'Zippergate' is a Flannery O'Connor short story Scandal: It's old stuff - and in 'The Displaced Person,' the woman dies, the peacock lives.


March 15, 1998|By Ben Neihart | Ben Neihart,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Zippergate, as the current Clinton mess is too jauntily named, is not about sex. It is not about perjury. It is not about sexual harassment. It is not about obstruction of justice. The scandal is about art, and how life imitates it; it's about symbols, and drama, and the tuning fork of perfect pitch, the sigh that registers inside you when events, character and point of view coalesce. It is famous real-life characters re-enacting scenes from stories written before they were born.

Despite the best efforts of jaded television and newspaper analysts to unpack the Clinton-Lewinsky story as if it were merely another tawdry constitutional sex crime, this story defies easy reduction. Like the gothic tales of Flannery O'Connor, in which hypocritical moralists are destroyed by devilish enemies and selfish naifs bring ruin to their families, the White House mess ought to evoke a mythical, primal awe.

In the Jan. 26 edition of the on-line magazine Slate, Jacob Weisberg got off to a good start when he called Linda Tripp "a villain of potentially Shakespearean proportions. She scowls the scowl of a woman with a bitter soul and a guilty conscience." But Linda Tripp is not the only player in this tale whose hubris and ruthlessness reverberate as in high literature.And Shakespeare, frankly, is not the best reference point for such American characters.

Bill, Monica, Kenneth, Chelsea and, yes, Linda, step right off the pages of Flannery O'Connor's allusive Southern-modern short fiction and onto our TV screens and newspaper pages.

We ought to pay very close attention. For instance, wired-for-sound Linda Tripp clearly stalked her way through O'Connor's classic story, "A Good Man is Hard to Find" and "The Displaced Person" from the story collection "A Good Man is Hard to Find" in the omnibus collection "3 by Flannery O'Connor" (New York, Signet, 460 pages, $6.95).

She is Mrs. Shortley, "the giant wife of the countryside, come out at some sign of danger to see what the trouble was. She stood on two tremendous legs, with the grand self-confidence of a mountain, and rose, up narrowing bulges of granite, to two icy blue points of light that pierced forward, surveying everything." Shortley uses fiendish means to save her position on a big family farm, as Tripp aimed to save her Pentagon job by tape-recording Monica.

Shortley sees herself as "a giant angel with wings as wide as a house" and an "expression lofty and satisfied." Linda is equally virtuous, isn't she?

In the same story, Bill Clinton's stand-in is a peacock whose "tail - glittering green-gold and blue in the sunlight - lifted just enough so that it would not touch the ground. It flowed out on either side like a floating train and his head ... was drawn back as if his attention were fixed in the distance on something no one else could see." The peacock president preens for visitors "as if he had just come down from some sun-drenched height to be a vision for them all," and Shortley/Tripp fumes; the bird's beauty escapes her.

Serial killers

Note: At story's end, the woman dies. The peacock lives. Parallels to the intern tragedy also arise in O'Connor's most famous story, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." A pampered, selfish woman comes face to face with a vicious serial killer on an empty country road that might as well be the grand jury's office where Monica and Kenneth W. Starr are destined to meet. In O'Connor's tale, the killer, named the Misfit, orders his cohorts to savage the woman's family one by one, away from her view - just as Starr's men tore into Monica's brother, and mother, and friends.

The desperate woman, cornered, shouts, "I just know you're a good man."

"Nome, I ain't a good man," Starr - er, the Misfit - answers. "It's some that can live their whole life out without asking ... and it's others has to know why it is, and this boy is one of the latters. He's going to be into everything!"

Later, as if preparing the woman for the Whitewater inquiry, the Misfit says, "I found out the crime don't matter. You can do one thing or you can do another, kill a man or take a tire off his car, because sooner or later you're going to forget what it was you done and just be punished for it."

And echoing Starr's reluctance to grant immunity, the Misfit asks the terrified woman, "Does it seem right to you, lady, that one is punished a heap and another ain't punished at all?"

After he kills the helpless woman, the Misfit tells his henchmen to "take her off and throw her where you thrown the others." He takes off his glasses, so his eyes look "red-rimmed and pale and defenseless," and says, "There's no real pleasure in life."

Note to Monica Lewinsky: Beware the Misfit.

Finally, in "Revelation," from the story collection "Everything that Rises Must Converge" in the later edition of "3 by Flannery O'Connor" (New York, Signet, 460 pages, $6.95).

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