It strikes me that the story of H.M.S. Titanic is an apt metaphor for what has been going on in Washington. Not that I liked the movie all that much; I suppose I was looking for Grand Hotel on the bounding main and instead was given Love Story . This moviegoer may consider Leonardo DiCaprio to be to callow what Bach was to counterpoint, but who am I to argue with the millions of breathless, sobbing teenage girls who are apparently the picture’s key demographic?
Still, consider how well it fits. Here’s this great ship, a miracle of modern technocracy and technology, impervious, it is thought, to all that the fates may decree, steaming implacably through seas that will prove trickier than thought. Such lifeboats as there are have been reserved for the moneyed class (Robert Rubin, Second Officer in charge), which by the standards of the day is as it should be, they having paid the most for their tickets, perhaps even bribed their way to a better stateroom.
Even those confined below decks, in steerage, share the joy: Like characters in a Bruegel or Rubens’ Kermesse , they dance and sing and cuddle and swill their mean beer, happy just to be aboard, certain that in the New World beyond the horizon, all will come right and true for them-as promised in the White Star advertisements. What they would say if informed of the lifeboat situation, or that there are no binoculars for the lookouts, is not known to history, since so few survived.
Thus the great liner plows ahead, moving in its own aura of confidence, a halo that guards it like Achilles’ shield, at once brilliant and impenetrable-or so it is assumed. All in all, ship and its company taken together, the mightiest engine yet conceived and made by mortal hands. Pressing on at flank speed, navigating by dead reckoning through waters known to be studded with ice floes. Quite a feat, this-not unlike the U.S. economy, which has performed the damnedest high-wire act in economic history, as Lester Thurow points out in a brilliant article in the current New York Review of Books , namely to maintain the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency while running the biggest trade deficits of any nation in history. This has excused us from the consequences of fiscal and monetary habits that have literally bankrupted smaller, lesser countries-and probably would have tapped us out if gold, deprived of its historic franchise by the new norm of thinking digitally, had remained the world’s standard of last resort.
And then it grazes an iceberg (for which read the libido of William Jefferson Clinton). Whether the hull is pierced, or metallurgically suspect rivets pop, is really beside the point, a matter for future marine archeologists. What matters is that all hell breaks loose, on deck there is utter confusion, some people behave well, others badly, there are ugly scenes and noble ones, the band plays briefly on, the compartments fill with water. Hell, we all know the rest: “Husbands and wives, little-bitty children lost their lives, Oh, it was sad when the great ship went down!”
What we’re going through right now in “_____gate” is like that: everyone running this way and that (in James Cameron’s film, there is at least $50 million of budget invested in pointless running up and down corridors), confusion, false alarms, finger-pointing, second-guessing.
I think it’s all kind of cool. I haven’t the slightest idea whether the President did or didn’t. Monica Lewinsky obviously had a major crush on Mr. Clinton, the film clips that show them together evince that clearly enough, and if she came on to him, it wouldn’t be the first time in his or a lot of men’s history that tumescence got the better of common sense. It’s a simple matter of acculturation. In Little Rock, men learn early that money is there to be stolen, tobacco to be chewed and women to give pleasure to guys. And if you think they know about “crony capitalism” in Jakarta, just check out Arkansas-the only state that has a hog as its university’s official beast. Soooooeeee , Pigs! I used to have “one o’ them red plastic hawg hats,” as they say at the Rose Law Firm, and believe me, you’d sooner wear a Green Bay “cheese head” to the Central Park Conservancy ladies’ lunch than that topper. Anyway, thank the Lord for small blessings. Since this mess first broke, I’ve halfway expected W.J.C. to evoke a variation of his famous Oxford marijuana trope and claim that, yes, he … but, well .… he didn’t come, you see, I mean it’s not like he actually smoked that joint, just held it briefly in his lips. Maybe they should have asked him if he’d chewed the weed. Anyway, if the famous dress-a full-length version of O.J.’s glove-does exist, I guess that defense is out the window.
My own view is that this whole thing starts with Linda Tripp and that it has something to do with the suicide of Vince Foster, for whom she worked. Indeed, my first reaction when I heard about Ms. Lewinsky was that poor Foster died in vain, trying to protect a President whose personal quiddities make him unprotectable. But maybe Foster’s suicide was about Foster himself-something on him personally that was going to oblige the Clintons to abandon him for political reasons-that Ms. Tripp for some reason holds against the First Couple. Ms. Tripp looks to me like a woman with a lot of grudges. She has that junk-food overweight and angry look; such women are dangerous.
And then fate, in the way it always seems to sweep aside impediments to the marriage of true minds and lets them find each other across a crowded room, to seek each other out even from the far ends of trackless wastes of civility and discretion with the unerring instinctual accuracy of Walter Isaacson in a roomful of V.I.P.’s, steps in.
