The Clinton Sex Scandal

The Clinton Sex Scandal

Notes from different corners of the world.
Feb. 5 1998 3:30 AM

The Clinton Sex Scandal

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       I'm calling it quits for now.
       The scandal is stalemated. It's largely off the front page and the top of the evening news broadcasts. The spin cycle is swirling off onto tangents. Today we're into the backlash against the backlash against the media, with the New York Times editorial page decrying "The Press's Mea Culpa Epidemic." Personally, I'm having trouble deciding whether I'm anti-media or anti-anti-media.
       Nothing much has happened above ground in Washington for several days. If you want to actually report on this story in person, you have a choice of joining the daily game of what Mike McCurry calls "beat the piñata" over at the White House briefing room, or standing vigil at a stakeout. Luckily for the camera crews, Monica has departed rain-swept Washington for balmy Brentwood. This leaves only the forlorn photographers and cameramen posted outside the U.S. Courthouse on Pennsylvania Avenue, where a grand jury is hearing testimony from various Clinton flunkies. Rather than be chased to their cars, most of the witnesses step up to the clutch of fixed microphones and make a statement. They all seem to echo the line that they know of "no improper relationship" or "no sexual relations" between the president and Lewinsky. These phrases are the scandal's chief contribution to the great yet-to-be-published Dictionary of American Euphemism. They may even go into service as standard pickup lines, as in: "Can I interest you in an improper relationship?" or perhaps, "Let's go back to my place and have no sexual relations."
       Several readers have been kind enough to remind me of my early assessment that Clinton stood only a 25-percent chance of surviving the scandal and finishing his term. This means that my prediction is now 56 points out of sync with the Clintometer, which is at 19 percent and falling. I'm not going to hedge my bet, partly because it's not very interesting to agree with everyone else, and partly because I still think Clinton is in deep doo-doo. He has survived the initial car wreck but may yet succumb to an opportunistic infection. The president looked the country in the eye and said something that was almost certainly a lie. His inventive reading of Leviticus notwithstanding, he left himself no wiggle room. There may never be any independent corroboration of the tale Lewinsky tells on the Tripp tapes. But if there is, the pendulum could swing powerfully in the other direction. It may even reverse course without external evidence, if Lucianne Goldberg and/or Linda Tripp decide it's time for the country to hear the tapes to which they still have access.
       Despite the many explanations offered, it remains something of a mystery why Clinton's popularity has not suffered. A middle class wallowing in unrealized capital gains, the release of pent-up disgust at the media, and rejection of the unconscionable tactics of the independent counsel's investigation are all important considerations. But I would place even higher than these reasons another phenomenon: the steady erosion in the public's belief in free will. In the years since Gary Hart had no improper relations with Donna Rice, we've been fed a diet of pop behaviorism. The rise of 12-step philosophy, the popularity of Prozac, and the spread of debased versions of genetics and evolutionary psychology all play a role. Taken in sum, these things have bred a deterministic attitude. When we explain misbehavior as coded or compulsive, we make it involuntary. A decade or so ago, the idea that an incorrigible philanderer wasn't bad but sick would have seemed pretty laughable. Now it's widely credited; the airwaves have been flooded with experts talking about "sexual addiction." Curiously, all this pop psychology makes it easier to forgive someone who misbehaves habitually, like Clinton, than someone who is guilty of a single lapse.
       At the end of two weeks, my primary sentiment remains what it was at the outset: anger at the president. I'm not disillusioned, because I had no illusions about Clinton to be dissed. I just didn't think he was this stupid. I'm furious on behalf of the people, some of them friends of mine, who have worked for Clinton since he ran for president in 1992. I'm thinking of Bruce Reed, his domestic policy chief; Gene Sperling, the chairman of his National Economic Council; Sylvia Mathews, the White House deputy chief of staff; and Michael Waldman, Clinton's chief speechwriter, among others. At a higher level, one thinks of such dedicated public servants as Donna Shalala, Bob Rubin, Bruce Babbitt, and Madeleine Albright.
       These are people who went into government for the right reasons. They have made large personal and financial sacrifices to remain there. For Bill Clinton to risk all that he and they have worked at for a blow job, or even 37 of them, meant taking their loyalty and dedication and trampling on them. I have no reason to think that any of those I mentioned feels betrayed by Clinton. But I feel that he betrayed them. They deserved better, and so did we.

Jacob Weisberg is Slate's chief political correspondent.