The Books: Political Fictions, ‘Clinton Agonistes’, by Joan Didion

Still on the essays shelf with another book of essays by Joan Didion, called Political Fictions.

This entire article makes me shiver with revulsion remembering the days of the Kenneth Starr inquisition, when Monica Lewinsky dominated our front pages, and it seemed as though the country stopped in its tracks. Didion does not deconstruct the Monica Lewinsky situation. There’s been enough of that. She deconstructs how the story itself took hold, and the almost organic (almost) response of the press, even as the press periodically excoriated itself for its behavior. It was a terrible and very SILLY time. The prurient nature of Starr’s entire investigation, and his “I am here to uphold American values” stance, was disgusting to me then and it’s disgusting to me now. Clinton’s behavior is important to me because he was my President and he was our representative. I was not a Clinton fan, although I find him to be a fascinating political specimen, and truly enjoyable to watch him talk live (especially off-the-cuff – seriously, he should be studied under glass for that. He doesn’t need to rehearse any “zingers”, he has a natural ability for this stuff), but the fact that I wasn’t a fan doesn’t matter: I want the guy in the White House to do well and behave honorably and not embarrass us. And the fact that he had opened himself up to such a dangerous situation as to start an affair with an intern … well, yes, that is embarrassing. Not as embarrassing as going to England, our greatest ally, and publicly doubting their readiness for the Olympics. Not as embarrassing as behaving like an ignorant boob on foreign soil. THAT is truly dangerous, even in a candidate. So Clinton’s behavior was caddish and predatory, but it was the press coverage that was the true embarrassment. It conflated the small, it magnified the unimportant. It made us look like the soft privileged country that we were. Meanwhile, in Florida and elsewhere, the terrorists who would appear to fly out of a clear blue sky in 2001, were preparing. We were looking elsewhere. None of this is news. I still think that there was a silly aspect to the Clinton-Lewinsky thing, especially once I got the sense that the press was out for blood. Once you feel the press is out for blood, the game is over. The story is now a runaway train, and the only way to stop it is to blow up the whole damn train.

The press coverage was such a juggernaut of tabloid dirty-mindedness, and it was so constant, so everyday, that the effect it had on me (and millions of others) was sheer exhaustion. The insistence on moral outrage is always tiresome to me, and if I could say that there is one quality that is immediately a red flag to me, in terms of ulterior motives and underlying subtext, it is moral outrage. Show me someone who makes a point out of moral outrage, who has “moral outrage” as their default position, and I will show you a nasty stingy person with skeletons in Ye Olde Closet. So there’s that. None of this is a defense of Clinton’s behavior which was irresponsible (to say the least) and made him hugely vulnerable. But let’s not forget: he would always be vulnerable to charges like this, and stories of all of the women came up repeatedly on his campaign trail. None of this should have been a surprise. Please. There was a lot of posturing going on in those days, on the news talk shows, talk radio, the op-ed pages. Huffing and puffing about cigars and Gap dresses … as though everyone in America only did it missionary-style in the pitch blackness. That was another element of it that ended up annoying me, and always does during these sex scandals. The glee with which the press (and the public, to some extent) leap onto sexual information reveals our shame. It’s high school all over again. We are meant to be sexually conformist, but, come on, nobody is sexually conformist. Or, we ARE conformist in that we all do it all kinds of ways, and we go down on each other, we take turns being on top, we do it standing up sometimes, we do it from behind, maybe even food products are involved (if that’s your thing), or toys, or whatever is there (a cigar, perhaps), we act out fantasies (“You be the evil landlord and I’ll be the helpless tenant”) sometimes the butt is involved (for more and more of us, apparently – no worries on that link: it’s to a Slate article) and sometimes we do it missionary-style in the darkness, too. You know, just to mix things up. This is the normal sexual life of normal adults. We all know it. We don’t go around talking about it (unlike the way I just did), but we all do all KINDS of things with each other when we get into bed with each other. Anything goes when you have two enthusiastically consenting people. (“Enthusiastic consent” is my new favorite concept.) But if you’re a public figure, and any of this gets out, suddenly the public is all horrified, and the press agonizes about it, and we all pretend that somehow we haven’t done those things too. (On the flip side, those who call themselves progressive or feminist were falling all over themselves to dismiss Clinton’s sexual predatory behavior, which they never would have done if he had been a Republican. Seriously: it was not our finest hour as a nation. It may be around then that I tuned all of the chattering classes out. NOBODY looked good.)

