Explaining Clinton: He Feels Our Guilt-And Plays Off It

(1) In Which Your Correspondent Makes an Unseemly Approach to Supreme Impeachment Manager Henry Hyde Over Breakfast

Henry Hyde was not in a particularly good mood that morning at breakfast in the lobby of the Capitol Hill Hyatt Hotel, and I don’t think my approach made it any better. I know he wasn’t in a good mood to start because I could overhear him grumbling to a top aide on the other side of the floral-topped divider that only partially screened his semi-private breakfast nook from my table. Chairman Hyde was grumbling about an editorial in that morning’s Washington Post which was singularly unimpressed by the repetitive, chaotic and repetitive–did I say repetitive?–second-day presentation by his impeachment managers.

“We just can’t do anything right, if you believe The Post,” the spun-silver thatched lawmaker complained after he gave his waiter his order for the cheddar cheese omelet.

Today, Saturday, Jan. 16, was the final day of the Hyde team’s presentation of the prosecution’s case against the President. Today, Mr. Hyde himself was due to deliver the final summing-up of the case for conviction, and it looked like he’d need a tour de force to remedy the damage done by the badly organized and repetitive presentation of the by now maddeningly familiar facts of the case. (So many were the references to the presents underneath Betty Currie’s bed that I’d felt I’d spent the entire day down there with them, underneath Betty Currie’s bed.) It was a daylong presentation whose only highlight had been Representative Bill McCollum’s decision to bite the bullet and bring the words “breasts” and “genitalia” into the grave and weighty discourse on the Senate floor.

If it hadn’t been a great morning so far for Henry Hyde, it hadn’t been a good one for me, either. I’d been frustrated by a malfunction in my in-room movie selection menu which prevented me from viewing White House Interns, the soft-core porn feature listed among the “adult” titles on the menu along with the notorious Pamela Lee home movie (which was in fact listed as The Notorious Pamela Lee Home Movie) and something called Hot Secretaries and Back-Door Bosses. I suspected the previous occupant of the room had put an anti-child lock on the adult selections, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to call the hotel and claim that in order to explore the ever-widening cultural ramifications of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, I had an urgent need to watch White House Interns first thing in the morning. (It’s not about sex, it’s about lying.)

But I had a more serious matter on my mind. Something I’d been growing incensed about over the past couple of weeks: the Council of Conservative Citizens, the CCC, the white-supremacist, pro-Confederacy, gentrified racist group (doesn’t the CCC sound like a softer-core variant of the K.K.K.?). The defenders of “white values” who have in the past attracted the support, the commendation, the virtual honorary membership of Senate majority leader Trent Lott of Mississippi and impeachment manager fanatic Representative Bob Barr of Georgia. Both of whom, when their connection with the CCC was exposed, had squirmed and slimed, had evaded, prevaricated and equivocated as much as Bill Clinton did when his unseemly relationship was exposed. The CCC is the stained dress of the Clinton opponents.

It’s true their lies about race weren’t given under oath the way Bill Clinton’s lies about sex were, but, to my mind, they were covering up a far more immoral, indeed shameful, relationship than Bill’s with Monica. I’m not defending Bill Clinton by a relativizing comparison–I think he’s a sleazebag who’s wasted an entire year of all our lives over his sexual predations, and who deserves the trouble he’s brought on himself. And I won’t shed a tear if he’s booted.

But it did feed into a growing feeling–which I expand upon later on in this account–about the whole ugly, wasteful yearlong imbroglio: that it really is “not about sex,” as the impeachment managers insist ad nauseam. No, it’s not about sex, but it is–in a way I’ll expand upon later in this account–about Race.

So in any case, there I was at breakfast, getting myself incensed over the CCC and Henry Hyde. Because, across the page from the Washington Post editorial Henry Hyde was grumbling about, there was a scathing Op-Ed piece by Post columnist Colbert King about the CCC and Trent Lott’s and Bob Barr’s relationship with the rancid racist group. Mr. King brought in Henry Hyde’s close relationship with Messrs. Lott and Barr and pointed out that when Congress passed a resolution a couple years ago condemning the racist, anti-Semitic ravings of Khallid Muhammad, Henry Hyde was one of those who spoke out on the House floor supporting it. Yet Henry Hyde had been silent about the racist Aryan Nations group, which two of his closest allies in the impeachment battle had been tainted by.

