When the House managers wrapped up their presentation in the president's impeachment trial two weeks ago, the only question was "How will Clinton get out of this?" But then the great Houdini delivered his State of the Union address, in which he cleverly outflanked the Republicans on the right by proposing a first step toward the privatization -- i.e., elimination -- of Social Security along with vast new largesse for the Pentagon. Hillary beamed; the pundits swooned; and the question du jour became, How will the Republicans ever get out of this, and why don't they do so now?
For surely the impeachment process has not been the great American agon we were promised -- Custer's Last Stand, Iwo Jima, the battle at the O.K. Corral. The visuals have been tragically dull, enlivened only by the chief justice's scowl and whimsically gold-striped robe. CNN, with its gavel-to-gavel coverage of the tedium, became a video dead zone, watched by no Americans other than the president's lawyers or, more likely, by a work crew of illegal Mexican immigrants and former welfare mothers hired to do the watching for them. To make a wise and timely statement about the proceedings at any time in the last few months, all one had to do was mix and match the words "William Jefferson Clinton," "the Constitution of the Yew-nited States," "impeachable offense," "the American people" and "fair and bipartisan" (or, depending on one's party affiliation, "partisan and grossly unfair"). Some of the networks took to recycling the same "live" impeachment commentaries day after day, probably as a cost-saving measure, and in full confidence that no viewer would notice.
But there is one thing that has held the Republicans to their thankless task: witnesses. They want witnesses, preferably eyewitnesses, and they persisted till they got them. This deep, self-destructive yearning is not to be confused, however, with the gospel shout, "Can I get a witness!" Because the witness the Republicans most desperately craved is the luscious, creamy-skinned Monica Lewinsky. Monica was an important part of their probe, they announced. It was essential, according to Rep. Bill McCollum, that they "examine Monica Lewinsky." Later the language took an even more revealing turn, when Ken Starr insisted that the Republicans had the right to "debrief" her. Of course, the Republicans would love to de-brief Monica, since, according to his sworn testimony, not even Clinton achieved that.
The Democrats quickly picked up on their antagonists' prurient intentions, countering that a Monica appearance in the Senate would be a "burlesque." For weeks, like members of an aboriginal all-male totemic cult warding off wifely intrusions, they raged against the threatened pollution of the hallowed chambers with smut and God-knows-what noxious female secretions. When those warnings failed to resonate, they painted a grim S&M picture of what a Republican interview of Monica would be like: The poor child, facing a roomful of men who have the power to throw her in prison, would be subject to unimaginable probings.
Last weekend, the sexual drama reached a mini-climax with Lewinsky's arrival in Washington. The press corps assaulted her from all sides, struggling for a shot of her face, and frustrated to find it modestly hidden by a baseball cap, the American girl's equivalent of a head-scarf. ("Not our finest moment," a CNN anchor observed of this footage, pursing his lips.) The next day Republican Reps. McCollum, Hutchinson and Bryant spent two hours alone with Monica in a $5,000 a day hotel suite -- a different suite than the one she had slept in, the press assured us, lest we envision the foursome conferring on rumpled sheets. Emerging from the interview, the congressmen were all flushed and exuberant, reporting that she was "poised," "intelligent" and, what is most important in the age of Viagra, "helpful." McCollum wore his usual suit and tie, but Hutchinson and Bryant appeared for the first time in casual sweaters, thrown on, perhaps, in haste.
And if no hanky-panky was discussed or proposed, what are we to make of Monica's reported post-interview comment, "I gave them nothing"? Note the verb: not "told," but "gave." What was anyone expecting her to give them -- oral gratification, perhaps, or a sexually transmitted disease? Undeterred, the Republican Bryant pleaded with the Senate on Tuesday, "Wouldn't you at least like to see and hear from her?" -- "his gentle Tennessee drawl inviting," in the New York Times' florid description, "as he urged the Senate court not to be shy and to call Monica S. Lewinsky." Bryant was rewarded for his pleading by being the manager appointed to depose Lewinsky; according to reports, of her three interrogators, Monica picked him personally, like Bachelor No. 1 on "The Dating Game."
So don't let anyone tell you, "This is not about sex." The impeachment process only makes sense when you understand that the Republicans are the pimply high school nerds who can't get a date, while Clinton is the football captain for whom all the girls eagerly "put out." Since the Republicans can't get Clinton, they're determined to have at his discarded girlfriend, even if their frantic efforts to "examine" and "de-brief" her, which have now culminated in a dreamy weekend deposition, end up costing them their House seats. Right-wingers are also subject to the promptings of the flesh, perhaps even more so than the fabled, long-gone tax-and-spend libertines of the left. And in case anyone needed further proof, Clinton's State of the Union speech demonstrated once and for all that it's possible to be a sexual scamp and a good Republican too.