The voyeur general's report to Congress

Once its Peeping-Tom shock wears off, the Starr report is nothing more than an extreme close-up of what we already knew.

Published September 11, 1998 12:35PM (EDT)

"'And he unbuttoned my dress and unhooked my bra, and sort of took the dress off my shoulders and ... moved the bra ... He was looking at me and touching me and telling me how beautiful I was.' (235)"

"He touched her breasts with his hands and his mouth, and touched her genitals, first through her underwear and then directly. (236) She performed oral sex on him. (237)"

I read these words on a computer monitor two hours ago. The experience reminded me of the first time I read pornography. The same furtive fascination, the same flush of shameful excitement. This was something forbidden, something truly illicit. As when I was 15 years old and leafing through a copy of "Fanny Hill" in my parents' kitchen, I was acutely aware that I was seeing something I should not be seeing, something murky and addictive. But this shock was uglier; it felt more like being a Peeping Tom, or watching a neighbor's homemade porn video. For the shadowy frisson wasn't the revelation of the vast subterranean world of sex: It was the public sexual humiliation of the president of the United States.

I read obsessively on, my eyes racing for the good parts. More stealthy encounters in the Oval Office. More kissing. More fondling of "bare breasts." More "touching of genitals through underwear." More oral sex. More "the president did not ejaculate in her presence." I couldn't stop. After all these months of slow-motion obvious lies, after all the chattering of "opinion makers" with souls like greasy TV screens and lump-faced moralists straight out of George Grosz, it had all come to this -- the World Premiere of our National Porno Movie.

No Whitewater. No Filegate. No Travelgate. No nothing about all those terrible "scandals" that were constantly invoked by people convinced that Clinton's slick, chameleonic, infinitely reflecting façades concealed a pattern of evil. Just illicit sex -- and lying about illicit sex, which amounts to the same thing. Four years and $40 million just to write this bad soft-core screenplay. The most famous and powerful man in the country forced to perform in a badly-lit super-8 reel projected against the sky of the entire world. His pants around his ankles. His face contorted in total debasement. His soul shriveling in the knowledge that this nightmare will never end. And all around him, the leering faces of the Good and the Just calling for his head, a braying crowd out of Ensor. Kill him! Kill him! And if you can't kill him, wound him! Stick the pig! Cut his throat! Drink his blood!

Reading, I felt the shock that accompanies a death blow -- the dazed inward look, the hideous realization of the opening abyss. A penis can't be president. They made him into a penis. Goodbye, President Penis. This is what they said would happen, this is what they all wanted to happen once they smelled blood and sex -- and not just Starr and the Republicans, not just the bestial rooting letter-writers who say, "Hey you Clinton butt-boys at Salon, I want to piss up your ass and put duct tape over it and watch you die of septicemia," but the Beltway insiders, the inhabitants of that bizarre, inch-deep parallel universe called The Elite Media. They predicted it: Total shock. Horror. Outrage. Denial. Eviction. "Peter, what the president's supporters fear is that when the graphic sexual details come out, the president will become a laughingstock and won't be able to govern." "Yes, Keith, and as this extraordinary report spreads out to the country on the Internet, the question may become not if the president will have to leave, but when." Dan -- can you go to Camera 2 so I can wipe the drool from my chin?

But something happened as I read on. The thrill wore off; the shock wore off. Just like at a nude beach, all those forbidden, exciting, titillating details suddenly lost their aura. And all that was left was what we had known all along: President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky had sex. Like a veteran dirty-movie director, Ken Starr had simply zoomed in to extreme close-up. Because most of the country doesn't care that they had sex -- but they might, if they were forced to watch every hip thrust, every train-going-into-a-tunnel shot. If the president's only weak point is his sexual appetite, get him there. In fact, that might be the best ploy of all. Work on the country's Oedipus complex -- nobody wants to see Daddy with a hard-on. Get that penis-cam in here!

The porno strategy might work. The closed world of Realpolitik doomsaying and repression-fueled, media-magnified outrage hasn't spread out fully to Main Street yet, but it still might.

Then again it might not. Because we've all seen pornography, and we've all had sex. You aim the camera below any of our belts, you're going to get the same script, and if you make it a legal inquisition you're also going to get those hideous footnote numbers, so reminiscent of purge-preparation dossiers placed on the desk of Comrade Stalin. The Starr report is banking on the horror of a pre-modernist America, the America that banned "Tropic of Cancer" and "Lolita" and "Ulysses." But America isn't that place anymore. If Clinton goes, it will be because the man or woman in the street can't bear to look at him naked. But that man or woman may also say, "Hey, I've seen that before. Pull your pants up, bub, and get back to work."

Everyone knows that Clinton dropped his pants, and now that he's been immortalized in "Monica Does Washington" he will bear the weight of that embarrassment for a long time. But he never wanted to star in this movie. And what sort of snoop would make it?

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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Bill Clinton Infidelity Love And Sex Pornography Sex