And so I decided I had to interrupt Henry Hyde’s breakfast. I’m not good at confrontations, particularly political ones; I hate to seem self-righteous when I’m far from anyone’s exemplar. But with Henry Hyde just a few feet away, I felt I had to say something. I think what I wanted to say was, “Why don’t you denounce your buddy Bob Barr for his ties to those racist morons?” But I’m trying to be more of a people-person at this point in my life, to make things win-win, if you know what I mean. So I took a more positive, constructive approach to dealing with the racist morons.

I went up to Chairman Hyde and said, “Congressman, you’ve done a great job nailing Bill Clinton on the facts, but don’t you think you should support a resolution denouncing that Council of Conservative Citizens?”

In other words, instead of trying to score some points, I’d see if Henry Hyde’s better nature would respond. Chairman Hyde looked up from his cheddar cheese omelet at the unshaven intruder into his breakfast space, looking like he wished he had the House sergeant-at-arms at hand.

Before I get to his response, let me back up a bit and retrace my path to Henry Hyde’s breakfast table.

(2) In Which Your Correspondent Takes His Long-Coveted Seat in the Senate Chamber and Finds, in an Assemblage of Lightweights, Preeners and Posers, the Only Hero in the Room

Well, it was extremely exciting being right there in the Senate chamber for the “most important trial in the history of Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence”–as an apparently over-caffeinated Arlen Specter characterized the proceedings. Extremely exciting being there in the glittering chamber where history was being made in front of my eyes.

Extremely exciting for a good 10 minutes, anyway. Then it became extremely Anglo-Saxon. As a recovering Event-junkie, I had been looking forward to a moment like this for nearly three decades, ever since I went down to Washington in 1974 to cover the impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon, hoping they’d climax in the unimaginable drama of a Senate trial. Even though that year had moments of ultra-adrenalized, Event-junkie satisfaction (standing in the East Room of the White House not 20 yards from Richard Nixon when he made his brokenhearted farewell speech before a copter bore him away to exile), I felt slightly cheated by history of that ultimate courtroom climax in the Senate chamber.

Of course, the difference between being there in person for the Clinton impeachment trial and watching it on TV was a matter of degree. Because of Senate rules, what you saw on TV was, for the most part, only the face of the speaker at the podium; what you saw in the Senate chamber was, well, senators: the entire array of a hundred solons sitting like oversized schoolchildren at their undersized little school desks, trying to pay attention through marathon repetitive recountings of how the presents ended up under Betty Currie’s bed. All in all, not an impressive group. Fifty-five Republicans who could say with a straight face that it wasn’t about sex, it was about lying; 45 Democrats who could say with a straight face it wasn’t about lying, it was about sex; and all 100 denying there was anything partisan about their positions.

But I don’t want to sound like a knee-jerk cynic because the last time I was sitting here, in the Senate gallery, I witnessed a genuine–regrettably overlooked–profile in courage: Senator Bob Kerrey standing up, virtually alone, to oppose a craven, hysterical and hypocritical bill proposed by Senate liberals (led by the unctuous opportunist Joe Biden) to enact a ban on flag-burning into law. Legislation that sought to overturn a narrow Supreme Court decision which recognized that, however repugnant, flag-burning is constitutionally protected dissent, and the flag’s not a graven image more sacred than the First Amendment.

The Democrats supporting the Biden bill were supreme hypocrites who didn’t believe in it for a minute but thought it might give them cover on the record so they could then take a stand against an even more noxious and demagogic constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning.

But Bob Kerrey didn’t need political cover for his act of courage and dissent. He just stood up and did it. Stood up on one artificial and one flesh-and-bone foot, having lost a lower leg in the Navy Seal operation which won him the Congressional medal of honor for bravery under fire. Stood up and told the Joe Bidens and the other temporizers and equivocators with the First Amendment that when he took a hit, he wasn’t taking it for a piece of cloth, he was fighting for his buddies, for his friends and his family, and for the kind of country that is not threatened by dissent, not “frightened by flag-burning.”