Fate delivers into Ms. Tripp’s hearing the rancor of a young woman seething with essentially unreciprocated passion. A girl with a story she’s aching to sob out on friendly shoulders. One reason misery loves company so is that Company’s willing to listen. Over and over and over. Company never gets tired of hearing the bill of particulars, Company becomes adept at the Pavlovian keys: “He did what?” “He said what! Oh, you poor thing! Oh, poor baby!” Company knows how to convert sorrow and shame into shared vindictiveness. Ms. Tripp has enough vengefulness for both of them, indeed for a regiment, but Ms. Lewinsky’s got the goods.
The story never grows old, the teller never tires of telling it, once prompted. It tells as well inside the Beltway as in exurban Virginia. It records nicely.
Somewhere in here, Lucianne Goldberg, agent of choice to the Paranoid Set (shortly to initiate Hillary Clinton as a full member, courtesy of Matt Lauer), has entered the picture. Ms. Goldberg smells book contract, Ms. Tripp smells revenge; by now, Ms. Lewinsky’s almost ceased to count, the thing is to lock her in so she can’t wriggle out. And it gets better, because here comes another dame with a grievance, Mme. Attorney General Janet Reno, herself left to twist in the wind at one point by this President, who-in a disregard of legal rights and constitutional proprieties that would embarrass a sub-Saharan dictatorship-enables Kenneth Starr to horn in on the act.
And so, here we are. I don’t want it to end. When Richard Holbrooke’s name surfaced, even peripherally, in the Larry Lawrence, Arlington affair, I said to myself, “There is a God.” Now that Vernon Jordan’s mixed up in this, I know there is, although I keep hoping that the papers will bring up a business a few years back involving Mr. Jordan and incidents in a motel that was at the time widely reported. And it’s thrilling to have Dick Morris back on the page.
The media has behaved execrably, as predicted. I’m surprised that no one has been squashed flat in the stampede of the talking heads to get on TV. Out of the mouths and word processors of people I know personally to have cheated-in some cases with regularity-on their spouses has spewed a veritable torrent of moralizing. The hypocrisy has been world-class. Joe Klein leads the league, I think. Primary Colors did well because people thought it really was about a “scandal” like this, a perception that required that book buyers be led to believe (by Random House and Mr. Klein) that this was real “dish” supplied by a true Administration insider, not a fabrication of gossip by another suck-up beat reporter, in which they were deceptively encouraged.
One victim has been Matt Drudge. From Jimmy Breslin to people on this paper, he has been vilified. It’s a bum rap. I have been reading the Drudge Report on the Net for two years now, and all Mr. Drudge does is report what’s going to be in the papers, or what stories he hears are being worked on. He also gives box-office reports and Hollywood gossip. Not once on Drudge have I read anything that surprised me except the unfounded-and by Mr. Drudge promptly recanted-gossip about Sidney Blumenthal beating his wife; that did surprise me, since I would never have credited Mr. Blumenthal with the character necessary for that kind of decisive if misguided action. Take it from me, folks, there is more that is meretricious, downmarket, misleading and slimy, even in the face of present “verifying” rumor, on a single page of Primary Colors , a minute of Crossfire or a column in any of a dozen papers you can think of, than in Drudge ‘s entire output. Of course, I grew up in an era when gossip was what people didn’t want known about themselves; that was its point, and as such, the fear of being found out exercised a certain measure of control. Now that “gossip” is largely an affair of press releases and preplotted leaks, it no longer seems to.
I say “a certain measure,” because there were those who went ahead, anyway-like John Kennedy, probably secure in the conviction that a Nixon-hating press would stay off the story-and in the certainty that even their worst enemies, like Colonel Robert Rutherford McCormick’s Chicago Tribune , would find their own high opinion of their calling buttressed by awareness of advertising revenue from the Kennedy-owned Merchandise Mart and would never stoop to retailing “filth.”
Unsavory as the present situation is, there is this to weigh. For 20 years, the nation’s thinking has been colored by “antigovernment” rhetoric. The press, which mans the spotlights and microscopes, scrutinizes government and reports its institutional and personal failures, has been the beneficiary of this, and so has risen in the esteem of both the public and its own looking glass.
That may be about to end. My guess is that Mr. Clinton is going to survive this. He is a lucky and effective President for the present time, although in my opinion too morally careless and untested to be a great one. The wave on which he has ridden may be cresting; 10 years from now, I suspect the world may be divided into three great economic and reserve-currency blocs-with Africa and Latin America, possibly the former Soviet Union, up for grabs-which could lead to tectonic upheavals in the balance of power for which this country is ill prepared.
Right now, however, this morally defective President looks better than the media. That the press has allowed this to happen is something to think about. And also not a bad thing.