Aging hormones

Clinton's raging hormones offend the aging Beltway Catholic press corps.

Published August 25, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

In his appearance before Kenneth Starr's grand jury last Monday, President Clinton testified that he had perhaps six sexual "contacts" with Monica Lewinsky, and that they all occurred in the first part of 1996, with the exception of one further contact in early 1997, according to a legal source close to Clinton. "They never had sexual intercourse, and Clinton ended it in early 1997," says the source. "She didn't want to, but had no choice but to accept that. They really were friends and they remained friends."

The source added that "there was never any discussion between them that amounted to obstruction of justice. Very early on, and not in response to Starr's investigation, they took steps -- as anyone would -- to keep their relationship secret." The source described the further questions put to Clinton by Starr and prosecutors as "quite disgusting," and said Clinton refused to answer them. Published reports have disclosed that Clinton became so angry at the questioning that at one point, he and his lawyers withdrew from the room where the inquiry took place and did not return for an hour.

After wresting a confession from Clinton about his affair, Starr's strategy now seems to further humiliate the president by exposing each and every lurid detail of the sexual relationship. This legal gambit would indeed have been damaging against a president like Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan -- what American would have liked being forced to contemplate their passionate writhings? The public does not excuse Clinton's dalliance with Lewinsky, but they seem far more able to put it into the context of his entire presidency, and recognize at the same time that raging hormones belong to the young. Washington had become accustomed to its aged presidents.

The last virile commander in chief was, of course, Jack Kennedy, inaugurated at 43, whose lifetime of sexual "contacts" numbered in the hundreds, according to historian Michael Beschloss. JFK was followed by Lyndon Johnson, whose extramarital adventures are said to have occurred before he became president at 55; Richard Nixon, 56, and Gerald Ford, 61 -- neither of whom generated a hint of sexual intrigue, for obvious reasons; Jimmy Carter, who at 52 said he had lust only in his heart; Reagan, 69, whose own illicit affairs occurred earlier, during his Hollywood career; and George Bush, inaugurated at 64, who was rumored to have engaged in a discreet, long-term affair with a former aide while he was Reagan's vice president, but managed to keep it out of the press.

Clinton's aged 1996 opponent, Bob Dole, had an affair years earlier, during his first marriage, a story a Washington Post reporter nailed down before the election, with the woman in question going on the record. But executive editor Leonard Downie spiked the story. There was widespread speculation at the Post that Downie's own 1996 affair, with a friend of his wife, was responsible for the Post blackout of the Dole affair. (Downie has since divorced and married the friend.)

At the elite dinner parties in Washington these days, there are not many people defending Clinton. "The Zeitgeist is to be against him, especially at the New York Times and the Washington Post," says one social insider. "Anyone who says anything positive about Clinton or negative against Starr and the press is strongly and hostilely challenged."

Within these circles, few people identify with Clinton's vitality and promiscuity. By the time Clinton and his youthful crew arrived, official Washington had become a town of 60- to 80-year-old ex-appointees and advisors to the elderly Reagan and Bush administrations, no longer much interested in sex, especially pre-Viagra.

These Washington insiders have forgotten how sexual the pursuit of political power actually is. Most presidential campaigns bristle with erotic electricity, largely due to the immense power the candidate is seeking. As Henry Kissinger famously declared, "Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac." Washington luminaries -- from senators to TV reporters -- attract legions of groupies, some very aggressive, some vulnerable, some both.

Campaigns and Washington service involve long separations of married couples, and there are often brief affairs between staff members, between flight attendants and the Secret Service, between members of the press, all of whom are sharing an intense experience away from home and hearth. Coming together on a political quest, hitting the road for months and living on expense accounts in different hotel rooms every night is an explosively erotic mix. The endless and enormous temptations presented to candidates, particularly, are unimaginable to most people. It is the rare still-potent man who doesn't succumb, and, as psychologist Joyce Brothers has pointed out, the physical energy and testosterone levels of those who seek high office far exceed the average person's -- with the possible exceptions of Richard Nixon and Bob Dole, who appear to have been fueled primarily by resentment.

The candidate's psychology is that he has worked exhaustively, night and day, for many years to get to the pinnacle, and now he is still working night and day, fighting the Congress, fighting the press, fighting even some in his own party, locked for political reasons in what is perhaps a loving but no longer passionate marriage, and he says to himself, "What about the inner me? Where is my reward? I'm not getting any. I want sexual love!" This is the way it is.

Churchill said about being a public figure, "There is one's public life, one's private life and then there is one's secret life." But Clinton's political enemies seethe with sanctimony, insisting against all signs to the contrary that leaders must have no personal contradictions, that their inner lives must always correspond to family and religious strictures.

Age is not Clinton's only problem inside the Beltway. There is also creed. In an unusual article in the National Journal, media writer William Powers remarks upon the particularly harsh judgments being levied on Clinton by a coterie of liberal-to-moderate Democratic journalists and pundits who are also Catholics. The most judgmental in their commentary, says Powers, are the Irish Catholics among them. (Powers identifies himself an Irish Catholic.) The harshest is Chris Matthews, host of CNBC's "Hardball," who has been termed by Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales as "the screaming meanie." Close behind in the vitriol count are New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd and Michael Kelly, editor of the National Journal and columnist for the Washington Post. Somewhat more measured is NBC's ubiquitous Tim Russert, and more pained than censorious are Post columnists Mary McGrory and Mark Shields. Among the chorus of Catholic former Clinton staffers who have been piling on are Dee Dee Myers and Leon Panetta.

In comments to Powers, several members of this "whole gang of us" -- as Matthews termed the group, many of whom are close friends -- talked about the moral absolutism of their Catholic backgrounds. But what about the other Catholic tradition that emphasizes "original sin and fallen human nature?" Powers was asked by liberal Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, a Catholic who usually supports Clinton, "Does he [Kelly] believe in the forgiveness of sins?"

In Time's special issue last week, Myers (who is married to New York Times reporter Todd Purdum, who has been writing about Whitewater), writes of her disappointment with Clinton's Lewinsky speech -- because he wasn't contrite or apologetic enough to suit her, because he shifted responsibility to Paula Jones and Ken Starr and because he hadn't done right by those who gave him "their votes, their hopes, their labor and their love."

By Mollie Dickenson

Mollie Dickenson's articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Miami Herald and other publications. She is the author of "Thumbs Up," a biography of Reagan Press Secretary James Brady.

MORE FROM Mollie Dickenson