Sexless in Washington

The shameful exposure of Bill Clinton's penis means the next president will not be allowed one.

By Erik Tarloff
Published August 18, 2000 7:24PM (EDT)

Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) is fighting a difficult battle for reelection. Her Orange County district has historically voted Republican. But she's a fighter; in 1996, she wrested the seat from long-term Rep. (and well-known right-wing nutball) Robert Dornan. Money being, as the late Jesse Unruh famously put it, the mother's milk of politics, she scheduled a big fundraising event to promote Hispanic voter registration for Aug. 15, while the Democratic Convention would be in town. Early on, the auguries for the event were promising; every ticket was sold. But then Al Gore indignantly refused to put in an appearance, and the Democratic National Committee gave her an extraordinary ultimatum: Cancel the fundraiser or forget about attending, let alone receiving air-time during the Democratic Convention itself.

What was the nature of their objection? Simply this: Sanchez's fundraiser was to have taken place at the Playboy Mansion. Bear in mind that there weren't going to be bunnies running amok at her event --- clothing emphatically wasn't optional --- there wouldn't have been any skinny-dipping in the grotto, let alone sex in the Champagne Room --- so the DNC's queasiness didn't relate to anything that was actually scheduled to occur at the Mansion. It was simply a reaction to the venue itself.

And they won. The bluenoses won. For all the small-minded imbecility of their position, they had the heavy artillery on their side, and they won. Although Sanchez stubbornly resisted for weeks, last weekend she finally buckled. The world is once again safe for G-rated fundraisers.

Welcome to American politics, post-Clinton. The pooh-bahs of the Democratic Party have evidently decided that it's a bad strategy to acknowledge, however indirectly, that sexual pleasure and sexual appetite even exist. A passing glance at the four nominees of both major parties would reinforce the notion. Not one of them has any juice. Richard Cheney looks like the Pillsbury Doughboy, grown to premature senescence and none too happy about it. Joseph Lieberman looks like your bachelor uncle, the one who, when his name comes up, your mother rolls her eyes and then hopes you didn't notice. Al Gore looks as if he were assembled in a subterranean lab somewhere in the Bavarian Alps. And George W. Bush has the haunted eyes of a guy who woke up one morning after a really decadent party, profoundly shaken by how much he enjoyed it and determined never to have such a good time again.

Judging by superficial appearances, all of them would have been eligible for the role of Grand Vizier in ancient Egypt. Which tends to suggest that, as far as sexual mores are concerned, we've retreated to the 1950s, an epoch when the whole country felt it had the right to a rooting interest in the durability of Doris Day's putative virginity.

The pendulum always swings too far, that's something you can depend on. And it's patently the case here. But many might find it paradoxical that the current mood of neo-Victorianism springs from the Clinton scandals. Didn't the outcome of that imbroglio prove exactly the opposite, that Americans are no longer puritanically censorious? Didn't the president's job approval ratings remain healthy throughout the whole messy business? Weren't Republicans punished at the polls for pursuing impeachment? Have Americans not displayed quasi-European jaded sophistication?

All of that may be true, and yet it's my impression that the nation's response was somewhat more complex and nuanced than outright enthusiasm for blow jobs from interns in the environs of the Oval Office. (Interns and others -- those who haven't read the Starr Report documentation have an incomplete picture of what transpired.) There was surely no overwhelming groundswell for impeachment, but that needn't suggest Clinton's reputation was unaffected by the scandal. The political culture may be overreacting -- I sincerely hope it is -- but it's overreacting to something.

It's sometimes suggested that John Kennedy's sexual shenanigans first came to light as a result of the Church Committee hearings in 1975. That impression is correct as far as official acknowledgement is concerned: His Senate colleagues, even those who had known him and worked with him in the 1950s and 1960s, were shocked, shocked to learn of his doings. Trusty aides like Arthur Schlesinger and Ted Sorensen always claimed ignorance, and, as far as I'm aware, continue to do so to this day. But the truth is, Kennedy's favorite hobby was a pretty open secret in some circles even while he was pursuing it with such singleminded avidity.

My parents, for example, who had no Washington connections at all -- they were in show business -- contemporaneously knew two women who had slept with Kennedy. One of these women, an extremely beautiful actress, used to come to parties at our home, and I'd be lying if I denied my friends and I indulged in a certain amount of surreptitious snickering when she'd enter the living room. But -- anyone who's ever been an adolescent boy will understand this -- it was admiring snickering. And later, in 1970, I met a woman, the ex-wife of a prominent scientist, who had been gently goosed by the president during a White House dinner for Nobel Prize winners. It was her interpretation that the goose was an unambiguous sexual invitation, and I defy anyone to come up with a more convincing interpretation.

