Clinton lied, but let's not throw him out over sex life

September 15, 1998|By Michael Olesker

IT TOOK ME most of the weekend to read the Starr report on Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. I'd have finished sooner, but after each sexual encounter I needed a cigarette and a nap, and the time just got away from me.

I wouldn't want my mother to read this bilge. I wouldn't want my kids to read it - and they're not kids any more. In the old days on The Block, the cashiers used to hide this kind of reading in the back rooms, in case the vice squad showed up and claimed it violated community standards of decency. I thought about getting reaction on The Block now, but the most depraved loser down there has more class than to spread the kind of malicious reportage Special Prosecutor Ken Starr has foisted on the country.

Is Bill Clinton a liar and a manipulator and an embarrassment to his country? Absolutely. But we knew the first two descriptions when we hired him, and the third doesn't mean we get to throw him out. If it did, we'd have dumped plenty of politicians before him.

Is he continuing to hedge about his sex life, and continuing to hide behind the nuances of language? Absolutely. To a gathering of clergymen, he calls himself a sinner and declares he won't defend himself on legalistic hair-splitting; by that afternoon, though, his lawyers are saying he didn't technically perjure himself, that the president's definition of sex was conforming to narrow guidelines when he claimed his innocence. Such tactics by Clinton's defenders indicate they take us all to be morons.

But if the U.S. Congress sends him packing for his sex life, and the American public lets them get away with it, then we're all going to wake up the morning after as if from some terrible hangover, and ask ourselves, What was that all about? And the more time elapses afterward, and the air clears, the tougher it'll be to answer.

That Clinton lied, there is no doubt. That he lied about his sex life, as opposed to matters of state, there is also no doubt. But, say his detractors, this isn't about sex -- it's about lying under oath.

Interesting point. But since when do we put people under oath -- in a court of law or a grand jury room -- to testify about extramarital affairs in which there has been no complaining partner? Yesterday, a spokesman for the U.S. District Attorneys Association in Alexandria, Va., said, "Probably never. What is there to prosecute? Consenting sex between adults isn't criminal. Adultery isn't criminal. Oral sex isn't criminal."

Just for perspective, two Baltimore-area prosecutors yesterday said the same thing. They can't recall any such cases.

This doesn't excuse Clinton's behavior, but maybe it makes us ask if he's not entitled to the same simple fairness as any other American who would be humiliated to find the contents of his or her sex life paraded before the whole country, and have some hypocritical prosecutor call it vital to the nation's business.

The Starr report is, above all, a political attempt to humiliate the Clintons. Nothing else explains the smarmy and excessive attention to each sexual detail, the gratuitous recounting of pitiful adolescent groping, the odd selection of quotations that can only hurt Clinton's wife and daughter while doing no one else any good.

It gives new life to Hillary Clinton's claim of a "vast right-wing conspiracy" - ironically, such sexual language now thrust into the light of day by the same conservatives who would ban books from libraries and classrooms because of alleged concern for children.

From the time of his first presidential campaign, Bill Clinton's been a disappointment for the same reasons that have led to his current predicament. At crunch time, he cannot speak uncomfortable truths.

He tried to fudge his way out of ducking Vietnam. Why? He could have exonerated an entire generation that protested that miserable war by saying, 20 years after American involvement ceased, what needed finally to be said by a man heading for the White House: that it was honorable to stand up against a dishonorable war; that he was, like millions of his countrymen, sickened by our entrance into another nation's civil conflict; and that he was sickened by all those American kids who had to die in some godforsaken rice paddy without ever understanding why.

He tried to fudge his way out of smoking a joint. Why? He could have said, look, I was young, I was trying to grope my way toward adult understanding of what was healthy and what was not. Instead, we got this mealy-mouthed business about not inhaling.

On such occasions, he takes us for fools. On the occasion of his current troubles, he needs to take a different posture. Drop the defense that, technically speaking, he didn't really have sex with that woman, that it was merely "inappropriate behavior."

That's lawyer talk. He needs to talk like the admittedly flawed man he is: one who cheated on his wife, brought shame to his daughter and tried to hide it the way any man would -- to cover his own pathetic butt, and protect his family -- but also to avoid spreading this shame and embarrassment across the whole damned country, which should have more important things on its mind.

Pub Date: 9/15/98

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