Please, spare me a contrition show

September 03, 1998|By Froma Harrop

PRESIDENT CLINTON has announced a campaign to seek forgiveness from the nation. Too bad. This writer much preferred the Clinton of two weeks ago who told independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr to butt out of his private life. "This matter is between me, . . . my wife and our daughter -- and our God" he said back then. "It's nobody's business but ours."

It appears the president now plans to drag the nation into his healing process. I, for one, do not want to go. If this sex scandal had any useful purpose, it was to make a last stand for privacy rights. Oh well.

Modern media techniques enable personalities to convince total strangers that they are close, personal friends. This has proven a double-edged sword: The media masters gain a popular following. But a president who answers questions about his underwear, or a Princess Diana who talks about her eating disorders, encourages the public to believe it owns a piece of their privacy.

A right of privacy

Today's TV audiences react to celebrities with the kind of anger, love and grief ordinarily directed toward family members. They take their imaginary relationships so personally that they berate third parties for not acknowledging their feelings. Last year, a London mob demanded that Queen Elizabeth come out of her castle and show grief for Diana -- an emotion that she either did not have or did not wish to display in public.

When Mr. Clinton contradicted earlier testimony that he never had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, many took the admission as a personal affront. "Clinton had looked the American people right in the eye and lied," it was said again and again.

Really? I never quite bought his earlier argument that he and Monica were mere pen pals. Nor did I particularly mind his not leveling with the public on something that was not the public's business. When Mr. Clinton finally said his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky was indeed inappropriate, he was actually telling the truth.

But to keep this stupid subject bubbling, opponents and pundits have to convince the audience that Mr. Clinton's foolish indiscretions are grave matters of state. In an essay ("Plea to Bill Clinton"), Stephen L. Carter, a Yale law professor, gives it a try: "Adultery rips at the fundamental fabric of marriage and thus is ultimately a public wrong."

Hey, if adultery is a public wrong, why stop with the president? Let's name every member of the House and Senate who has ever had a sexual relationship outside the bounds of marriage. We can move on to the Departments of Commerce, State, Agriculture, etc. Then we can list adulterers state by state in alphabetical order, starting with Alabama.

Mr. Carter calls on the president to lead "a moral rejuvenation" of America. Before Mr. Clinton can put us on the righteous path, the professor asserts, he will "have to convince the public of his determination to turn over a new leaf."

Count me out, professor. I, personally, don't care whether our rejuvenator-in-chief turns over a new leaf. Nor have I inquired into the spiritual condition of my newspaper delivery man, who does a very good job, by the way.

Leave Hillary alone

Feminist pundits, meanwhile, are jumping all over Hillary Clinton. She evidently hasn't expressed the kind of anger they scripted for her.

"I have respected Hillary enormously -- up until yesterday," Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founder of Ms. magazine, told the New York Times last week. "It was the hand-holding, the 'We love each other.' "

Has Ms. Pogrebin considered the possibility that Mrs. Clinton simply isn't angry? Or perhaps she is angry and does not want to air those feelings before the CNN cameras. Perhaps she is patriotic and does not want to destabilize the presidency with additional accusations -- something more people should think about.

The American public does not escape censure either. It is said to be morally lax for not demanding that the president put on a better show. As Mr. Carter puts it, we the people "have not acquitted ourselves admirably in the contretemps." In other words, we haven't required a belly-crawling apology or complete telling of the juicy tidbits. Some people actually regard the whole thing as an outrageous invasion of privacy, and they are truly lost souls.

So here we have it: Roving bands of gossips clamor for false displays of emotion and noisy contrition from the president, his wife and even the public. For all those Americans who feel personally betrayed by the president, I'd like to extend my sympathy. As for me, I never met the guy.

Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal editorial writer and columnist.

Pub Date: 9/03/98

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