19 January 2008

Persons of Impeachable Character

Clinton and Lewinsky
Contrary to all appearances, this is not a news photo but a reproduction of an image burned permanently into my brain circuits.

You don’t want to see the rest of the collection.

I confess that I’m taken aback by the (relatively sparse) news reports commemorating the tenth anniversary of the unveiling of Monica Lewinsky, that first exhibition of the poor girl that marked the long, long season of Bill Clinton’s squirming shame. Can it really have been ten years already? My wounds haven’t had time to heal.

Some attention has been paid to the ordeal suffered by the direct participants in what’s known (unjustly) as Monicagate. We know that Linda Tripp underwent extensive plastic surgery, in an attempt to move on with her life; we know that Paula Jones posed nude, and boxed with Tanya Harding, in an attempt not to move on from her celebrity. We know that Hillary Clinton is running for president, and that Americans are still baffled by the kind of stiff upper lip she displayed throughout the scandals; they like her better when she cries. We know that Newt Gingrich and a brace of his colleagues lost their jobs in Congress as a direct result of the impeachment, and that Kenneth Starr lost any hope (and he did have plenty) of being named to the Supreme Court. We know that Bill Clinton kept his job, and that Al Gore didn’t inherit it. We know that Matt Drudge became a curious kind of superstar.

But little has been said of what other journalists suffered, psychologically and materially, and without being self-pitying about it, I’d like to share some of my own experience. For thirteen months, I was duty-bound to immerse myself in the most sordid details of human behavior. There was no one to admire in this melodrama, and everyone to fault. One couldn’t condone the President or his accusers, yet one couldn’t quite denounce them, either.

Responsible journalism demands objectivity, but this story demanded a painful, unresolved ambivalence — and that’s a tough position to maintain for thirteen months. To say nothing of ten years.

I was in Havana when word of another “bimbo eruption” came from the CBS News Washington bureau, and we were told to move out. It made no sense to me. Although the President’s womanizing was widely suspected, and although I assumed that one day it would catch up with him, the latest accusations didn’t seem to warrant our pulling up stakes from the story we were covering already: the official visit of Pope John Paul II to Castro’s Cuba. (That story in itself seemed to me a futile junket, but we were in place already, at great expense; the Pope hadn’t arrived yet, and one never knew but that the great adversary of Communism might do something newsworthy.) Somebody tried to explain to me that there was a question of lying under oath, in the Paula Jones case, and that an impeachment might follow.

Of course an impeachment did follow. We were told, by upstanding members of the nation’s opposition party, that “this wasn’t about sex,” and it was about something more than covering up an affair. The President swears to uphold the Constitution, he has an obligation to respect the law and to offer truthful testimony. We now know that Clinton failed to do this.

Yet in any normal courtroom, he would not, I think, have been convicted of perjury, which would have made more difficult a conviction on the charge of obstruction of justice. As the testimony amassed by Kenneth Starr made very clear, Clinton’s behavior was motivated by two things, either or both of which would have played well to a jury.

First, Clinton didn’t want to cooperate with the plaintiff in the Paula Jones case, which had long since bypassed its original, rather dubious merits. (By Jones’ own account, he told her at the time that her refusal to sleep with him would not jeopardize her employment in the Arkansas state government — thus most of the charges leveled at him were denied by her testimony and should have been dismissed.) The Jones case had been taken over, and bankrolled, by something very much like the “vast Republican conspiracy,” namely Clinton opponents who wanted to thwart him. His election in 1992 wasn’t legitimate, they believed, because George Bush père would have won, if not for the interference of Ross Perot; Bob Dole should have stopped Clinton in his tracks, but he failed. It was up to others, using extraordinary measures, to prevent Clinton from accomplishing anything at all in his second term.

That motive became clear as the year 1998 rolled along. Again and again, leading Republicans would tell news organizations, “Just bear with us — this is really big.” But they never made good on their promise, and the case was never any bigger than it originally appeared, no matter how many tawdry details they dug up.

