, was simply angry: "I'm appalled," she said, "because he uses the media to manipulate me, and I don't like to be manipulated, but let's face it, he's a politician, and skirt-chasing is what they do."

Her husband, Mark, pointed out that the president might have done better had he taken his cue from former four-time Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards, who, when asked whether he cheated on his wife, simply admitted to it and got on with things. "A known hound dog," Mark said, "and no one cares."

But a couple of the other moms were not so forgiving: "An elephant is an elephant and you can't disguise an elephant," said one. "He's simply no longer credible as president." Another waffled and at last admitted that, given the choice, she wouldn't vote for him again (a few minutes after I spoke with her, this same woman rushed up to me to make sure she wouldn't be identified in any way whatsoever).

Nancy, who often stays in her car at the bus stop and who I therefore rarely hang with, shrugged, sighed, then said, "I knew he was lying from the first time he opened his mouth. I didn't vote for him and I think he should be kicked out. It's a terrible scandal and it makes our whole country look stupid."

Baton Rouge is situated smack in the heart of the Bible Belt, and as far as most folks are concerned there's only one religion, and it's Christianity. Even the state law school, at LSU, hangs a wreath over its doors at Christmastime. The point being that if you take your Christianity seriously, you probably won't be inclined to forgive the president his sins. I'm not from here, originally, and I often feel like I'm surrounded by a sea of right-wing nuts bent on destroying everything I hold dear: separation of church and state, the right of every child to get a decent, safe education and simple, gun-free safety. Speaking of guns, many of my neighbors hunt, a practice I personally find repulsive.

Speaking of neighbors who hunt, one of my neighbors -- who also happens to be the father of my daughter Rose's best friend, Emma -- has had it up to here with the president's shenanigans. He tells stories of Clinton's butt-and-boob-grabbing practices from way back when he was still just the governor, and a young one at that, of Arkansas, which is just up the road and across the state line. He also believes, in a nutshell, that the president's persistent lying simply disqualifies him from continuing in the Oval Office. "It's not the sex per se, although the sexual practices are disgusting," he said, "but the lying, the perjury, the hiding behind legalese falls under the category of high crimes and misdemeanors. The founding fathers put high crimes and misdemeanors in the constitution for a reason, and that reason, I believe, was to protect the moral character of the office. If a CEO or a professor at a university or a military officer did what Clinton did and then lied about it, he'd be gone. Why should the president have special privileges? It's not a question of can he govern. It's a question of should he govern."

Deanne Clementson, who along with her husband, George, owns and operates Able Air Conditioning (George spends a lot of time at my house), is disgusted by the whole big mess: the months of gossip and innuendo, followed by what she called a "totally fake, excuse-filled speech, that admitted he was guilty then provided an explanation, like a child." Deanne, a Baptist for whom the Word of God is a living, holy presence -- and who readily admits that she's not a Democrat -- went on to say that "as a Christian, I'm begging God to save Clinton. He shouldn't have done it in the first place, and his actions speak loudly. He's hurt his wife and child badly. He doesn't give an example of a loving, faithful husband. We have a bad enough problem in this country with our children, with parents who don't teach them morals, don't teach them right and wrong, and Clinton is our leader. It's an embarrassment to the country."

I guess most people could guess that Baton Rouge does not have the political or social makeup of, say, Manhattan's Upper West Side. But it can surprise you, too. After all, we're just down the road from the original Sin City -- home to Mardi Gras and the Saints, Bourbon Street and JazzFest -- and we're teetering, too, on the edge of Cajun Country, which is filled with Cajuns -- the people who coined the phrase Laissez les bon temps rouler. So it didn't completely shock me when Wilbert Hall, a Jehovah's Witness who occasionally helps me out in the garden and who has, on more than one occasion, lectured me about the teachings of Jesus, told me that, as a Christian, he's disgusted with Clinton -- both for the adultery and the lying -- but as a citizen, he's not all that disturbed. "He broke God's law," he said, "but as a leader, let him get on with things. After all, he ain't the only one up there in Washington running around. What's the difference between Clinton and Newt Gingrich? Newt Gingrich just hasn't been caught yet."

People in Baton Rouge know that people screw up, and they don't have any illusions about the moral purity of our political leaders. After all, our oft-indicted former governor, Edwin Edwards, is still making news for his alleged pond-scum-sucking financial and personal shenanigans. Earl Long is best known for his liaison with a stripper. Huey Long died long before the age of TV, but at least in my neighborhood, people are still talking about all the rotten things he did. The current governor, Mike Foster, is Mr. Clean in comparison -- so clean, in fact, that he wants to clean up the state's drug problem by forcing all welfare recipients to submit to mandatory drug testing, and the hell with the right to privacy.

But I'm straying from the subject. The subject is Clinton's philandering and confessing, but it's a subject that most folks around these parts just can't get too worked up about. Sex and lying? So what else is new?

By Jennifer Moses

Jennifer Moses is the author of "Food and Whine: Confessions of an End of the Millennium Mom"(Simon & Schuster.)

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Bill Clinton Newt Gingrich