This Dreary Sexualization of Politics

Dread, a sinking in the stomach, is coming over me. What if the star inquisitor really manages to impeach Bill Clinton or force him to resign? William Safire will be out celebrating (thumb on his nose, finger in the air, “I got him, I got him”). What if Mr. Safire wins because the score is settled and he has at last revenged his beloved Richard Nixon? Isn’t that what all his anti-Clinton glee is all about? What if the ultra-rightists do get their way, and the disgraced President jumps into a helicopter from the White House lawn? What if he disappears into a murky sunset? Aside from the victory that will be handed to the Republican Party, the Jesse Helmses, the Trent Lotts, the Newt Gingriches, what will the guilty-by-talk-show-radio-host verdict mean for the rest of us? Will we and our vision of a concerned government have been defeated fair and square, banished from our place at the civic table, or is this more theater, an intermission between acts, the dire moment before the plot turns and everything works out all right in the end?

I am of half a mind to give them Mr. Clinton. Let him resign with a confused boyish look on his face. Let him tell us that our democracy is strong and will provide a bridge into the next century, yakety-yak. Let Al Gore get going. Let Paul Newman or Robert Redford run for President. Monica Lewinsky has been fun, but the joke has been deflated and not even Viagra will bring it back to life. Let the Republicans be tarred with the foolishness of unseating a President by tugging at his pants zipper. Let the prosecutor who was never unbiased, tainted by his conversation with Paula Jones and by his financial backers, live with what he’s done. Let him crow at all the Republican $1,000-a-plate dinners. His day will come, and in this world, too. If he brings down the elected President because he has forced him to lie over such a personal and silly matter and then caught him in a cover-up, the public will not love him dearly for his prurient persistence. The party and the ideas he represents will not be more valued because of this nasty victory, which I suspect or hope will turn Pyrrhic within a very short time. Unlike Nixon, Mr. Clinton did not sneer at Americans, he did not abuse his political power. The shadows on his face disappear before the TV cameras, revealing a fellow a little too glad with the hand and more glib than genius.

Mr. Clinton, like the rest of our culture today, is as shallow as a glass of water, talks too much, way too much, wheels and deals too much, is the product of that long encounter group we call the 60’s, too much EST and too little backbone, too much primal scream and too little calculus. All that embarrassing touchy-feely stuff makes him a likable if not highly respected President. If on his last day in office he looks sad but brave on camera, with Hillary and Chelsea holding his hands tightly in theirs, the American public may not feel warmly about his attackers. They may take out their anger at the polls. So it is possible that Kenneth Starr will in the end undermine his mean-spirited, puritan religious-right supporters and give an (albeit unwilling) hand to the a-little-bit-of-government-is-good-for-you folks like me.

We all know that sex can seem like love and love is what we all need, and America will forgive Mr. Clinton for wearing his hungry heart on his sleeve and confusing his arm with his procreative organ. But I doubt America will forgive Kenneth Starr for having a prune pit for a coronary vessel.

The pompous types who are carrying on now about subverting justice and suborning perjury just won’t ever understand why the shock value of a broken rule doesn’t carry much weight anymore. But we know that everyone hires image makers, and while we appreciate a polished performance like the kind Santa Claus and the Easter bunny put in each year, we retain our private doubts about their reality. Those goody-two-shoes on the right who moan about family values have no purchase on morality. Newt divorces his cancer-fighting wife while she is in the hospital. Susan Smith’s religious stepfather is in bed with her. The National Rifle Association, supported by the Republicans in Congress, wants you to believe that a teenager with an assault rifle is an all-American boy just whistling Dixie for freedom’s sake.

So if Ken Starr and Bob Grant and the Aryan Nation folk who put signs everywhere asking for Mr. Clinton’s impeachment win, I would bet that the inevitable ache in my head will only be temporary. In the long run, this dreary sexualization of politics is going to run out of steam.

Yes, the feminist movement was complicit in this twist of history by allowing sexual harassment to trump all other issues on the public agenda. Getting Senator Bob Packwood for kissing in the halls may not have been such a good idea. Holding Anita Hill up for sainthood may also have been a mistake. Screaming and yelling about private behavior by public officials has become a petard by which we ourselves have now been hoisted. What’s sauce for the gander has become sauce for the goose, and we have been well basted. Sexual naughtiness is not the moral equivalent of being on the wrong side of issues such as civil rights, decent salaries for working people, adequate universal health care, improvement of all schools, creating a fair society open to all races and creeds, preserving the separation of church and state so that America does not end up like the Balkans or Rwanda, with all our limbs left in the nearest McDonald’s parking lot or strewn along the repaired-by-boondoggle highways.

The Jerry Springer -esque show that our executive and Congressional branches of government have become will eventually wear out its ratings. The cultural change that gave us patter, soft-shoe, performer, image–rather than real politics with content, with words that say what they mean, like it or not, words that aren’t codes for other words that are themselves codes–will give way to whatever is coming next. I wouldn’t want to be those flag-waving, soap-in-your-mouth Republicans when the tide turns. They are going to be swept out to sea.

Well, maybe, maybe not.

No denying it–the radical right and their minions will cheer as we hit the din. It wasn’t a conspiracy exactly. It was just politics as usual, in which the nasties rolled us for everything we had. So if Mr. Clinton goes, if Susan McDougal rots in jail and Monica gets a job at the Heritage Foundation and Pat Robertson is our next Secretary of State, we will bide our time. The old scores will be settled. I understand William Safire, revenge may be sweeter than success.