If Clinton did not provide “the whole truth” in his deposition in the Jones case, he tried very hard not to lie, with lawyerly hairsplitting that bespoke his training, and a definition of “sexual relations” that’s familiar to anybody who ever dated a Baptist girl in the Deep South: so long as there’s no vaginal intercourse, she’s still a virgin. The definition of “sexual relations” provided to Clinton at the deposition allowed for this kind of imprecision; when he denied having sex with Monica Lewinsky, he was responding correctly, according to the language of the case, although he was not responding honestly.

But why would he volunteer information not specifically requested to people who were his political enemies?

Clinton’s second motive was less political and more human, and it’s for this reason above all that I think no jury would have convicted him: he’d made a colossal mistake in getting involved with an emotionally fragile young woman, and he was terrified that his wife would find out. If you start digging through Lewinsky’s testimony, especially, you’ll see that Clinton is, after the first couple of encounters, simply trying to placate the girl and get her out of the way, although even when she was testifying, she didn’t understand that. A smart lawyer — and Clinton had plenty — would have appealed to a jury’s sympathy, and although he might not have been acquitted, he would not have been convicted, either.

The United States Congress is not an ordinary jury, however, and although in the ensuing months it was revealed that several leading Republicans (Gingrich, Livingston, Hyde, et al.) had engaged in comparable sexual misconduct, their sanctimonious posturing was unflinching. And it played very well to the base. From the start of Clinton’s administration until its final months, the percentage of voters who disapproved of him remained reliably around 35 percent. The impeachment didn’t change that. They were, I suspect, probably the same 35 percent who believed Clinton should have lost the 1992 election. (And probably the same who never forgave Democrats for humiliating Clarence Thomas and defeating Robert Bork; the same who now regard the Clinton administration as an illegitimate interregnum between George I and George II.) But they were undeniably the people most likely to vote for Republican congressmen, and to give money to the party. Any display of sympathy toward Clinton would have damaged a congressman’s chances in the 1998 election; almost nobody risked it.

And so the case dragged on. Special prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s team now says they never intended for the more lurid pages of their investigative report to reach the public, but that Congress released the full report without having vetted it first. Whatever. I always found Starr’s protestations of good intentions to be thoroughly unbelievable. He wanted that seat on the Supreme Court, and he was grandstanding to the men and women who would vote on his nomination. Although he may not have been the lip-smacking prig his enemies portrayed, he was hardly disinterested, uncalculating, or virtuous. He made sure the cigar and the little blue dress were there for all the world to see — for purely selfish reasons that backfired on him.

One detail got lost amid the shuffle of news coverage, though I still find it illuminating. Monica Lewinsky was set up by Linda Tripp, not only in making her confession but in making her play for the President in the first place. Linda Tripp wanted to publish a juicy Washington tell-all, but the literary agent Lucianne Goldberg advised her that, without sex, the book would never sell. And having been reassigned out of the White House, Tripp was no longer in a position to seduce Mr. Clinton for herself. She did, however, acquire the confidence of an insecure girl whose mother claimed to have slept with one of the most famous men on earth.

That man was Plácido Domingo, although he has (whether graciously or guiltily) never confirmed the liaison. Nevertheless, if one is possessed of a certain kind of insecurity, and a certain kind of competitiveness, such a liaison is a provocation. I call it the Aristotle Onassis Syndrome: when one has bedded one worldwide superstar (Callas, in his case), one seeks to outdo oneself by bedding one even greater (Jacqueline Kennedy).

And I suspect that this, as much as anything, is what provoked the notorious Oval Office thong-snapping that proved so irresistible to the President of the United States. And then, as Lewinsky pursued what she sincerely believed to be a love affair, Tripp was ready with a motherly ear and a running cassette recorder to listen to every detail — for her book sales.

Did free-market capitalism ever come at a higher price?

When the Senate voted not to convict, on Lincoln’s Birthday, we were in Washington. I struggled over a “closing thoughts” for Dan Rather to read at the end of the Evening News, and I actually got out of bed and went downstairs to the hotel bar, to revise my text from scratch on the night before the vote.

It was one of the best pieces of my career, and one of these days I’ll fish it out of a filing cabinet and post it here. My gist was that everybody in this affair had behaved badly, and that all the men and women in our government had feet of clay. (In a certifiable coup, we got unprecedented permission to tape the piece in Statuary Hall.) And yet despite these human failings, and despite the long ordeal of the impeachment, the nation would endure: “Government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth — not today.” [UPDATE: The script for Dan’s “closing thoughts” can be found here.]

