"Our Monica, Ourselves"

Eggheads probe some seldom-explored aspects of Clinton's impeachment -- class-hatred, anti-Semitism, fake prudery -- with insightful results.

Published October 8, 2001 6:03PM (EDT)

It's hard to remember that there was a time in the whole Clinton scandal when we hadn't seen Monica Lewinsky, those few hours between the announced suspicion that Bill Clinton had had an affair with an intern and Lewinsky's public identification. And then that government ID photo was released to the news agencies. Collectively, there were two simultaneous reactions: revulsion, and immediate certainty that the rumors were true.

The inseparability of those two reactions remains the untold story in this picked-over tale. People looked at that unflattering picture and said, to themselves or out loud, of course this is exactly the type of woman Bill Clinton would go for: a mallrat tart for a trailer trash president. And when the later pictures of Monica appeared, pictures of her looking at Clinton with hungry adoration in her eyes or embracing him wearing that famous raspberry beret (cue Prince), few asked, as a female friend of mine did, what man wouldn't fall for such coquettish voluptuousness directed at him?

But Clinton's critics and the media, who by and large acted as Kenneth Starr's lap dogs, left the logic of desire out of the public telling of the story in order to equate the irrationality of lust with reckless self-destruction. Sex, in a way it hadn't been in years, was the new national threat. Clinton's surrender to his impulses became grounds for an attempt to promulgate the myth that any sex that didn't fit the accepted standard (monogamous, heterosexual intercourse) was a threat to our moral fabric and national stability.

The public didn't buy the myth, and that gave the attack dogs license to lump it into the degenerate category. "The death of outrage," William Bennett said in disgust as he envisioned a populace that heard the music of Nero's fiddle (or, in this case, Elvis singing "I'm the king of the jungle, they call me Tiger Man"), and danced to the tune rather than getting their asses out of town.

But the public's support for Clinton, which surprised almost everyone, from his defenders to his most vehement opponents, is a far more complicated issue, and it's still nowhere near settled. That's the story that various writers get -- and miss -- in dribs and drabs in the new collection of essays "Our Monica, Ourselves: The Clinton Affair and the National Interest." In their introduction, the editors, Lauren Berlant and Lisa Duggan, describe the book as a chance to present the view from the left. The book contains more than its share of smart writing. But because it was written by academics, it only sporadically resembles recognizable English.

We've had time to get used to the excesses of the scandal -- the near right-wing coup, Ken Starr's flagrant contempt for due process and the sanctity of the grand jury. After what's happened in the past few weeks, it all seems far away and trivial now, and that's as it should be. But the scandal was, nevertheless, an attempt to overthrow an election.

What's particularly troubling in "Our Monica, Ourselves," though, is that many of the contributors are actually teaching students how to read and write at a university level when they can barely put together a coherent sentence themselves. Take "The Symbolics of Presidentialism" (and what does that mean?), by Dana D. Nelson of the University of Kentucky and Tyler Curtain of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Here's a typical sentence: "That identification is structured by what might be called, for lack of a better phrase, the allegorical force of presidential heterosexuality: the supposedly paradigmatic triangulation of personal and, consequentially, constitutional relations (or in this case, betrayals) among the president, the First Lady, and the Other Woman/the people." "For Lack of a Better Phrase," might have been a good title for the whole book.

Still, the book is useful, if only for bringing up what hasn't been credited about Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton -- and even if some of that is hardly new. Much of what the contributors hit upon was already said, or at least intimated, in "Monica's Story," Monica's 1998 tell-all book written by Andrew Morton. Dismissed as her attempt to cash in on her 15 minutes, the book wasn't taken seriously by reviewers who zeroed on its self-pitying melodrama and missed that Morton had produced one of the few creditable pieces of journalism to come out of the whole affair (particularly on the machinations involving Linda Tripp, Lucianne Goldberg and alleged journalist Michael Isikoff). But the imprimatur of academia can work wonders (even if it can also drain the life out of a subject), and now perhaps those hidden issues can be discussed.

Marjorie Garber's essay "Moniker" homes in on what few have talked about, the anti-Semitism in the public reaction to Monica Lewinsky. Some of that anti-Semitism was of the nutcase variety, like Louis Farrakhan telling Tim Russert that Monica was a Zionist agent sent to disrupt the Middle East peace talks (somebody's bow tie is obviously a little too tight). Elsewhere, it was coded, as anti-Semitism almost always is (the documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman once told me of how a conservative Boston paper repeatedly identified him as "a Cambridge lawyer").

