Oral Arguments

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Dec. 5 1998 11:53 AM

Oral Arguments

A reader has pointed out to Chatterbox that Monica Lewinsky did not, as Chatterbox asserted in his "Gaslight" item on Dec. 2, say she received oral sex from Bill Clinton. Whoops, she's right. Let's go to the transcript of Lewinsky's grand jury testimony:

Q: Did he ever perform oral sex on you?

A: No. We had discussed it and there were times when it almost happened, but mother nature was in the way.

Chatterbox could lay a whole line on you, dear reader, about how the Cigar Incident constitutes oral sex of a sort. But he won't bother. Chatterbox will, however, point out that all this is immaterial to the perjury case, since Lewinsky did assert that on several occasions Clinton's hand made forays into Tierra Del Fuego (so to speak) thereby making Clinton a liar when he said, in answer to the Jones attorneys' and grand jury's queries, that he had never been to Tierra Del Fuego. (Chatterbox's error was simply in identifying which part of Clinton's anatomy had been to Tierra Del Fuego.) And if course, Chatterbox's error does nothing to undo Clinton's claim that he never touched Lewinsky's breasts, which is contradicted in lurid pulpy detail by Lewinsky's testimony.

Another reader, a professor of philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh, makes a strikingly original case that Clinton didn't lie under oath. Chatterbox doesn't agree with it, but finds it sufficiently intriguing to share here. To do justice to Michael Thompson's argument Chatterbox must reprint the fateful grand jury exchange with Clinton:

A: You are free to infer that my testimony is that I did not have sexual relations, as I understood this term to be defined.

Q: Including touching her breast, kissing her breast, touching her genitalia?

A: That's correct.

"Did you ever learn to read?" Thompson begins, in response to Chatterbox's claim that the above is a lie uttered under oath. (Chatterbox replies: Did the mammals that raised you teach you any manners?) Thompson then goes on to elucidate:

There are two ways of taking sentences beginning "You are free to do A." One is as stating a matter of fact: "No one, nothing, is stopping you from doing A." Taken thus, the sentence is true. Or else, the sentence is meant to confer a right on the one to whom it is given. In that case, it would mean something like "I hereby renounce the right to complain if you do A." Taken thus, it is neither true nor false, or if either, then necessarily true. Either way, no lie. These are not technical claims about the law of perjury, but obvious claims about the concept of lying and about English sentences beginning "You are free to ..."

Chatterbox should perhaps here admit that his two worst grades in college were in philosophy courses. Chatterbox won't deny that in a very rarified sense Herr Professor Thompson has a point. But if Thompson has correctly identified Clinton's meaning, Chatterbox thinks such a response would fall into the "so tricky that it constitutes lying" category.

--Timothy Noah



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