Flytrap's Trashy Books

Politics and policy.
Sept. 5 1998 3:30 AM

Flytrap's Trashy Books

We read 'em so you don't have to.

Scandals customarily generate lots of quick, trashy literature; the kind of unedited, misspelled garbage designed to sell scads of copies before people realize just how junky it is. But Flytrap, until now, has been a publishing flop. The last few weeks have finally brought the first crop of scandal books: William J. Bennett's The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals, Ann Coulter's High Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Case Against Bill Clinton, and Jerome D. Levin's The Clinton Syndrome: The President and the Self-Destructive Nature of Sexual Addiction.

Advertisement

None of these books is Flytrap's All the President's Men (or should that be Women?). The books are, for the most part, shameless attempts to exploit the nation's sorrow for money and fame. They are essentially clip jobs, repackaging newspaper and TV reports with a gloss of new opinion. But there is something interesting about them: the three distinct strains of Clinton criticism they represent.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

1 Somber Moral Instruction:

Unsurprisingly, Bennett's project in The Death of Outrage is to stiffen America's backbone, to persuade us to care about Clinton's misdeeds and to punish them. He writes, "American citizens know better--and they will demonstrate that indeed they do know better. Americans will realize they are being played for fools by the president and his defenders."

The Death of Outrage suffers from the same surfeit of self-righteousness that plagues all Bennett's ventures. It is jacketed with the sober brown paper that covered The Book of Virtues, and it seems a calculating attempt by Bennett to secure his franchise as America's scold in chief. Bennett's pose of nonpartisan moral authority, annoying enough when he writes for kids, seems particularly forced in The Death of Outrage. Click for a spectacular example.

After reading Bennett, however, I began to think that the consciousness-raising he preaches might actually be possible. He is a fine rhetorician, and The Death of Outrage makes the best case yet for public condemnation of Clinton. Bennett's arguments are nothing you haven't read before on the New York Times editorial page or in the Weekly Standard, but they're powerful nonetheless. Basic premises: Clinton's reckless, repeated adultery weakens essential moral codes; his betrayal of vows and his lies undermine public trust; his use of legal chicanery to duck ethical responsibility is cowardly and grotesque; the public's silence in the face of this is a capitulation, "moral disarmament"; and America, which has always believed that politicians' moral behavior matters, must start judging Clinton's character.

But the inspiration of this book is its tone. Bennett is obviously obsessed, partisan, and furious about Flytrap, yet he has managed to write a book without vitriol. He refrains from gloating. He chastises others for their glee in savaging Clinton. He takes Clinton's immorality so seriously that he can't even joke about it. Like television, the book is a cool medium; Bennett's anger is convincing because he holds it in check.

43000_43380_2crimes

2 Rage:

I realized the effectiveness of Bennett's restraint when I opened Coulter's High Crimes and Misdemeanors, which represents the second strain of criticism. If Bennett is superego, Coulter is id. Bennett says in measured tones what conservatives ought to believe. MSNBC pundit Coulter screams what they really feel.

High Crimes has two principal aims: 1) to explain what, historically and legally, constitutes an impeachable offense (summary: moral offenses, not just criminal ones) and 2) to build an impeachment case against Clinton by summarizing his malfeasance in everything from the Paula Jones case to campaign fund raising to Webb Hubbell's job search to the White House Travel Office to Monica Lewinsky. But Coulter, whose TV manner is that of a woman going stark raving mad, is the wrong person to write a sober legal tract. High Crimes is supposed to show that Clinton's enemies have a strong legal case against him. Instead, it suggests Clinton's enemies are nutters.

Coulter argues ad hominem: Clinton's China satellite policy was "treason." He is "The Manchurian Candidate" and a "horny hick." Clinton doesn't allow alcohol in the Oval Office because "it might interfere with his potency." She says Newsweek's Eleanor Clift has gone "beyond the call of duty to earn [her] presidential kneepads."

High Crimes is painfully shoddy, even for a book rushed to press. Misspellings are commonplace. Quotes are muffed: Clinton's most famous comment, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky," is rendered "I never had sexual relations with that woman." Entire paragraphs are repeated, nearly word for word, in different chapters of the book. Coulter claims to lay out the facts against Clinton, but it's hard to trust her: In I happen to know something about, she grossly misrepresents evidence to make Clinton look worse. Coulter's legal scholarship is so repetitious and garbled that it's hard to puzzle out her definition of "high crimes and misdemeanors." It's as though the book was not edited at all.

43000_43382_3clinton

3 Psychobabble:

I did not think a book could be any worse than High Crimes. Then I encountered Jerome Levin's--whoops, I mean, Dr. Jerome Levin's--The Clinton Syndrome. Psychotherapist Levin's ostensible purpose is to use Clinton's problems to bring attention to sex addiction. His underlying purpose seems more cynical: to get his shoddy little book stocked in both the political and self-help sections.

To these ends Levin has written a psychological profile of the president as sex addict. According to Levin, the root of Flytrap is Clinton's "hang up." As the child of an "enabler" and a "rageaholic," as well as an "ACOA (Adult Child of Alcoholics)," Clinton became a chronic "musterbator," a boy who overachieved in order to win the "unconditional love" that was missing at home. He sought it in power, in the love of the crowd, and especially in casual sex. But all were poor substitutes for true love and didn't vanquish his feelings of inadequacy and guilt. The deaths of Ron Brown ("an older-brother figure" to Clinton), Yitzak Rabin ("an important father figure"), and his mother (a mother figure?) made Clinton vulnerable to Lewinsky.

"The more I thought about it," writes Levin, "the more I realized that Clinton had about as much chance of leaving her alone as a cocaine addict has of passing up a line." Clinton deserves sympathy and compassion, not vitriol, because he exercises no control over his compulsive sexual behavior. Straight-faced conclusion: Clinton should hold "SCA (Sexual Compulsives Anonymous)" chapter meetings at the White House, thus inspiring millions of other Americans to overcome their addictions.

Never mind that the very existence of sex addiction is questioned by most respectable shrinks. Never mind that Levin's profile of Clinton is constructed from a papier-mâché of A.M. Rosenthal columns and episodes of Charlie Rose. Never mind that The Clinton Syndrome is filled with gobbledygook such as "Let us sum up Bill Clinton's early childhood influences in terms of bio-psycho-social determinants." (Let's not and say we did.) Never mind that it's even more badly edited than High Crimes. Never mind that this flimflam is padded to book length with 100 pages of irrelevant stories about other addicts. It doesn't matter. This is Flytrap's moment. Arianna Huffington is touting Levin on the air, and his book is stacked high by the register at my local Borders.

The sidebar on Bill Bennett's self-righteousness is. The sidebar on how Ann Coulter misrepresents a Clinton story is.