What's interesting about all this is that, in general, these sorts of stories contributed to Kennedy's allure. Now, it's certainly true that we didn't yet know the horror stories, the callous, dehumanizing behavior toward Marilyn Monroe and no doubt countless others, the notorious Rat Pack style of treating attractive women as if they were merely disposable playthings. Such information might well have altered our view of the man and his sexual modus operandi. But at the time, he seemed attractively roguish, charming, debonair, full of life. His manifest sexuality was an implicit part of his appeal. After decades of governance by respectable, dry, etiolated gentlemen, it was refreshing to find someone with (his favorite word) vigor running the country. An anonymous New Frontiersman observed early in Kennedy's tenure, "This administration will do for sex what the last one did for golf." The observation was intended admiringly. The change promised to be a decided improvement.

It seems reasonable to assume that most Americans suspected all along that Clinton, given his well-known personal history and his various pre-presidential public confessions, wasn't conducting himself in monkish fashion while in office. His sexual friskiness was an accepted part of the package voters bought when they elected him. It may not have added to his appeal ` la Kennedy -- suavity is a quality the current president distinctly lacks -- but neither was it regarded as disqualifying. I have no polling to back this up, but I would guess most Americans assumed that Clinton -- along with most movie stars, sports heroes, rock stars and business tycoons -- was getting some. And they accepted it as the way of the world, whether they approved or not.

But the malevolent Mr. Starr knew what he was about, even though he failed in his ultimate goal. By including all that pornographic detail in his report and the separate volume of documentation, he didn't merely present us with conclusive proof of the president's sexual waywardness, he rubbed our noses in it. Very few of us, even within the context of cleric-sanctioned relations, would want our intimate lives to be exposed to that sort of scrutiny, or could survive the process with our dignity intact.

And beyond that, the details were extremely unattractive. They suggested a mean streak, an exploitive nature, a sloppy greediness, none of which seemed especially pleasant, let alone presidential. Some of the images we received courtesy of Mr. Starr were genuinely grotesque. When I first read about them, they reminded me of an incident dating from the early 1970s, during the time that "Deep Throat" became the first successful out-of-the-closet pornographic film to reach a wide audience. A friend of mine went to see it, and reported that in the middle of one sequence, a stranger sitting near her suddenly stood up and shouted, "Okay, I've had it! I'll never fuck again!" A perfect example of a pendulum swinging too far, although the fellow probably reconsidered his vow soon after.

We seem to be in the middle of another extreme pendulum swing, one certainly not conducive to more enlightened public discourse. Now, there are a few simple rules of conduct by which a president should probably be guided: Sex with an intern in the Oval Office is generally a poor idea. Involvement with a transparently troubled young woman only a couple of years older than one's daughter is decidedly ill-advised. Coarse advances toward potentially unreceptive acquaintances are incompatible with the dignity of one's position. But we needn't require a president to be above or past all human needs and longings. In fact, such a person might be the worst choice of all. "Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look ..." Shakespeare has Caesar observe, and adds, "He thinks too much: such men are dangerous."

I don't think only vegetarian eunuchs should be elected president. A certain lustiness -- a certain joie -- a certain appetite for the pleasures of life is an attractive quality; it humanizes the person who possesses it. It also encourages the kind of tolerance and humor that are invaluable in someone whose decisions will affect our destiny. So a more useful dictum might be, only grown-ups should be elected president. And the sex lives of grown-ups aren't any of our business. Many of Clinton's predecessors led adulterous private lives -- we know of quite a few, and it seems reasonable to suspect it's true for others about whom history keeps mum -- but they managed to do so with a modicum of decorum.

Clinton's place in history is obviously going to be stupefyingly ambiguous. He got most of the policy questions right, and deserves more credit for it than he is currently receiving. But he also made a hash of a lot of the rest, and part of the political legacy he bequeaths to George Bush or Al Gore next January will be this painfully ironic item: Sexlessness.

Erik Tarloff

Erik Tarloff is the author of "Face-Time," and "The Man Who Wrote the Book."

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Al Gore Bill Clinton Dick Cheney George W. Bush Joe Lieberman Love And Sex Sex