Sex and the single intern

What does it mean that the president preyed upon an employee half his age?

Published February 19, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

Now that the slings and arrows of impeachment have been stilled, the discussion has shifted to a question -- "What's next for America?" -- calculated to keep the media in clover until the next scandal blooms. A thousand think pieces ponder the post-impeachment future, and panel after pundit-ridden panel is assembled to assure that we will never see the promised land of closure until we have wandered for 40 sweeps months in the desert of TV talk.

There is something apt about this lingering rumination. After all, the charges against President Clinton were never a proper catchment for his sins, which were, though not impeachable, fascinating and perplexing. Perjury and obstruction of justice are awfully hard to prove in a culture where lying is the leaven of life, and making a political crisis out of a sex scandal, in the age of Jerry Springer, strikes most people as beside the point, at best. If adultery is a private matter (though one we are eager to read about in graphic detail), then its moral significance can only be decided in the court of the culture. Jeff Greenfield is a better host of these proceedings than a judge in gold stripes, and the denizens of talk shows a more appropriate jury than any stentorian senator.

But because most Republicans regard the culture as a sinkhole of depravity (except for such hallowed events as halftime at the Super Bowl), they can't take it seriously, let alone make sense of it. As a result, they persisted in the face of growing evidence that most folks were rooting for Clinton to beat the rap. As befits a nation of promiscuous Puritans, Americans will condemn the sinner but punch the air in private whenever a sly sensualist prevails. We can thank the Republicans for conferring victim status on the world's most powerful person, thereby transforming him into the pariah we love to hate.

No one is more forgiving of this president's transgressions than the boomer masses. Something about him makes every former hippie with a hedge fund feel the old sap rising. Never mind that Clinton is to the counterculture what Barry Manilow was to acid rock; he embodies that Grateful Dead lyric: "I will survive."

Yet anyone who takes the '60s seriously ought to find Clinton's behavior troubling, though not for the reasons the Republicans have trumpeted. I'm not talking about lying, or urging one's lover to lie low. If these were high crimes, the jails would be full of errant presidents. I'm talking here about the heart of Clinton's darkness: the fact that his lover was, to use the moralist's phrase, "a woman half his age" -- and an intern to boot. Why is it so hard for our side to admit that these are problematic acts? The answer lies not just in the vagaries of "special interest" politics, as the right likes to think, but in the contradictions produced by the '60s colliding against the present.

The counterculture's most enduring achievement was to usher in a sexual morality that emphasized feeling over propriety. These values have now become not just ingrained but conflated with our convictions about social justice, so that intimacy is supposed to be a model of equity. There's only one problem: Desire remains stubbornly behind the times, and when it comes to desire, the imbalance of power is still a turn-on, especially (but not exclusively) for men. Intergenerational sex is a vivid reminder of all the ways straight relationships -- even between peers -- depend on the artful application of female submission and male dominance. (Gay relationships have their own power issues, of course, but that is another story, since there was never a John Doe in among the Jane Does alleged to have dallied with the president.)

To condemn the president is a handy way out of this bind. It allows conservatives to make the repression of desire seem egalitarian. Which is why feminists and other progressives, who are hip to this strategy, have refused to join in the pummeling. No one is harder to forsake than a bad man whose enemies are worse.

Yet something about the dispensation our side has granted Clinton resembles the familiar Jewish exemption of Chinese food from the kosher laws. Pork is pork, especially when attached to a pig. And for all his good vibes, Clinton is more like the lubricious '60s throwback Austin Powers than the liberated man the Beatles imagined when they sang, "The love you take is equal to the love you make." What's more, when it comes to that hallmark of the new morality -- taking responsibility for one's desires -- let's face it: For Clinton, that depends on what id is.

But loyalty to a treacherous icon is not the only reason we won't bash Bill. There's also the reminder -- in every revelation about the president's props and practices -- that sex ought to be private because it's so damned complicated.