Ultimately, I don’t think Clinton was guilty of impeachable offenses — certainly not when compared to the high crimes and misdemeanors committed by his successor. And I’d rather be led by a President who was sexually satisfied than by one who wasn’t. If the man thinks the Oval Office is the place to get his jollies, I’m not offended, although I’d prefer to know nothing about it, and I’d surely prefer not to spend a year of my life poring over the accounts.

But that doesn’t let Clinton off the hook. At best, he’s a serial womanizer whose opening gambit is to come on much, much too strong. In that sense, his celebrated empathy, his ability to “feel our pain,” simply carries through to an inappropriate outlet when he’s alone in a room with an attractive woman.

At worst, he’s a sex addict with a mean streak. The way he treats his former lovers, not merely refuting them but attacking them (though all of them, from Gennifer Flowers on down, seem to be telling something like the truth), is shameful, and unbecoming a man who throughout his career strove to champion the cause of women, of minorities, of powerless, hardworking Americans. Honestly, he needs help, and because of his position, he’s unlikely ever to get it. Our culture won’t permit its leaders to undergo extensive psychoanalysis and behavioral modification.

If Hillary Clinton is elected, Republicans will return to the playbook to thwart any serious reforms she may pursue. I’m not sure why people want to run that risk, but at least we know what we’re getting into: in this sense, experience does count, but it’s our experience of the Clintons, and not the Clintons’ experience, that matters.

And what of me? At the end of those fateful thirteen months, I was burned out. Not only had I been immersed in all those sordid details, I’d been called out of bed in the middle of the night to help report them, ordered to Washington on short notice, and in sum denied any chance at what most people would consider a normal life.

It was only then beginning to dawn on me that, in television news, there is always some “big story” that requires us to suspend our lives, and very often the “big story” is frivolous, a sideshow distraction from the real business of the country. With the rise of the 24-hour news channels, those sideshows became bandwagons, and we had to jump on them, for the sake of the ratings. And ratings being what they are, the stories got sillier and sillier.

You folks in America saw it again last year, when Anna Nicole Smith died. It was a sad story about a foolish, unlucky woman, but nothing about it spoke to the real needs of the country: even in death, Anna Nicole could not change the outcome of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, she could not boost the economy, she could not offer us universal health insurance or teach our children anything worth knowing.

What you may not have considered, as you watched the anchors talk about Anna Nicole, is that just out of camera range, hundreds of men and women were losing sleep, risking their marital happiness, ignoring their children’s birthdays, and ruining their lives — just so that you could know that Zsa Zsa’s husband claimed to be the baby’s father. So that you could watch every second of O.J.’s car chase. So that you could share every minute of Paris Hilton’s jail sentence. So that you could find out what Bill Clinton can do with a cigar.

For a long time, I’d tell myself, as one big story drew to a close, that “now we could get back to normal.” I was naïve. That big-story madness was normal, because there was always another big story. And most often, those big stories were idiotic. I’d tell myself that journalism was the equivalent of national service, that I was helping my country by giving it the information it needed to make intelligent decisions about its future. Hard to say that about the coverage of Bill Clinton’s impeachment. Obliged to live out the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes, we weren’t allowed to say what was perfectly apparent.

And so I never warned my fellow Americans that none of the people involved gave a good goddam about anything but covering their asses: that would have been a public service.

There’s a direct connection between my battle fatigue, post- impeachment, and my departure from CBS News, five months later. My relationships with my colleagues had suffered. My home life, like my home, was a mess, and reuniting with my friends, I felt as if I’d been on a distant planet for many years, communicating only with alien beings and somewhat nonplussed when confronted with my own species. Refusing to learn anything from the experience, this Bill even had a very brief affair with a (29-year-old) CBS intern. I had to reacquaint myself with everything.

I took my job at Opera News because, no matter what awful things people do to each other in the opera, they do them to great music, and the rapes and murders all stop when the curtain comes down. I wanted to write stories about artists, not politicians, and I wanted to hold out some hope of admiring, perhaps even liking, the people I wrote about. I wanted to cleanse myself, journalistically.

And I’m still recovering. Or trying to, anyway.