Private lives made public have made us too knowing

November 22, 1998|By OLESKER

THIRTY-FIVE years after Dallas, John F. Kennedy, our slain, sainted president who was discovered sinning after the fact, must be gazing down at the Bill Clinton impeachment proceedings and wondering what went right.

Alive, Kennedy was the nation's shining Prince Valiant, lyrically calling us to the heights, calling us to face the challenges of a divided world in a difficult time, bravely facing down the Russian missiles when humanity flirted with nuclear annihilation.

OK, so he also had a little thing with Marilyn Monroe.

Sexual history didn't catch up with Kennedy until after he was gone and the awful emotional wounds inflicted on his countrymen 35 years ago today had finally begun to heal. Alive, he was role model to a generation; dead, he has escaped the humiliation heaped upon Bill Clinton.

As Elie Wiesel once wrote, "Heroes are those who die before the end of the story."

Are we a better people today for knowing, in the distant, post-coital glow, the libidinous ways of John Kennedy? On Nov. 22, 1963, the most wrenching public day of our lives, we mourned Kennedy because he seemed to represent the best parts of ourselves, because he represented all the grandest possibilities of modern humanity, because he asked us to think of others instead of merely the face in the mirror.

OK, so there was that business about a girlfriend named Judith Campbell Exner who had a mob friend named Giancana.

Bill Clinton grew up in a time when young people idolized our movie star president so much that Clinton decided to become Kennedy. He shared his liberalish Democratic politics, and he extended his hand across the American racial divide that Kennedy (often hesitatingly) had reached across, and he talked of an America where fairness extended to all people.

OK, so he had a friend named Monica he was groping in the corridor of the Oval Office.

It's not OK, of course. Nobody's excusing extramarital sex, or the pain it can cause. We joke to get past our national discomfort. But it raises a question: Are we a better people today for knowing what happens beneath the presidential covers?

In the testy impeachment hearings of last week, climaxing a $40 million investigation, independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr .

insisted we are. He had to. He had to justify all that money, and all those years in which he got nowhere on all the serious wrongdoing he thought he would uncover but didn't.

Did anybody notice? Starr essentially kissed off (at least for now, because of lack of evidence after only four years of trying) so-called Filegate, so-called Travelgate and the Whitewater business that commenced Clinton's troubles.

That he mentioned this only now, and not a few weeks ago when elections loomed, is another matter for the allegedly bipartisan and politically chaste Starr. But, failing elsewhere, he instead stuck an impressive-sounding legal term onto Clinton's failed attempts to hide his friend Monica: obstruction of justice. In other words, Clinton lied when he said he wasn't playing around behind his wife's back.

As the philosopher Richard Pryor once declared, "Never admit it. Even if your wife walks in and catches you in bed with a woman, you tell her, 'What woman? I don't see any woman. Who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?' "

Does this excuse Clinton's behavior? Of course not. Shame on him, and shame on Monica. Shame, shame, shame. And, while we're at it, a belated shame on Kennedy and Marilyn and all the other Kennedy flingettes, too. Shame, shame. Is that clear enough?

But, not to be overlooked, shame on everybody making a federal case out of a thing we used to consider private. Bill Clinton is a flawed man in the same way that John Kennedy and many others are flawed, including politicians who get into the business precisely because of its ego strokes, its rich frissons of power, its sensuous possibilities that come attached to all that civics class stuff about wanting to "help people."

(Are you listening, Henry Hyde? At least Clinton's sex drive didn't break up a marriage, and he didn't call his extramarital relationship, as Hyde did, a "youthful indiscretion." Hyde, chairman of the impeachment hearings, was 46 at the time of his revealed "youthful" indiscretion that destroyed another man's marriage. Lucky for him, Ken Starr was still in school at the time, probably snitching to the teacher about kids who necked in the cloakroom.)

Are we better off knowing our leaders' sex lives? If we've learned anything since Kennedy, it's to stop believing in surfaces. To be an American today is to lead with our cynicism. We don't give our hearts away easily anymore, not when we know they'll probably be broken later, not when we remember all that Dallas took away.

The thing that died 35 years ago wasn't just a president, but a belief system. We wanted to believe in grand possibilities. We wanted to believe in the goodness of our best people.

Now, before anything -- assassins, personal weakness, whatever can snatch them away and hurt us the way we were hurt 35 years ago in Dallas, we do our own wounding. We ask not what they can do for the country, but what they're doing that the country has no business knowing.

Pub Date: 11/22/98

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