A sampling of the descriptive words used about Monica in the press tells the story: "Pushy," "ambitious," "seductive," "zaftig," "typical Beverly Hills." Men often delight in women who are as forthrightly and unapologetically sexual as Monica was, and women often loathe them. Other women see them as a sexual threat, someone who "gives away" the sexual currency they hoard. And that threat is often displaced in complaints that these open women are vulgar, gauche, have no taste. I've known several women like Monica (only some of them Jewish). In college I was friends with a girl who was short and voluptuous, with delightful big breasts and even more delightful big eyes; she had dyed raven-black hair that went to her waist. She was outrageously flirtatious, kept copies of Penthouse in her room (the letters turned her on) and went to parties dressed to seduce. She was also unfailingly kind and generous and ready to help out (she typed like a demon and it was common to pass by her room at night and hear her clacking out a friend's résumé on her IBM), yet the most common thing other women asked me about her was, "How can you like her?"

Underneath the resentment directed at that sort of woman is the idea that she has gone too far. Garber speaks of this in terms of the boundary crossings that are always the case with "images of Jewishness, and especially Jewish women." They cross boundaries "between homeliness and beauty; between Jewish mother and wayward daughter; between fat and thin; between proper and raucously improper." So while Monica may have had the upbringing and money to be thought of as "typical Beverly Hills," her story is the tale of what money can't buy you in America: the seal of approval of WASP propriety.

Likewise, Bill Clinton's story is that power can't buy that propriety, either. The leader of the free world, yet never accorded the status that usually goes with that power, Clinton in the White House was, to Washington insiders and their media cronies, as out of place as Jethro Beaudine in that Beverly Hills mansion. "He came in here and he trashed the place, and it's not his place," said journalist David Broder, speaking as if it were his place. And in a sense it was. To the keepers of "official" Washington, the town belongs to those who recognize them as the dispensers of power and not to the people who sent them there. To them, Bill Clinton no more belonged in the White House than did you or me.

That attitude produced one moment of high comedy (and something more generally pornographic than anything in the Starr referral): Sally Quinn's Washington Post piece about how Bill Clinton offended official Washington, as much by the challenge to the Washington power structure in his first inaugural address as by his later behavior. This coming from a woman who -- as Esquire noted, referring to Quinn's affair with and later marriage to Post editor Ben Bradlee -- "fucked the boss, broke up his marriage, became the toast of Washington. Twenty years later, decides to get self-righteous with Clinton."

No doubt Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton were attracted by each other's sexual appetite. But beyond that attraction, both of them were outsiders, people who it is still acceptable to denigrate because of their race or class or style (in Clinton's case because he is a white Southern male and, unlike Jimmy Carter, not a genteel one). You get that in James R. Kincaid's essay "It's Not About Sex," where he says it was impossible to think of Clinton and Lewinsky's affair sexually because he found them both so unattractive. Betraying the class prejudice that defined the denigration of Clinton, Kincaid (who is not a stupid man) writes, "It's hard to keep lit a sexual fantasy when it is showered by K-Mart-quality details."

In other words, Kincaid is telling us, he's too classy a guy to get turned on in a trailer park. As Micki McElya observes, "Just as the category 'white trash' absorbs people and practices that menace white normativity [aarrgh!] and racial invisibility, insistent assertions of Clinton's own trash subjectivity mark his deviance and his particular danger ... You can educate Bill Clinton, dress him up, and even make him president, but you can't take the trash out."

Elsewhere in "Our Monica, Ourselves," Bill Clinton becomes the repository for all sorts of meanings and fantasies. When the comedian Chris Tucker told Clinton his fantasy was to play the first black president, Clinton, echoing Toni Morrison, told a press gathering that he responded, "I'm the first black president." In one essay in the collection, Clinton is cast as the first "queer president" because his secret, semi-public assignations with Monica echo the surreptitious nature of gay sex in restrooms or parks. (If surreptitious sex were strictly gay, then every high school boy who fingered his girlfriend in the basement rec room while her parents watched TV upstairs is a closet case.)

More plausibly, Clinton is cast as, if not quite the first female president, then as one who didn't adhere to the reserved phallic strength that is a primary symbol of presidentialism (Oh, God! Make it stop!) Jane Gallop, one of the smartest contributors, acknowledges the link between male sexuality and power but notes that it breaks down "at that moment of what they call 'spending' and losing control and all of that." When Laura Berlant adds, "What seemed disgusting was that he had a body," Gallop says, "If the right-wing in this country is still really moralistic about sex, the left is moralistic about food. That's where the new style of moralism about control is. Well-educated liberal people are supposed to be in control of the amount of body fat they have. The people who are disgusted by Clinton's fat and by Monica's aren't the right wing, they're the ones who want a yuppie president with the right amount of body fat at the helm."