I will say this, to be clear: I don’t care about the sexual lives of others, even the President of the United States. If you’re not hurting anyone, or harassing anyone, do whatever the hell you want, and if you’re cheating, well, I’m just glad I’m not married to you, and we’ll just let your wife deal with you. I honestly don’t care. I don’t fall over in moral outrage. Yes, you’re on “my” time as the President, you’re there because I am a voter, and that is MY office you’re having sex in … but whatever, powerful men have powerful appetites and desires. This is news? It’s news that someone who is ambitious enough to become the Leader of the Free World also treats women as the spoils-of-war, up for the taking if he grabs at them? Why is this news? Do people not know their history? The fact that Clinton had an affair was a big fat yawn. Yes, he was indiscreet to the point of self-destruction, he chose VERY unwisely, and he thought with his cock. Again, I am not sure why this is news. He’s certainly not the only man about which that can be said. I am not trying to be sophisticated. I’m not sophisticated. I am a loyal woman in my relationships, and have never cheated on any of my boyfriends, and consider infidelity to be a major deal-breaker. But that’s me privately. What other people do is none of my damn business.

NOW. This is not to say that what we had here with Clinton and Lewinsky was on solid ground, morally. First of all, there is the sheer power inbalance, not to mention the fact that she was an employee and he was basically her boss. However, again, that kind of thing goes on all the time. If there is a quid pro quo involved, then obviously we have job discrimination (“sleep with me or you won’t get promoted'”), but that doesn’t seem to be what was happening with Clinton and Lewinsky (as a matter of fact, if anything it was the opposite: Monica Lewinsky demanding reparation from the President of the United States). Maureen Dowd was on fire during this time, and her columns were (on dark days) the only thing that helped get me through the entire unpleasant affair. When she won the Pulitzer, one of her comments was, “If Monica Lewinsky had kept her clothes on, I would not be standing here today.” Dowd is hit or miss for me, but her Lewinsky columns were huge hits, in my book, because she had no moral outrage. She just had a highly tuned sense of the absurd, and made fun of it, repeatedly, for a year. Thank goodness. Everyone else, like Cokie Roberts and others, were bemoaning the fact that “the children” now would have to be told what “oral sex” is, and what was this world coming to? Dowd, instead, wondered if there was something in the bond that related to the fact that these were two fat kids who had been made fun of in high school. Two fat kids getting back at the world that had scorned them for their weight. Listen, a silly situation requires silly analysis. Call me corrupt (I dare you), but the fact that Clinton inserted a cigar into Lewinsky’s lady-bits did not seem to me like one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse and anyone who felt that way I reserve the right to call SILLY.

Clinton was a sexual predator, but it goes a long way towards explaining how out of control the press coverage was that by the time he wagged his finger at us I felt sorry for him. Wasn’t the whole thing originally an investigation of Whitewater, that was then expanded to include Lewinsky? Nobody seemed to remember that or wanted to remember it. We were now hounding a man for having an affair. Yes, in the Oval Office. Gross. Yes, in plain view of his staff, his wife, and, ultimately, the American people. Gross. Not just indiscreet but incredibly stupid, because he got more than he bargained for with Miss Lewinsky, who really just was not going to be brushed aside. (“I won’t be ignored, Dan.”) You couldn’t pay her off to get rid of her. She kept the damn semen-stained dress in her closet for weeks. This is not a woman of the world. Or, to put it another way, this is the most worldly woman who has ever lived. “I should probably keep this dress with the stains on it. It’ll come in handy some day.” Monica Lewinsky became Bill Clinton’s worst nightmare: the woman who would not, WOULD NOT, go away, no way, no how. I certainly don’t blame her, in many respects, although, come on, honey, it’s the President of the United States, get a grip. This is one of the human elements of the story that was, indeed, fascinating (although I certainly didn’t want to read about it, day in, day out, for a YEAR.)

