An Inclusive Litany

10/5/98

From a series of commentaries on the Lewinsky affair by leading writers, referred to as "experts on human folly," published over two weeks in the New Yorker, October 5-12, 1998.

Lorrie Moore:

That our ungentlemanly President's gentlemanly failure to kiss and tell should be subjected to the legalisms of judiciary procedure is, of course, total madness, a torture and a regicide, which could only have been brought about by Starr, the crazed zealot the right wing didn't even know it had. He is, of course, Victor Hugo's Javert. But he has not pursued Jean Valjean. In fact, in a bit of publicly funded intertextual surrealism (and downsized literary ambition), he has leaped completely out of the book and pursued Terry Southern's Candy.
Cynthia Ozick, also reviewing the Starr Report as literature for some reason:
[T]he report is even more emphatic than the camera in its portrayal of repetitive simplicity. There is no complex sense of human motives; there is only one motive, and one motif, for each character. The vision is not that of Thackeray's mercurial Becky Sharp (who, says [E.M.] Forster, "waxes and wanes and has facets like a human being") but, rather, of the captive stasis of Keats' Grecian Urn: the painted figures "forever painting." So we see Lewinsky forever seeking Clinton, Clinton forever fondling Lewinsky, Mrs. Currie forever escorting Lewinsky to Clinton, Mrs. Clinton forever offstage, eclipsed by faraway cities. And Starr, the presumed voice of the narrative, is perhaps the flattest character of all. "The really flat character," Forster notes, "can be expressed in one sentence such as 'I never will desert Mr. Micawber.' " Starr's one distinguishing sentence is "The President lied under oath."
[Ed.: So's yo' mama.]

William Styron:

What the French don't possess is the equivalent of the American South, where a strain of protestant fundamentalism is so maniacal that one of its archetypal zealots, Kenneth Starr, has been able to nearly dismantle the Presidency because of a gawky and fumbling sexual dalliance....

[French President] Mitterand liked and admired Bill Clinton (as opposed to Reagan, whom he called a "dullard" and a "complete nonentity") and was especially fascinated by what he described as his "animality," which doubtless meant something steamier. Clinton's tumultuous sexual past... might find a correspondence in the wonderfully candid remark uttered by the dying Mitterand: "I don't know of a single head of state who hasn't yielded to some sort of carnal temptation, small or large. That in itself is reason enough to govern."

Jane Smiley:
What I do believe about Bill Clinton is that, more than most recent presidents, with the possible exception of Jimmy Carter, he knows the difference between love and war. He much prefers the former to the latter, and always has. You can't say that for all of them.... What I remember about Bush is that the only time in his whole presidency that he even got a little animated was when he went to war against Iraq. His façade of Eastern-establishment savoir-faire slipped, and there he was, a guy for whom launching a missile seemed to be better than sex.
Janet Malcolm:
Lewinsky emerges from the report as a piece of work. She is aggressive, self-involved, calculating, devious. (There is even a hint of blackmail: "Ms. Lewinsky also obliquely threatened to disclose their relationship. If she was not going to return to work at the White House, she wrote [to Clinton], then she would 'need to explain to my parents exactly why that wasn't happening.' ") The relentless Lewinsky takes over the narrative. It is almost as if Starr had absently allowed some strain of deep-seated misogyny to derail his enterprise of driving the President out of office. He evidently did not realize that by giving the captive Valley Girl witness her head, and by allowing his contempt for her to show, he would let his prey escape with his life. It is the brash Monica, not the passive Bill, who finally earns the reader's censure. Since the object of the exercise was to turn the nation against the President, those of us who deplored the investigation from the start can only take satisfaction in Starr's bungling—in this time of few satisfactions.
Louis Begley:
One thought that public executions and floggings, putting sinners in stocks, shaving the heads of adulteresses and similar pastimes that have beguiled the multitude ever since our ancestors evolved into the human species had all gone out of style in the industrialized democracies. When they occur in less privileged places—in China, for instance, where during the Cultural Revolution public confessions of guilt and acts of contrition were de rigueur—Amnesty International raises a mighty clamor.

In the dim, bloodstained past of certain cultures, sacrifices of kings were holy acts, performed by priests to obtain for the king's subjects a great benefit—averting a famine or plague. Something akin to those rites, but obscenely profane, has been acted out in Washington.

[Ed.: Mr. Begley also says, "somewhere in the back of his head [Clinton] must have the idea that you can trust little sluts. In fact, only great ladies and high-priced whores know how to keep secrets." Perhaps Ms. Malcolm can have a word....]

Toni Morrison:

African-American men seemed to understand it right away. Years ago, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children's lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas. And when virtually all the African-American Clinton appointees began, one by one, to disappear, when the President's body, his privacy, his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution, when he was metaphorically seized and body-searched, who could gainsay these black men who knew whereof they spoke? The message was clear: "No matter how smart you are, how hard you work, how much coin you earn for us, we will put you in your place or put you out of the place you have somehow, albeit with our permission, achieved. You will be fired from your job, sent away in disgrace, and—who knows?—maybe sentenced and jailed to boot. In short, unless you do as we say (i.e., assimilate at once), your expletives belong to us."
[Ed.: Morrison also compares Starr to Torquemada, describing his investigation as a "fatwa" and a "sustained, bloody, arrogant coup d'état." At an "emergency speakout" against impeachment held on December 14 at New York University, novelist Mary Gordon likewise suggested that Clinton was the first female president.]

E.L. Doctorow:

All you need is a sinner and a suit. If you happen to be a prosecutor with a righteous bent, you can transform what morally offends you into a criminal offense.

The use of legal procedure to elicit an illegal act was common practice in the nineteen-fifties. People who had committed no crimes were brought before congressional committees to testify about their political beliefs and the beliefs of their friends, and when they refused they were cited for contempt and sent off to jail.

What is different here is the target: the President of the United States. That is horrific.

The sexual act can be barbaric, brutally selfish, and self-aggrandizing, or loving and revelatory. It can be infantile and ludicrous, or spiritually exalted and profound. It can be narcissistic, heedless, exploitative, or devotional. In the course of one person's life, it can, at one time or another, be all these things. But the particular character of a consensual act is manifest only in the intimate connection of two minds. When it is exposed to an audience, it deconstructs as something inevitably prurient, automatically scandalous. This is especially true in America, where one of the abiding shames of the Calvinist mind is that only a Son of God can be conceived without animal intercourse.

[Ed.: In addition to Joseph McCarthy, Doctorow also compares Starr's investigation to the Salem witch trials and to illegal wiretapping conducted by J. Edgar Hoover.]

Ethan Canin:

It seems to me that Bill Clinton, though flawed perhaps, possesses a tempered intelligence. He is comfortable with the extremes of human possibility, with the grandness and loathsomeness of mankind, with the Icarian dream and petty stumble that is human character. It is this comfort, in fact, which might lead a man of his constitution to stray from what in some circles is thought of as morality.

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