Elsewhere in the book, Clinton doesn't receive nearly that much sympathy. Many of the essays are mired in the naive absolutist idealism of the left, and thus announce their insulation from the reality of politics that necessarily entails deal making and compromise. In other places, there is a sense of justice that has barely evolved from the elementary school playground. Janet R. Jakobsen contributes a woolly-headed essay that could stand as the definitive answer to those older women who puzzle over why so many younger women refuse to identify themselves as feminists. The title, "He Has Wronged America and Women" (cue Carry Nation) comes from a letter sent to the New York Times.

Jakobsen's conclusion is that she can't get upset about the treatment accorded Bill Clinton because he represents "the long-standing tradition of heterosexual monogamous marriage as duplicitious (at least for powerful men)." Also, according to Jakobsen, after approving the Defense of Marriage Act and welfare reform, Clinton was fair game. Or, to put it more succinctly: nyah, nyah, nyah-nyah-nyah.

"It was, after all, a conflict between white men over the sign and symbol of 'woman,'" Jakobsen writes of the impeachment. Tell that to Monica, who was neither sign nor symbol but a real woman whose sex life was declared fair game by the government, who was denied access to counsel in a scenario that was pure Orwell, and whose life and public utterances were controlled by Ken Starr, who held the threat of prison over her head. This was one of the purest examples of institutionalized sexism ever, but Jakobsen can't see beyond her prejudices. She does, however, have a suggestion for bringing women into the power fold, and approvingly tells the story of a woman who wrote in Tina Turner for president in the 1996 election because, as the woman explained, "if she were president there would be a battered women's shelter on every corner." (Either that or a good wig shop.)

"Our Monica, Ourselves" does suggest that, for many on the left, the hardest thing to reconcile is their disgust over Ken Starr's moralistic vendetta and their belief that the affair was Monica and Bill's business with the hallowed (and sometimes merited) feminist insistence that the personal is political. The book is best when it delves into the thorniness of that conflict. Jane Gallop argues that sexual harassment law has been a boon for the right, allowing them a chance to restore the image of women as nonsexual beings who need to be protected from any sexual behavior, and an opportunity to legislate what is and isn't acceptable sexual behavior.

Gallop isn't denying the need for sexual harassment law but, if I read her right, she's saying it's impossible to separate sexual harassment from sex because it is impossible to strip sex of its power dynamic. That dynamic was often misread in Clinton's case. A newspaper editor who was railing against Clinton's "abuse" of Monica was stopped short when my wife asked him, "When a woman is giving a man a blow job, who's in the position of power?" (That's what sex activist and writer Pat Califia meant when she referred to "the particular sound of pleasure and fear that men make when their manhood is taken behind someone else's teeth.")

Ellen Willis contributes an essay, "'Tis Pity He's a Whore," that, thankfully, doesn't beam in from Zontar in the manner of her recent writing (to wit: "More and more I am coming to the conviction that Roe vs. Wade, in the guise of a great victory, has been in some respects a disaster for feminism." Uh-huh). Willis tries to get at how the desire for sexual privacy, basically the belief that consenting adults should be able to lead sex lives free of government supervision, contributes to sexual secrecy, which in turn mystifies sex and keeps desire from "compromising the enforced 'innocence' (that is, ignorance) of respectable women and children." (Though she doesn't admit that nothing reinforces sexual norms more insidiously than people presuming that they know what goes on in any marriage, especially marriages between public figures.)

Willis' notion is that in seeking exoneration Clinton succumbed to the same conventional forces that were trying to destroy him. The problem with her argument is that it's only tangentially connected to the sexual reality of American life. Willis writes that Reagan broke the taboo of a divorced president but that an openly homosexual president, or a heterosexual one living with a partner outside of marriage, is still beyond the pale. Why then does she think it would have been possible for Hillary Clinton, during the "60 Minutes" Gennifer Flowers interview to say, "Not every marriage is monogamous. Relationships are complicated, and ours is no exception"? Even after Clinton, there is still no way in American political life to present a nonmonogamous marriage as anything but a mistake that must be atoned for.

