Clinton indiscretions wear at dinner table

July 31, 1998|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- Let me remind you of the apocryphal story that parents tell each other with a knowing laugh. It's about the mother who has been waiting nervously for "the talk."

Finally her 6-year-old son asks, "Mom, where did I come from?" She takes a deep breath and launches into the story of the birds and the bees, the egg and the sperm.

At the end, she asks her son if he understands. He says, "I guess so, but Bobby says he comes from Nebraska, and Jimmy says he comes from Connecticut."

It's a story about sex, about parents and kids, but more than anything else about timing and what psychologists like to call "the need to know."

I tell it now because in the tawdry sex scandal that has surrounded the president, we have been both parents and kids. For all the endless jokes, the gossip, the all-Monica-all-the-time news shows, most Americans have wrestled with the question of whether we "need to know" and what we want to know.

This has been a scandal that makes Americans squirm. Parents tell me that what makes them most uncomfortable, even angry, are the questions they are now asked by their children.

What is oral sex, Mom? Is oral sex adultery, Dad? Did he do it? Does that mean the president is a bad man?

If we don't want to muster up answers for our kids, it's in part because we don't want to answer for ourselves. The economy is good. Summer vacation looms. We need to fix the schools -- pronto -- and clean up the health care mess.

In the midst of this, many of us decided, consciously or not, that we'd rather not be told whether the president had sexual relations with an intern in the fancy public housing he calls home.

We don't want to be confronted with the president's libido and personal failings. We really don't need to know this.

On Tuesday we saw the best and the worst of the complicated man we elected with our eyes open. In the Capitol Rotunda, he eulogized the two officers who died in the line of duty. Choosing just the right tone, the right lyrics, he sounded like a fine-tuned instrument. This is the president we want to believe in.

But just hours earlier, Monica Lewinsky was granted full immunity with the implication that she would testify -- tell all about her and Bill. About sex. About lies.

This is the man we don't believe.

Sex scandals have stuck to Mr. Clinton's political life like dog droppings on a running shoe. He's mastered the language of ambiguity and denial. He's given and taken wiggle room.

In turn, we have told pollsters and each other that we picked him to be president, not husband; that there is a line somewhere between the political and personal. But like a family, indeed like his White House staff, we have also preferred not to be presented with the lipstick marks on the cocktail glass.

Kenneth Starr, the relentless private eye of this detective novel, has been intent from the very beginning on catching the president. But Mr. Starr's unpopularity comes in part from his role as the "friend" who forces a family confrontation under the banner of truth. That's where we are now.

It seems plausible that Monica will acknowledge a sexual relationship -- and do not tell me that oral sex is not sex -- but no direct suborning of perjury. We will be left to digest a moral offense, not an impeachable offense.

Mr. Clinton may choose to stay in character, to turn Ms. Lewinsky's testimony into a he-said, she-said affair. But if he intends to show character, he must finally and publicly admit what happened. Before the subpoena drags him to the grand jury.

I say this assuming -- believing -- that there was a relationship of some sort between the president and the intern, despite Mr. Clinton's clenched-teeth denials last winter. Monica may be, in the words of the tabloids, victim or vixen, but he is the president. And he's running out of that wiggle room.

What Congress would impeach him for what even Henry Hyde called "peccadilloes"? What congressman would hurl the first stone at him for lying about sex? Newt Gingrich?

It's not easy to fess up. Ask any parent who's seen their own image crumble in the disappointed eyes of a child. Ask any wife who's been humiliated in public.

I don't know how the larger family -- the country -- would react. But even those of us who wish the scandal had never been revealed, cannot wish it away.

There is today, right now, an absolute "need to know."

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 7/31/98

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