Didion’s essay on all of this was published in September of 1998 in the New York Review of Books. Ken Starr strode the landscape, and Didion describes him as a “sanctimonious hall monitor with sex on the brain”, and, if you recall, despite the fact that the situation was seen as an outrage there wasn’t a groundswell of support to remove the guy from office. As a matter of fact, it was the opposite. I’m not talking about the fringe-dwellers who were out for blood, because, again, they cannot be trusted. They would rather see America go down (so to speak), and be shamed in front of the world, than let that Clinton go on one more day in office. In poll after poll it was shown that the American people, right, left and center, wanted to just get the fuck ON with it. But we could not. Not as long as we had the Kenneth Starrs and William Bennetts, who love just such an opportunity to push their own moralistic agendas. We see this going on right now, too.

This essay from Didion is a monster, and it really brings back the sound of the chattering classes in those endless days. I’m still embarrassed for all of us.

Here’s an excerpt.

Political Fictions, ‘Clinton Agonistes’, by Joan Didion

The cost of producing a television show on which Wolf Blitzer or Josh Gibson referees an argument between an unpaid “former federal prosecutor” and an unpaid “legal scholar” is significantly lower than that of producing conventional programming. This is, as they say, the “end of the day,” or the bottom-line fact. The explosion of “news comment” programming occasioned by this fact requires, if viewers are to be kept from tuning out, nonstop breaking stories on which the stakes can be raised hourly. The Gulf War made CNN, but it was the trial of O.J. Simpson that taught the entire broadcast industry how to perfect the pushing of the stakes. The crisis that led to the Clinton impeachment began as and remained a situation in which a handful of people, each of whom believed that he or she had something to gain (a book contract, a scoop, a sinecure as a network “analyst”, contested ground in the culture wars, or, in the case of Starr, the justification of his failure to get either of the Clintons on Whitewater), managed to harness the phenomenon and ride it. This was not an unpredictable occurrence, nor was it unpredictable that the rather impoverished but generally unremarkable transgressions in question would come in this instance to be inflated by the rhetoric of moral rearmament.

“You cannot defile the temple of justice,” Kenneth Starr told reporters during his many front-lawn and driveway appearances. “There’s no room for white lies. There’s no room for shading. There’s only room for truth … Our job is to determine whether crimes were committed.” This was the authentic if lonely voice of the last American wilderness, the voice of the son of a Texas preacher in a fundamentalist denomination (the Churches of Christ) so focused on the punitive that it forbade even the use of instrumental music in church. This was the voice of a man who himself knew a good deal about risk-taking, an Ahab who had been mortified by his great Whitewater whale and so in his pursuit of what Melville called “the highest truth” would submit to the House, despite repeated warnings from his own supporters (most visibly on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal not to do so, a report in which his attempt to take down the government was based in its entirety on ten occasions of backseat intimacy as detailed by an eager but unstable participant who appeared to have memorialized the events on her hard drive.

This w as a curious document. It was reported by The New York Times, on the day after its initial and partial release, to have been written in part by Stephen Bates, identified as a “part-time employee of the independent counsel’s office and the part-time literary editor of The Wilson Quarterly,” an apparent polymath who after his 1987 graduation from Harvard Law School “wrote for publications as diverse as The Nation, The Weekly Standard, Playboy, and The New Republic.” According to the Times, Mr. Bates and Mr. Starr had together written a proposal for a book about a high school student in Omaha barred by her school for forming a Bible study group. The proposed book, which did not find a publisher, was to be titled Bridget’s Story. This is interesting, since the “narrative” section of the Referral, including as it does a wealth of nonrelevant or “story” details (for example the threatening letter from Miss Lewinsky to the president which the president said he had not read, although “Ms. Lewinsky suspected that he had actually read the whole thing”), seems very much framed as “Monica’s Story”. We repeatedly share her “feelings,” just as we might have shared Bridget’s: “I left that day sort of emotionally stunned,” Miss Lewinsky is said to have testified at one point, for “I just knew he was in love with me.”

