Maybe It Is About Sex

Aug. 12 1998 3:30 AM

Maybe It Is About Sex

Why Starr's report will only cover Flytrap.

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Today's news to chew on: According to Newsweek, Kenneth Starr's impeachment report to Congress will address only Flytrap. It will ignore not only Travelgate, Filegate, and Vince Foster, topics he has spent years and millions studying, but also Whitewater, the scandal he was appointed to investigate lo these many years ago. Starr hasn't totally abandoned the B-list scandals: He will still present evidence from them to the three judge panel he reports to, and that will certainly lead to indictments against White House aides. But the implication is that the only impeachable offenses he is pursuing relate to Flytrap.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

I can't decide whether this is surprising or unsurprising news. Should reaction be gape-mouthed shock or a blasé shrug?

In favor of gape-mouthed shock: There is something incredible in the idea that Starr could spend four years and $40 million and all he can come up with to nail Clinton is a sex scandal.

In favor of a blasé shrug: Anyone who has tried to follow Starr's investigation has long known that Whitewater, Filegate, etc., are forests of confusion. Even if there were compelling evidence that President Clinton committed a high crime, the scandals themselves are too incomprehensible to make any charge stick. (Or, even if they're not incomprehensible, the media have never succeeded in portraying them in a way that interests the American public.) Of course Starr dropped the B-listers: Now he has distilled his case to the essence, focusing on the only Clinton scandal that Americans understand, and the only one where he might find a clear, explicable high crime.

There are two important ways Starr's Flytrap Only decision may disrupt the scandal. In theory, a Flytrap Only report should make it much easier for Clinton to mea culpa. An apology would clear the decks: Flytrap would disappear, and the other investigations would not remain to threaten him. He'd be humiliated but safe. But although a Flytrap Only report makes it easier for Clinton to mea culpa, it also makes it much less likely. The sad, persistent fact about Clinton is that he tells only as much truth as he needs to. The more you press him, the more likely he is to be honest. Anything that eases pressure makes him more likely to lie. So if he knows that he's safe from Whitewater, etc., Clinton may be more inclined to brazen out Flytrap. After all, he only has to beat one scandal, not six.

The other, more frivolous consequence of a Flytrap Only report will be to sow confusion among Clinton's critics. The B-list scandals have always been fig leaves for Clinton's opponents. They repeated the names of the scandals like a mantra: Whitewater, Travelgate, Filegate, Foster. Whitewater, Travelgate, Filegate, Foster. No matter what these scandals involved, they served primarily to justify Flytrap, a way to sanitize the sex scandal. See, it's not just about sex. It's about a pattern of obstruction of justice and perjury dating back to his years as governor, etc. ... But if Ken Starr, Clinton's most dogged persecutor, says there's no pattern, what on earth will Clinton's critics say? That it really is just about sex? I am looking forward to a week of creative new answers.

Killing Monica

How can you tell if Clinton is going to do a mea culpa? My guess: Watch Monica's image.

In the beginning, Monica Lewinsky was, you may recall, a "pathological liar" who forged a letter of recommendation and said she never told the truth. She was a shameless hussy who seduced teachers, took pride in her "presidential kneepads," and bragged about her large breasts; a creepy, beret-wearing stalker who tracked the president from event to event in search of a hug.

But for the past month, and especially last week, there has been a kinder, gentler Monica, an innocent trapped in a scandal not of her own making. The new Monica sounded sweetly sympathetic: She told a friend "it breaks my heart" to testify and said all she wanted for her 25th birthday was "my life back." A Washington Post piece bathed her in golden light: She hopes to go to graduate school in sociology, she's scrimping because she doesn't want to burden her parents financially, she is so much a hostage to the media that she couldn't attend her own mom's wedding, and--the icing on the cake--she has taken up knitting. The coverage of her day in court was uniformly kind, rarely mentioning that she has lied before and changed her story now.

Why the "strange new respect"? First, the Golden Rule of Conventional Wisdom, which is that it must change. Troubled Monica is an old story: Reporters needed a new angle for this round of Flytrap. Result: Knitting Monica. Lewinsky is reaping the reward for having dumped William Ginsburg. His wild, self-aggrandizing public statements made both of them a laughingstock, and the Vanity Fair photo shoot he arranged sullied Lewinsky's image almost as much as a Penthouse spread would have. She is also enjoying the imprimatur of the law. Whenever someone testifies, gravitas follows. The mere fact of giving sworn testimony to a court imbues a witness with credibility and weight: She is participating in the measured and solemn business of justice.

But the No. 1 reason why Monica has seemed like a sweetheart is that the White House has been silent. As Monica's image goes, so goes the president. If Clinton were going to apologize, Lewinsky's new image would be safe. It would do no good for the White House to savage her if the president is going to admit an affair.

But the White House campaign against Monica is beginning, and that's the best indicator so far that Clinton is not going to apologize. For him to survive a denial, Monica must be ruined. Having showered Monica with security clearances and Pentagon jobs and gifts and White House visits, it's a little hard for Clinton to make the claim that she's a nut cake, but the effort will be made. A National Enquirer story, probably based on a White House leak, quotes Clinton saying that Monica is "dangerous" and that she "hallucinates." According to Newsweek, Clinton attorney David Kendall is gathering dirt about Lewinsky's mendacity and presidential obsession. White House officials are tallying and comparing all the different stories Lewinsky has told about Clinton (to Tripp, to friends, in her affidavit, to Vernon Jordan, etc.) and are gleefully looking forward to exposing the inconsistencies. If Monica must be killed to save the president, she will be killed (metaphorically speaking, of course).