La Crosse, Wis.
If we are to believe the polls, and the vox-pop. interviews the press uses to substantiate them, the public has a thoroughly bifurcated view of the president. By a 2-to-1 majority, Americans do not believe Bill Clinton's denials of sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. By about the same margin, they continue to approve of the job he is doing as president. I noted this dynamic in a column titled " Adultery and Boredom" last summer. When Newsweek's Michael Isikoff broke a story about the president groping Kathleen Willey in the White House, no one seemed to care. In the case of leaders it liked, the public seemed to have developed a new tolerance for sexual indiscretions.
What I would not have predicted then is just how heavily the nation would be willing to discount persuasive allegations of adultery (though perhaps in this case we should call it barely adultery). At the moment, it seems the country will do whatever it must to keep Clinton. If it can't actually disbelieve what it hears, the public will dismiss it as a private matter. If evidence of perjury makes it impossible to dismiss the revelations as nobody's business, the public will weigh those accusations against the job it thinks the administration is doing.
Clinton understands this compartmentalization well; it is nearly a projection of his own psyche, divided into twin, hermetic hemispheres of policy and libido. In last night's State of the Union address, Clinton tried to provide ammunition for the argument that Dr. Jekyll justifies Mr. Hyde. He did this by underscoring the improved quality of life under his administration. Regardless of whether the charges against him are true, he implicitly seemed to be saying that it's in everyone's interest to ignore them.
Today the president brought that line of reasoning to the heartland. In the college town of Champaign-Urbana, in the University of Illinois basketball stadium, he and Al Gore both dwelt on the wholesome goodies they have provided. Gore introduced the president with gospel fervor, declaring with a croaking voice that he was "standing by his side." How many in the audience, Gore asked, would not be there without the expanded grants, student loans, and tuition tax credits that the administration has provided? Gore's passion--last seen in Cleveland at the end of the presidential campaign--seemed a bit excessive, like the 95 interruptions for applause during last night's State of the Union. But better to overcompensate than undercompensate in this kind of situation.
Clinton was a calmer presence, but he put the same goods on offer. He "litanized" (his word) all the things he's done for the college audience: funded more Pell Grants and AmeriCorps slots, Hope scholarships, and education IRAs. The president promised the students everything but an internship. Curiously, one effect of the scandal is to make Clinton into more of an LBJ-style liberal. The only thing that will save him from his own character flaws is being a great and bountiful provider for the country. In this way, conservative attacks are ironically driving a centrist president to the left.
The spin cycle is, however, swirling fast. Clinton's 24-hour rebound may have ended as he was attempting to leave Champaign, when Air Force One became mired in the mud while attempting to make a turn on the airport runway. The president had to be rescued by another plane. The metaphor of Clinton trying to take off but getting stuck in the muck ruled the afternoon. At the press filing center in La Crosse, reporters gawked out the window at the giant legend written in the snow outside the convention center where they waited for the president: IMPEACH.
It appears that Clinton does not intend to provide any more answers to the question of what really happened with Lewinsky. The excuses for this are various. The first lady, who says something foolish every day, seems to have plenty of them. Yesterday she said on the Today show that her husband was the victim of "a vast, right-wing conspiracy." Today she appeared on Good Morning America with various rationales for her husband's weak and partial denials. She explained away his early, dispassionate self-defense by saying it was "very difficult and awkward" to deal with the situation with Netanyahu and Arafat in town. Then she said he couldn't say more about his relationship with Lewinsky for legal reasons. Administration spokesman Mike McCurry took the same position about the so-called WAVES records, which would document when Lewinsky visited the White House. He can't release them because the records have gone to the independent counsel, and "the independent counsel has a proceeding underway." McCurry stood by this gobbledygook and refused to explain it. In fact, there is no legal impediment to releasing the records or to Clinton giving his full version of what happened--that is, if he intends to tell a story that is true.
In a situation like this, a lot of dumb people say a lot of dumb things. Dick Morris took the prize yesterday, when he suggested on a radio talk show in Los Angeles that Clinton might have a good excuse for his philandering if the first lady were a lesbian. Here's what he said, without any provocation from the show's hosts: "I really don't know, but let's assume, OK, that his sexual relationship with Hillary is not all it's supposed to be. Let's assume that some of the allegations that Hillary--sometimes not necessarily being into regular sex with men--might be true. Let's assume that this is a guy who's been sexually active for a long time, and then got it that as president he'd have to not--have to shut himself down." Morris was trying to support his theory that the president and Lewinsky might have only had phone sex, but he dug himself in deeper and deeper. One of the astounded hosts returned to the subject to ask if Hillary's not liking men might explain why she forgives Bill's affairs. "Could be part of it," Morris said.
I thought nothing could top the sexaholic ex-adviser's performance until I read today's quote from Sen. Lauch Faircloth, who called the first lady "an angry, frustrated, distraught lady." She's not gay--she just needs to get laid. In an interview with the Raleigh News and Observer, Faircloth continued, "If she wants to really find her problem, she can look much closer to home in her own bedroom." This comment actually gives the lie to Hillary Clinton's theory. Faircloth is supposed to be at the heart of the reactionary octopus. His words suggest that he is merely a worm.