Consider this. The day in question, July 4, 1997, was six weeks after the most recent of the president’s attempts to break off the relationship. The previous day, after weeks of barraging members of the White House staff with messages and calls detailing her frustration at being unable to reach the president, her conviction that he owed her a job, and her dramatically good intentions (“I know that in your eyes I am just a hindrance – a woman who doesn’t have a certain someone’s best interests at heart, but please trust me when I say I do”), Miss Lewinsky had dispatched a letter that “obliquely”, as the narrative has it, “threatened to disclose their relationship”. On this day, July 4, the president has at last agreed to see her. He accuses her of threatening him. She accuses him of failing to secure for her an appropriate job, which in fact she would define in a later communique as including “anything at George magazine.” “The most important things to me,” she would then specify, “are that I am engaged and interested in my work. I am not someone’s administrative/executive assistant, and my salary can provide me a comfortable living in NY.”

At this point she cried. He “praised her intellect and beauty”, according to the narrative. He said, according to Miss Lewinsky, “he wished he had more time for me.” She left the Oval Office, “emotionally stunned,” convinced “he was in love with me.” The “narrative”, in other words, offers what is known among students of fiction as an unreliable first-person narrator, a classic literary device whereby the reader is made to realize that the situation, and indeed the narrator, are other than what the narrator says they are. It cannot have been the intention of the authors to present their witness as the victimizer and the president her hapless victim, and yet there it was, for all the world to read. That the authors of the Referral should have fallen into this basic craft error suggests the extent to which, by the time the Referral was submitted, the righteous voice of the grand inquisitor had isolated itself from the more wary voices of his cannier allies.

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8 Responses to The Books: Political Fictions, ‘Clinton Agonistes’, by Joan Didion

  1. karen says:

    “I want the guy in the White House to do well and behave honorably and not embarrass us. And the fact that he had opened himself up to such a dangerous situation as to start an affair with an intern … well, yes, that is embarrassing. Not as embarrassing as going to England, our greatest ally, and publicly doubting their readiness for the Olympics. Not as embarrassing as behaving like an ignorant boob on foreign soil. THAT is truly dangerous, even in a candidate.”

    I’m not particularly a fan of Romney, but he of all people was not talking out of his ass in ignorance. He turned around and successfully ran the SLC Olympics. He’s unusually well-informed about what flawed planning for the Olympics looks like. Apparently, he saw it in London. There were news stories in the weeks before the games about security guard trainees sleeping through class and so on. I’m glad it all went well in the end, and I know a lot of people worked incredibly hard, but plenty of British people saw reason for doubt and voiced it at the time. By doing the same, did Romney miss an excellent chance to shut up, diplomatically speaking? Certainly he did. It was not his place to say so. But “truly dangerous”? It’s no more or less dangerous and ignorant than referring to the Falklands as “the Maldives”, or making a present to Gordon Brown of a pile of DVDs coded for the wrong region, to dig up an equally partisan old chestnut. Everyone can find something of this sort to use against politicians they loathe. I read this – a jarring non-sequitur against the rest of the post – and thought of the dead ambassador in a poorly secured embassy, with his personal effects and god knows what intelligence out in the open for four days. That to me seems far more dangerous and embarrassing than anything Clinton did regarding Monica Lewinsky, or anything Romney’s done to Britain.

    Reading your blog over the last few weeks, I really wonder why you think you don’t have a home in the Democratic Party. You made reference to a hawkish streak. If it’s the war thing, that seems like a moot point now.

    I’m an unenrolled woman from the East Coast, if it matters.

  2. sheila says:

    Yes, you got that right: I loathe Romney and find him particularly dangerous. Hence, my comment. Not a non sequitir at all, in that context.

    I’m unenrolled too.

    Proudly unenrolled!

    And I don’t look for a “home” in a political party. That very thought is anathema to me.

    Thank you for reading and commenting. I stay away from politics on my site, because of my experience with my mainly conservative readership in the beginning of my blog – just not worth the effort to fight with these morons – and the Didion posts are the most explicitly political I’ve gotten in years. It’s been fun!

    Have you read her book? I cannot tell from your comment.