Take the question of why Clinton slipped and slid with such a sophomore. It may not be liberated, but it sure is Southern, and it ought to strike us as ironic that the president's most ardent pursuers hail from states where, until recently, the age of consent was so low it defied national norms. Even today, the widespread popularity of child pageants in the South affirms an ongoing interest in young girls, as does the punch line to the good-old-boy jape Dorothy Allison cites in "Bastard Out of Carolina."

"What's a virgin?"

"That's a 10-year-old can run fast."

So is the whole Monica megillah just an anxiety attack about the return of this repressed tradition? We'll never know -- not from the Southern gents who tried to evict the Trailer Trash president, nor from the man who turned the Oval Office into God's Little Acre. It's possible that not even Clinton understands why he diddled dangerously. When it comes to a desire just below the surface of permissibility, we are all Monicas, full of illusion and incomprehension.

If that seems perplexing, consider the made-for-Oprah enigma: Did Bill love her, or was it just "a servicing arrangement," as Linda Tripp maintains? Like so much else about this scandal, both these explanations are incomplete. The servicing of middle-aged men by lush young women is certainly about power, but it is also about longing for incestuous union and lost youth. To address these hidden dimensions of the Lewinsky affair is loaded for all sides in the impeachment debate. For conservatives, it means exposing the underbelly of ordinary, middle-aged male behavior. For liberals, it means confronting the dark side of sexual freedom.

Maybe the problem was imbedded in the new morality all along. After all, the phrase "sexual liberation" lent itself to an uncanny assortment of beliefs. Women who used it were usually talking about unleashing female desire, clearly a revolutionary act. But for most men, it meant shuffling off the coil of commitment for some more customized arrangement. This contradiction has come back to haunt us as we consider the unintended consequence that is Clinton's sex life. As if the intergenerational issue weren't thorny enough for those who subscribe to the ethic of equity, what about the fact that Lewinsky was an intern whose fortunes depended on her boss?

Assuming that the president is not a rapist (despite the nasty Republican whispers), this is clearly his mortal sin against feminism, which has struggled for a workplace in which power is not used to promote a sexual agenda. No one is out to ban dating on the job (though the fact that this has happened in a number of businesses is another example of how Puritans twist feminism to serve their ends). It's the boss, stupid, who should keep his hands off the help. But for many bosses, this new rule is the world turned upside down. Executive rage may be the real reason so many elite males had a cow over Clinton's carousing. Their fury when the president got away with what they no longer can is explanation enough for the impeachment frenzy, not to mention the apoplectic tone of the Wall Street Journal's editorial page.

But what about the possibility that some unequal workplace liaisons are emotionally complex, even liberating? If feeling trumps propriety, how can practitioners of the new morality object when the boss and an assistant fall in love? Questions like this give lockjaw to the usually loquacious left, because they suggest that the personal is not always political -- or at least not simply political. Maybe that's why the president's sex life became a scandal in the first place. Perhaps this was the right's attempt to deal with the new morality by throwing its complications in our face.

As we learned back when the '60s was a miniseries of the mind, freedom favors contradiction. Let that be our side's response to both Clinton and his enemies. They can all stand to be reminded that the love you take is equal to the love you make.

By Richard Goldstein

Richard Goldstein was the first widely read rock critic, with a column called "Pop Eye" that ran in the Village Voice from 1966 to 1968. The column allowed me to meet most of the major rock stars of the 1960s, and to know some of them quite well, including Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison. I also knew and hung out with Andy Warhol, Susan Sontag, and other cultural figures of the time. After the end of the '60s I began to write about feminism, sexual liberation, and identity politics, tracing the connections between these areas and social and political trends in a series of features and columns for the Voice. I also wrote for The New York Times, New York Magazine, and Vogue, among other venues. In the 1980s I became an activist for lgbt rights, and I won a GLAAD award as Columnist of the Year. I have written recently for The Nation, The Guardian, Harpers, The Atlantic (online), the London Spectator, and other publications.

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Bill Clinton