Lurid details rivet readers despite their professed disgust From filmmaker Waters to Screw magazine chief, few immune to Starr report

September 13, 1998|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

To a collective "ewwwww," the Starr report has bored its way into people's minds, its graphic sexual details threatening to overwhelm any of the legal or constitutional ones.

With its widespread release through the media and the Internet, the report has literally laid bare what previously had been the subject of rumors, jokes or delicately worded news reports: The cigar. The stained dress. Every kiss, fondle, grope and unbuttoning, in such excruciating detail that even those who delight in flouting polite society admit to being somewhat shocked.

"I've been a pornographer for 30 years and even I'm embarrassed by what he does with cigars," joked Al Goldstein, the oft-sued publisher of Screw magazine.

"It's so surreal to me that all these details are out there. The entire world is becoming like a John Waters movie," said John Waters himself.

The past two days have indeed been bizarre, as the nature of the report sinks in and proves inescapable to anyone with a television or a modem. Even at a time when tabloids and trash TV are supposed to have desensitized Americans, the raw details of President Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky still proved to be powerful stuff.

"I've always said the best way to win an argument is to humiliate your opponent," Waters said. "Everybody's sex life is embarrassing. But is it worth the stock market crashing? Is it worth war with other countries? Is it worth the president becoming a laughingstock? No."

Benjamin Ginsberg, a Johns Hopkins political scientist, said the report's endless recitation of Clinton's sexual escapades has already had its intended effect.

"The revelation of all these salacious details is designed to cause people to say, 'Yuck,' " Ginsburg said. "It's a very powerful weapon. Clinton is finished, whether he stays in office or not."

'Forever associated' with sex

Like a bell that can't be un-rung, the particulars in the report will forever color how Clinton is viewed, said William Ian Miller, a University of Michigan law professor who has written about the power of the disgusting.

"It's like Gresham's Law: Bad money drives out good money," said Miller, author of the book "The Anatomy of Disgust," published last year by Harvard University Press.

"Bad thoughts drive out good thoughts. Whenever anybody from now on sees Clinton, all they can think of is the stain, or the cigar. He will be forever associated with the mess of sex."

Many have questioned whether the report had to be so explicit, outlining in detail each encounter.

In a CNN/Gallup Poll conducted after the Starr report was released Friday, 72 percent said they thought it was unnecessary for the document to describe the affair in such detail.

Additionally, 50 percent of those surveyed -- a nationwide sample of 631 adults -- agreed with Clinton's statement that the report is "left with nothing but the details of a private sexual relationship, told in graphic details with the intent to embarrass."

Fewer -- 43 percent -- agreed with the special prosecutor's statement that the explicit details are required to prove that the president committed perjury when asked about his relationship with Lewinsky.

Repelling and riveting

Despite such distaste for the sexual details, Web site hits and newspaper sales indicate people are reading on and on and on.

"There's something about the disgusting that's riveting," Miller said. "The disgusting strangely attracts us even as it repels us. Part of it is, in some ways the disgusting is magically dangerous in the same way Eve was tempted by the apple."

Part of the lure, Miller said, is the awful yet compelling sight of a powerful man falling from grace.

"If it was even just the usual senator or congressman, we would say, 'Eh,' " Miller said. "But for all the jokes we make, we still feel awe in the face of the office of the presidency."

The jokes, of course, will continue, given the fodder that the Starr report has provided. Goldstein of Screw magazine is putting together what he calls of an illustrated version of the report. He will unveil it tomorrow in New York, at a party to celebrate the magazine's 30th anniversary. Inevitably, a Lewinsky look-alike will be part of the show.

Pub Date: 9/13/98

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