  3. Dg says:

    Sheila,
    I too began to tune out the chattering media masses at this point in history. It was so friggin over the top andnholier than thou that it could not be taken seriously. Did anyone watching not think those air headed men and bottle blonde women who were acting so pious on the airwaves weren’t being a little hypocritical? I thought then and still believe now that the media was missing on something important and you hinted at it when you talked about vulnerability. I may have read too many spy novels in my day but seriously what if Lewinsky was planted by Russia or China or any other a
    adversary? We know now that she was harmless but given Clintons reputation I don’t think it’s that far fetched yet I’ve never heard any one mention it from that angle. Weren’t there rumors that one of President Kennedys trysts was a Russian plant? Speaking of Kennedy wasn’t interesting how the media did a complete 360 from those days of looking the other way in a gentlemens agreement not to report the personal behavior of the President? I believe Clinton could have picked up the phone and thanked Gary Hart for that.

    • sheila says:

      Yes – if anything, that was the scariest part. Not that he was a womanizer and did it in the Oval Office, but how vulnerable he, as a hugely important statesman, let himself be. He did not choose wisely. I suppose that kind of recklessness is also part and parcel of certain politicians – as a politician he was known for bold moves, triangulatory moves, co-opting of his opponent’s issues, and a determination to WIN. These qualities also, of course, lend themselves to sexual recklessness.

      But Jeez, dude, an intern? Exactly: how do you know she wasn’t a plant? Stranger things have happened. Women have often been used in this capacity. It’s amazing his career didn’t flame out earlier – but the press was different in the 70s when he was starting out. There were always rumors about his affairs, and everyone in Arkansas knew he was a pussy-hound – but the Monica Lewinsky thing (as Didion points out) was MADE for our brand-new 24 hour cable TV networks – who had a vested interest in keeping the story going.

      Ugh, the whole thing was so gross! The holier-than-thou stuff was out of control. Not to excuse Clinton’s behavior – but it was the gleeful church-lady piety that was disgusting.

  4. sheila says:

    Speaking of Kennedy – I just read one of Hitchens’ essays about Kennedy – and really one of the open secrets about him that still hasn’t been really addressed is how many drugs he took. His health issues were chronic and yet, of course, the press collaborated with the Kennedys in creating an image of a carefree football-playing guy – when for the majority of his waking hours he was in agony. The guy was on speed all day long. He got shots from the infamous Dr. Feelgood.

    Hitchens loathes Kennedy in a way I do not – but he made some very good points. Trysting with Sam Giancana’s girlfriend. That is almost tantamount to “asking for it”. You are in bed with the criminal element. You are triangulating between the Mafia and Hollywood, with your mistress choices … again, yes, there was an agreement at the time to not write about any of this. So the man was a womanizer. Big whup. But I do think there is that deeper element, especially when the womanizing is an open secret: You start to create the impression that you are vulnerable, you are susceptible, you’ll sleep with anyone in your path. Powerful enemies can use that against you. And Marilyn Monroe was on her way (if you believe the stories) to becoming a Kennedy nightmare, in the months before she died. Threatening to give a press conference, etc.

  5. Dg says:

    Hitch loathed Kennedy in a way you-we- do not. Hey, he wasn’t born into an Irish-American Catholic family.Although as time goes on I seem to loathe all things Kennedy more and more. Hitchins will be sorely missed…can’t even ponder what his take would be for the upcoming election. One more thing on Clinton-I wasn’t a fan either but I find myself longing for the days of a vibrant economy and low unemployment…would take that in a heartbeat right now.

    • sheila says:

      I cannot even express to you how much I am missing Hitchens right now.

      His Arguably – collection of his essays, many of which I already read online – is absolutely unbelievable. It seems there was nothing he couldn’t pontificate about -from J.G. Ballard to Evelyn Waugh to Graham Greene. I love how it is REQUIRED that you be as well-read as he is when you read his stuff. I am proud of myself when I get his references.

      He was a force of nature. His essay on animal rights actually brought tears to my eyes – I don’t remember that one originally.

      and yup – you look back on those Clinton days and think, “Wow. Things were GOOD.” I’d love to go back to being exhausted about a semen-stained dress as opposed to what I am exhausted about now.

      • sheila says:

        Also, I felt that Clinton had some savvy in politics – which in many ways was quite shameless – but I still find it entertaining. He made it look easy. Still, there was a bit of the Tracy Flick about him …. I still think that made him interesting, as well as infuriating.

        The stiff posturing of the candidates today is just embarrassing to watch. They don’t even seem to have a GIFT for it – for inspiring people, or whatever. They’re just ambitious.

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