Willis' is a Monday morning quarterback argument. It's perfectly true that the public's support for Bill Clinton probably had something to do with their own experience that marriage and sex are complicated things. But no one was able to predict that support in advance -- not liberals, and certainly not conservatives who had made such political capital out of family values and banked on the idea that the details of the affair would disgust the public. I still maintain that Clinton was right to lie initially about the affair, not just from a personal standpoint (it was nobody's business) but from a political standpoint. At the risk of sounding condescending, adults often lie to children about things they are not equipped to handle, and before Clinton the American public had simply never given any indication that it was mature enough to accept a public figure's adultery without resorting to simplistic, moralistic condemnation.

With the Clinton affair the gap is between what Americans are willing to accept and what they will acknowledge they are willing to accept. Thus Clinton's high approval ratings were accompanied by almost equally high disapproval numbers. (A meaningless statistic. What did they disapprove of, the sex or the lying? And if the latter, lying to whom, his wife or the nation?) A few months ago Frank Rich published an extraordinary article in the New York Times Magazine on the porn industry. In it he said what no other mainstream publication or program had been able to bring itself to acknowledge: that with annual revenues exceeding that of most major professional sports, porn is mainstream. And yet how many people do you know who admit to looking at porn? And reporters and broadcasters, when dealing with the subject, still pretend the need to inform their audience who Jenna Jameson is.

There is no doubt that, on one level, Willis is right. Despite what we thought about an adult's (even a president's) right to sexual privacy, the Clinton affair gave the media a great opportunity to reinforce traditional sexual and moral standards in the guise of maintaining public decency (and thus gave up any claim to objectivity in their reporting). Sasha Torres contributes a hilarious and infuriating -- because it's so right -- essay called "Sex of a Kind" that takes apart the squeamishness of the media in reporting the details of the Starr referral. In her funniest passage, Torres writes about "poor Bob Schieffer [of CBS], who found himself in the unenviable position of translating the juicy bits of the report for the American public and his bombastic boss [Dan Rather]." The transcript of Schieffer's report is pure Terry Southern: "While the president was on the telephone, according to her, he -- let me just read this to make sure we don't -- he unzipped his pants and exposed himself and -- and they had sex of a kind. Again, he stopped her before, I would say, he was completed, I guess would be the way to put that ... Certainly this is living up to every expectation that it was going to be lurid, tawdry, and laid out in explicit detail."

But tawdry and lurid only in the context of television, the way that mild everyday profanities like "hell" and "damn" seemed shocking when they started showing up on prime-time shows. Who but the very sheltered and conventional would find the idea of oral sex tawdry? Certainly not people, even married people, who practice it in their own sex lives. And surely there are enough people who use dildoes or vibrators or other sex toys to be more admiring of Monica's ingenuity with that cigar than shocked by it?

But the media had to stick to their script of pretending to be shocked by all this (and judging by the constipated indignation of Cokie Roberts or George Will, two of them, at least, weren't pretending) or else admit that their whole notion of propriety was hopelessly outdated. And of course that shock allowed them to exploit the case for all its juicy details without pretending they had become gossip columnists. They had to cast the blame for "cheapening" the national dialogue on Bill Clinton as a way of not acknowledging that the material they now had to address was the logical outcome of the media's decision to make Gary Hart's affair with Donna Rice a news story. (I was in a newsroom the day that story broke, and I'll never forget a veteran news editor saying to me that he was ashamed of his profession.)

So the media coverage leaves those of us who supported Clinton in a quandary. As certain as we were that this was none of Ken Starr's business, none of the media's business and none of our business, it's also clear that the media's fearfulness in talking about sex contributed to an atmosphere in which normal and understandable sexual behavior (a blow job, for Christ's sake) was presented as if it were an unimaginable perversion. The media insisted that we should be offended by Clinton's behavior when what was truly offensive was their insistence that we be offended.

But because this case takes place at the nexus of what Americans know about sex and what they willingly admit to knowing, it's also probable that at least some people were comforted by the media's maiden-auntie routine. Just as that survey question "Do you approve of the president's behavior?" gave people a vague, easy out that the more forthright "Do you think the president's extramarital affair has anything to do with his ability to carry out the duties of his office?" would not have.

Nothing is harder to reinstate than a taboo that has been broken. Despite the fact that the impeachment was a political disaster for Republicans, it's not unimaginable that a politician's sexual life will once more be considered a threat to our national interest -- though we can hope that, post-Sept. 11, it's more likely that what a politician does in bed will finally be considered bupkis. The taboos broken by the public discussion of Bill and Monica's affair are the ones about what does and doesn't happen in even strong marriages, and what people do behind locked, or in this case ajar, doors. After Bill and Monica, Americans may, like Linus holding onto his blanket, still be clinging to traditional ideas of proper sexual relations. But somewhere gnawing at them is the notion that it might just be time to put childish things aside.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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