One can hardly blame writer/director Rod Lurie for the specious moralizing that wraps up -- and ultimately strangles -- his political melodrama "The Contender." The righteousness is just as topsy-turvy in the real presidential race, where two Christ-invoking candidates support lethal injection, where Al Gore's illegal fundraising qualifies him as a campaign finance reformer; where pundits declare it cynical to vote for Ralph Nader because he's an idealist.
The only thing argued with more passionate wrongheadedness than politics is sex. Put the two together, and you're back in the surrealistic wonderland of 1998, where "is" might not mean "is" and humans copulate with cigars and blue Gap dresses. The impeachment fiasco hovers over today's election like a taunting Cheshire Cat, causing candidates to clutch their wives and invoke God more often than a Grammy winner.
"The Contender," Hollywood's most direct comment yet on the Clinton-Starr showdown, holds a funhouse mirror up to those already twisted events. Lurie's martyr is Joan Allen's vice presidential appointee Laine Hanson. When photographs of a 19-year-old Laine in a drunken threesome surface, evil bad-haired Republican Gary Oldman slips them to a Matt Drudge-type Web site.
What makes Hanson a hero in this movie is her refusal to respond to questions about the photos. To respond to the charges would be to validate the relentless prying into politicians' private lives, she says. OK, that makes some moral and logical sense even if it's not terribly realistic. But then, in a plot twist too stupid to conceal, she finally "confesses" to the president that it wasn't her in the pictures after all!
So, says the film, it's OK to have a wild past but not so OK that our hero actually does. The peccadillo she is allowed to keep is one that everyone agrees only "makes her human" -- she had an affair with her campaign director, broke up his marriage and then married him herself.
By thus splitting the difference, Lurie echoes the trees-not-forest morality that blew around the Clinton scandal like Dylan's "Idiot Wind." The sexual details Starr tried to sink Clinton with are like Laine Hanson's drunken college flings -- victimless, meaningless, not particularly flattering but in no way treacherous. Having your threesome or phone sex or cigar play revealed is -- or should be -- embarrassing the way a public fart is embarrassing. You've committed no crime against humanity; you just didn't particularly want an audience.
Sexual shame, shame about simply trying or wanting something sexually unorthodox, occupies its own unreasoning category, a murky chamber hung with Judeo-Christian relics. It's segregated away from the larger, useful kind of shame, the kind that shapes one's life choices, the kind that pushes us to be good in our dealings with others. As long as sex stays in that room that we keep dark, we won't try as hard to make it honorable.
Take adultery, please. It requires lying day after day to the one you live with, presumably trust and love, and have sworn loyalty to. Since so many people, especially men in power, cheat, why can't we reexamine the till-death-do-us-part model of monogamy? An honest appraisal of monogamy's limits could prevent a lot of lying and heartache.
I agree with Lurie and all the Clinton defenders who don't think private lives should be campaign issues. But since it is all dragged out these days, I'm more comfortable with the pervert than the adulterer. (I'd put Clinton in the former category, because his adultery has been too flagrant for too long to even be considered a secret. He and Hillary must have an understanding -- and wouldn't it be healthier if they could just say so?)
From my left-of-Democratic Leadership Council perspective, the impeachment and everything leading up to it is not the smear on an otherwise fine record. It may prove to be one of the more positive parts of Clinton's legacy. Nowhere is "morality" more misapplied than in public talk about private parts, and the Republicans' witch hunt flushed that hypocrisy to the surface.
This was important because Americans still don't quite believe that sex isn't bad. It's partly why sexiness matters in politics, why people voted for JFK and Clinton, why Al Gore opted to tongue Tipper at the Convention. If our leaders are up there with their appetites hanging out, our lust must be OK. Everybody's abiding fear -- "Are my desires weird?" -- was answered by the Starr Report: "Yes, but you've got company in high places."
That furtive relationship between the citizenry and our leaders' sex lives is what made "The Contender's" premise so intriguing. Now that pols' private lives are the voters' business, could the country accept JFK/Clinton-type sexuality in a female vice president? It was a new lens on the old men-in-power excuse for infidelity -- that our leaders need higher levels of testosterone to fuel all those backroom deals and power plays.
In his Salon review of "The Contender," Charles Taylor says the film "ends up supporting the ridiculous notion that what matters in politics is the moral character of our leaders' behavior." He goes on to say that we want scrappers and fighters and schemers in Congress and the White House because they're the ones who get things done. A politician who won't fight dirty is useless.
Taylor's absolutely right that Laine Hanson's Marcel Marceau act wouldn't fly in real-world politics. (Perhaps Lurie just wanted to show some alternative to crying for mercy like a busted televangelist.) But without "moral character" to guide their scrapping, what's left to drive our leaders besides a will to power, tempered in Clinton's case with the need to please everyone?
In politics, as in sex, there's a perturbing gap between the ideal and the reality. Few politicians desire only to serve; few fucks are pure expressions of everlasting love. Once cynicism blooms in that gap, political and sexual acts are held to lower and lower standards of behavior. The compartmentalizing, compromising Clinton could be brutal in both arenas and still consider himself a good man. The public servant wasn't completely eclipsed by the ruthless climber: Clinton does seem truly empathetic when he listens to his constituents' troubles.
But he kept screwing them over. None of his legislative battles inspired the loyalty that impeachment did. The guy whom everyone from Larry Flynt to Jane Smiley (to most of Salon) defended wasn't the one who sold out gays in the military, Joycelyn Elders (I just hope she enjoyed Monicagate as much as she deserved to), environmentalists, unions, the Sudanese, Afghans and Iraqis he bombed, and Americans living in poverty. (Though the welfare reform bill has not proven as destructive as feared, Clinton signed it after being told a million poor children could end up poorer.) No, the guy being championed was the horndog attacked so hypocritically by other horndogs with better connections.
And Kenneth Starr had the misfortune or stupidity not only to choose sex, but to seize upon what was, rather unbelievably, one of Clinton's less predatory indiscretions. Monica was young and an employee, but she initiated the affair, which seemed affectionate within its tight Secret Service-flanked boundaries. She was a strange combination of naive, wised-up and masochistic: The Big Creep wasn't even the worst cad she had ever dated.
But a cad he is, if not worse. The sexual harassment of Monica Lewinsky was at least consensual, in contrast to Paula Jones' story. And we'll never know what happened between him and Juanita Broaddrick, but her televised account rang frighteningly believable: She didn't strike me as the inventor of all those cruel, strange details.
Today marks the end of a campaign shaped by Clinton's impeachment, especially the alpha pup's choice of a scolding prig for VP. All the Bible-thumping and wife-displaying by the two major parties is a depressing retreat from progress that the spotlight on Clinton's sex life could have inspired -- integrating sex into our moral framework.
Clinton's Saturday night-Sunday morning schism allowed him to treat the women he had sex with worse than the women he didn't. And, as in so many other things, he's an ugly reflection of the country. As long as we exile sex, like politicking, to some back room where anything goes, we'll never hold it to the same standards of decency that we strive for in the rest of our private and public lives.