If the starr report were a novel, work of history, subject of moral philosophy, psychiatric case study or soap opera, WHAT KIND OF FOOTPRINT WOULD IT LEAVE?

September 27, 1998|By Craig Nova | Craig Nova,SPECIAL TO THE SUN @ Work of History Via legal sorcery, the witch hunt proceeds apace. But the slope is slippery indeed. SPECIAL TO THE SUN Moral Philosophy Among other lessons, it's clear that intelligence and inability to feel guilt are a dangerous pair. SPECIAL TO THE SUN Psychiatric Study Before the punishment, we must understand the nature of the behavior. SPECIAL TO THE SUN Soap Opera Starr-crossed lovers find only heartbreak in a town filled with dark secrets. SPECIAL TO THE SUN Pub Date: 9/27/98

Novel

A little white lie begat a lust for power and sex. But truth would have its day.

Let us face it. From a writer's point of view, the Starr report is a pretty juicy item. It has everything. Power, obsession, the possibility of downfall, and the odd sense that in the background, in some way that none of us has been able to yet explain, fate, in all its fascination for detail, is at work with its usual delight in misery and poetic justice.

But, if this were a work of fiction, or the basis for one, I think the most attractive aspect of it is the suggestion that something went wrong long ago, probably some small lapse, and that a lifetime has been spent trying to compensate for the seemingly small thing that was tragically lacking.

So, how would a novelist try to make sense of all of this? In approaching any subject, the novelist is interested in that beautiful moment when fate and character combine. Essentially, this is an attempt to find some coherence in the ambitions, desires, greed, obsessions and sacrifices that people find themselves unable to escape.

The novelist is interested not in the facts of experience as a nonfiction writer is, but in the truth. For the writer of fiction the two are not always the same.

When telling a story he has heard about, the novelist writes not what did happen so much as what should have happened. And when the novelist does this, he is making a display of what he believes, because the "should" of any story is a matter of filtering the possibilities of any story through a complicated set of expectations, fears, delights, terrors and a general sense of just what the human condition, such as it is, is all about. It is a trying, unwholesome occupation.

In confronting the Starr report, the novelist will operate in precisely the opposite fashion as a politician. For a politician many, if not all, truths are adjustable.

The politician's beliefs are endlessly subject to the brutality of consensus, a vicious master if there ever was one. The politician is not interested in truth so much as what is efficient. He wants to know what is going to get him elected.

This means that beliefs are checked at the door, and the sadness in this matter, I think, is that a politician often doesn't realize it is happening. And, concomitant with the fact that a politician's grasp on truth is somewhat slippery is the possibility of getting someplace not by making something clear, but just the reverse: The politician often wants to obscure. The politician wants to demonize his opposition. The novelist works the other side of the street: He wants to enhance.

So, how would a novelist treat the Starr report? First, I'd like to stress that what follows is a matter of being inspired by the president's difficulties, and it is not meant as any direct comment on him. As I say, what the novelist does is to find a truth that is valuable, no matter what he has to do to details he has run across.

So, let us imagine a young man who feels unloved. Perhaps he is poor, and he assumes that because of this he is not as good as other people. He is intimidated in the houses of friends who have more than he does. He is ashamed of himself, and he desperately wants to find a way of becoming something that he is not, richer, more fashionable, more attractive, more accomplished.

In the beginning he finds that what he should do is not tell the truth, but the reverse. A lie does wonders. He soon discovers that the item that really makes a lie work is power. With all the unstoppable attraction of the tides, he is on his way to becoming a politician. Words are no longer used to illuminate, but to conceal, and what was once a sincere effort to obtain love is now an obsessional desire to get power.

Still, this young man must pay a price to get what he needs. It costs him something in the most private aspect of who he is to lie, to pose, to look for the right position, or to do what is necessary to get power. He lives a lie and has an image of someone he is not.

If this was a tale about such a man, it would have to be done so that the reader feels empathy with such a fellow. After all, who has not told a lie to advance himself, or to appear a little "better" than he really is? Who has not told a lie in the service of love?

Still, in this tale, there is a pact. It is the abandonment of truth for power. Mostly, of course, such a deal works just fine, and I would say that many of our politicians operate under its unseemly license. But the truth of this tale is that sooner or later, as you acquire power, you obtain the ability to deceive, and sooner or later you are able to deceive yourself.

You tell yourself that you can get away with anything. And this is the truly dangerous moment, because it is the time when you lose fear and become a creature who is only a fiction. A made-up fabrication of a man who cannot distinguish what is true from what is not.

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