Marjorie Williams

Marjorie Williams

A weeklong electronic journal.
Jan. 18 1999 9:30 PM

Marjorie Williams

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I don't think we've given enough thought to root canal as a possible penalty for Clinton's behavior. I had a root canal this afternoon: my eighth, I think. (As a counterweight to whatever blessings I was born with, my genetic code included the diagrams for Job's own teeth.) It reminded me that the last time I had one, I overheard a nurse telling someone that Clarence Thomas was in the next room, having some kind of root canal emergency. I must admit that it gave me a small compensatory thrill to imagine him next-door, his own jaw creaking, the same unthinkable tiny tortures at work on one of his molars.

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(This sort of quotidian near-encounter with the famous is one of the puny rewards of living in Washington--the equivalent of running into Sandra Bullock, on a bad hair day, at Nate 'n Al's in Beverly Hills. Once my husband and I were waiting for the shuttle to New York, with our son, then about a year old, at National Airport. Also waiting there, in one of the chairs, was Al Haig. Small thrill, you might point out, but Willie made a beeline crawl for him, like the most practiced White House clutch, and favored him with one of his beaming dolphin smiles. Haig returned the smile, with an avuncular twinkle, then raised a hand, finger and thumb arranged in boyish imitation of a handgun; this he pointed at Willie's nose and then made a loud, deadly shooting noise. I'd like to think Sandra Bullock would be a little more pacific, even on a bad hair day.)

But today's root canal was very entertaining, as root canals go. My endodontist got off on a long riff, addressed half to me and half to his assistant, about his cousins the cocaine dealers. (Did you know there were Jewish cocaine dealers?) I'll call them G and S; G, he said, was sort of a dummy--"so dumb he brought the stuff in from Miami by Amtrack." What's more, he took terrible care of his teeth. The cover story for his many travels was that he was supposedly booking bands to play in Miami. When G and S, who was more like the brains of the operation, got sentenced to 30 years in prison, my dentist's mother refused to believe in their guilt: Their dealing was a one-time thing, maybe, or their conviction the result of a prosecutor's vendetta.

"And I said, Ma, I said, he was traveling to Colombia. How many good bands you think there are in Colombia?"

The cousins' story brought me back to thinking about Clinton, and my own pet theory about Americans' miraculous refusal to want to hear about his misdeeds. I suspect that an astonishing number of people, more than we'd ever surmise, have lives that are bordered by the secret or the unspoken. It's not that our own love affairs have suddenly made us a wildly tolerant country, averse to throwing stones; it's that most of us go through life avoiding conscious knowledge of the impacted family secrets and compromises and half-truths that our lives just manage to grow up around, like hardy weeds around stones. My father made it to the age of 25 before anyone mentioned to him that his mother's death, when he was 11, was a suicide; he never discussed it with his brothers until they were all in their 50s. His father used to take one of his sons for a regular Sunday walk, as a pretext for leaving the house, and then made the boy sit for two hours on the front porch of his mistress's house (in Duluth!--in wintertime!) while he "visited" with her. My mother had a half-brother whose existence she never knew of until she was 8, who had the same name her full brother had. And these are just the obviously red-hot secrets, in just one generation. Somehow, I think, Clinton is a challenge to the settled stories we all carry about our lives. When we first met him, we extended our selective vision to him; now, when his extravagant dishonesty is so plain, he threatens to clear our sight. And once you start calling things by their real names, who knows what else might tumble into the light? Most people would rather think of him as another Cousin G: a black sheep, maybe, but one hard at work finding Colombia's answer to the Beatles.

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Anyway, the root canal version of censure-plus would leave future generations in no doubt about the seriousness of Clinton's misdeeds. We'd pick a lower molar, way at the back, and we could make Sam and Cokie watch.