Will Sex Save Bill Clinton?

Political commentary and more.
March 4 2001 12:48 AM

Will Sex Save Bill Clinton?

Last Thursday, the National Enquirer posted a preview  of its Friday edition, promising to expose the "telling secret behind Bill Clinton's controversial pardon of Denise Rich's fugitive ex-husband Marc--she was having an affair with Clinton in the White House!" I was, I'll admit, excited by this news. Here, finally, was the long-awaited sexual vector of causality that might account for Clinton's bizarre action, which otherwise defies explanation by either his friends  or his foes. Early Friday morning, I turned to the reliable outlets of anti-Clinton sentiment to listen in on their gleeful murmurs.

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I didn't hear any. Bizarrely, the usual anti-Clinton suspects weren't eagerly hyping the Enquirer story. They were knocking it or lamenting it. "Calm down kiddies!" cautioned Lucianne Goldberg on her Web site. "CLINTON SEX SCANDAL: Please not another one. ... My heart sinks," wrote Andrew Sullivan on his Web site. The Drudge Report, which became famous for its scoops during the Lewinsky sex scandal, and which usually records every twitch in a big anti-Clinton story, was maintaining an eerie silence, simply ignoring the Enquirer. Not even a link.

Why this odd reaction? I don't think it's just that some of the anti-Clintonites got wind that the Enquirer story would be as short on evidence as it turned out to be (though Lucianne.com did claim to have learned that it was "pretty thin stuff"). There seems to be something else at work, something happening in the anti-Clinton mind. It was captured by Sullivan's instantaneous complaint that, "At this point, a sexual angle will simply reduce Pardonscam to the same level of tawdriness that we saw in the Lewinsky Affair--and Americans' admirable reluctance to judge someone's private life will blur their focus on the real issue of corruption at the heart of the current scandal." I've heard a similar worry from at least one other prominent Clinton foe, and you can hear it for yourself on this page of the ur-Clintophobic FreeRepublic.com. We may be in for one of those dramatic do-si-do-like reversals of position--one in which the anti-Clinton right (and left) suddenly downplays and discourages stories of Clintonian sexual adventure, while the pro-Clintonites start subtly rooting for, or at least tolerating, reports that catch him with his pants down.

The anti-Clintonites' newfound distaste for sex scandals isn't as crazy as it first seems. Clinton's enemies thought they had him nailed on perjury once before, remember, but because sex was involved they found themselves cast as meddling, moralistic inquisitors. Now they think they've got Clinton cornered on the more serious, businesslike charge of trading pardons for cash contributions, something both left and right readily condemn. Bringing in sex would only muddy the legal waters. How can it have been a quid pro quo for library donations if it was really a repayment for sexual favors or a token of affection? ("The story ain't sex ... this is a setup. The story is bribery," wrote one Freeper in response to the Enquirer coverage.) The Enquirer's angle also threatens to jar the scandal back into the old Lewinsky/Starr groove, in which Clinton's defenders can charge that his foes are really conducting another sexual inquisition, and a hypocritical one at that. Indeed, the less nuanced Clintonites, such as those at Buzzflash.com, are already more or less saying this.

Still, the defensiveness of the Clintophobes is at least a little irrational. For one thing, the Rich scandal has already shattered the Lewinsky-era left-right array of opinion. It doesn't matter whether that's because the Rich pardon was genuinely shocking to Clinton's defenders or because once out of power Clinton wasn't worth defending (as the right gloatingly claims). Now that even Anthony Lewis has condemned the pardon as "indefensible," is he really going to start defending it if it turns out it was done for some sexual motive?

For that matter, is anybody really going to think better of Clinton if it turns out he traded pardons, not for money, but for money and sex? True, an added sex motive might make proving an illegal quid pro quo for cash all but impossible. It could be that Clinton's multiple potential unsavory motives (getting cash, getting back at prosecutors, pleasing a possible paramour, pleasing the former White House counsel who knows his secrets, etc.) cancel each other out, in legal terms, much as incoming missiles were supposed to knock each other out in the old "Densepack" missile deployment scheme. But, barring an evidentiary smoking gun, it's almost impossible to prove a quid pro quo in a cash bribery case anyway.

And wouldn't the emergence of a sexual aspect in the Rich scandal vindicate the anti-Clintonites' focus on sex in the Lewinsky scandal? Clinton defenders such as Jeffrey Toobin argued that the Lewinsky-era reporting on the president's sex life was "sleazy" because a politician's sex life "tells you absolutely nothing about their performance" in office. That view has always seemed ridiculous to me, but it would be transparently so if something like the Enquirer's story is ever actually shown to be true. The Rich pardon scandal offers what seemed to be missing in the Lewinsky mess, namely obviously bad consequences to Clinton's misconduct. The pro-Clinton anti-"voyeurism" argument, far from being resurrected, would be retrospectively demolished.

I admit I've always tended to favor sex over money as a prime causal factor where Clinton is concerned. Others have a different inclination, sincerely accusing him of a hard money corruption I find intuitively implausible. Some see no corruption at all, only gullibility, bitterness, and misjudgment. Ultimately, the truth is the truth; a lot of it will come out. There's no point trying to close off a potentially illuminating story line. Sullivan worries that "the real issue of corruption at the heart of the current scandal" will be obscured by sex. But how does he know what the "real issue" is? Isn't that what we're still trying to determine? Elsewhere, Sullivan himself has written that he "can find no adequate, rational explanation for why the president did what he did." Maybe next week's Enquirer will tell us.

Photograph of Bill Clinton on Slate's Table of Contents by STR/Reuters.

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