It was a terrific speech and it carried the day, halted the cowardly rush for cover and preserved for a little while the strength of a basic freedom. I’d gotten Senator Kerrey’s office to fax me a copy of it, and reading it over it convinced me once again what I’ve believed ever since 1992: that the Democratic Party made a terrible wrong turn in New Hampshire when they left Bob Kerrey out in the snow and made Bill Clinton “the comeback kid” on the strength of Bill and Hillary’s phony 60 Minutes dog-and-pony performance and the high-tech lies spread by the Munchkin Machiavellis in the much-ballyhooed Clinton “war room.” Lies about his relationship with Gennifer Flowers that should have been a warning. (If anything about Bill Clinton ought to be impeached, it ought to be that smug, meretricious suck-up “documentary” called The War Room which made heroes out of the smarmy enablers who, in the final days of that crucial New Hampshire primary, gave credence to Mr. Clinton’s lies while he raced home to Arkansas to sign the death warrant for a brain-damaged black man on death row–all for political cover, of course.) Bob Kerrey was the road not taken in the snowy New Hampshire woods.

Mr. Kerrey’s speech on the flag-burning ban was remarkable for its candid admission that he’d changed his mind on the issue and that what changed his mind was his revulsion at Chief Justice William Rehnquist–now presiding in racing-striped idiocy over the Senate trial. Revulsion at Chief Justice Rehnquist’s flag-burning case opinion, which, Mr. Kerrey said, “appears to stand … on a sentimental nationalism which seems to impose a functional litmus test of loyalty before expression is permitted.”

The candor and the courage, the willingness to call a jerk a jerk, however Supreme, made me think once again that the Democratic Party would be insane and self-destructive in the year 2000 if it passed Bob Kerrey by in favor of a passionless cold-fish stiff like Al Gore or Bill Bradley. Indeed, maybe the only good thing to come out of the whole Clinton impeachment crisis is that it might taint Al Gore enough to give an outsider like Mr. Kerrey a chance. Looking over the Senate floor, he seemed the only Democrat in the room who was both a hero and a human being.

(3) My Con Artist, “Your Closest Black Friend”–and an Answer for Safire

Speaking of flags, a different kind of flag issue made itself manifest for me earlier on the first day of the Senate trial, deep in the basement tunnels beneath the Capitol building. It was this flag issue, in fact, that was the deep source of the anger that impelled me to ruin Henry Hyde’s breakfast. I was taking the Senate subway that runs from the basement of the Capitol building to the basement of the Dirkson Office Building to get photo ID for the press gallery when I happened to take note of the array of 50 state flags lined up along the wall of the tube.

To take note in particular of first one, then a second state flag dominated by a large inset of the Confederate flag’s stars and bars. The first one was Georgia, the second Mississippi, the home states, respectively, of those two favorites of the white-supremacist CCC: Bob Barr and Trent Lott. Coincidence? I think not. The repulsive sentimentalization of the Confederate flag is the fig leaf for the naked racism of white-supremacist outfits like the CCC. To me, it’s a disgusting display, an affront to anyone who opposes Aryan Nations-type groups, because, let’s face it, the Confederacy was nothing if not an Aryan Nation. One that thrived on a kind of slow-motion spiritual genocide, on murderous oppression, rape and terror. The people spearheading the impeachment of Bill Clinton for lying about his sexual exploitation of women proudly fly a flag celebrating a regime that legitimized the rape and the buying and selling of breeding rights to slave women. And they call that regime “chivalrous.” None of this excuses Bill Clinton’s sleazy conduct, but it ought at least prompt some self-examination on the part of the Bob Barrs and Trent Lotts now trying frantically to distance themselves from the CCC. How can you not distance yourself as well from your state flags, which celebrate a regime of racist murder and rape? I’m not saying ban the flags, but don’t canonize them in the hallway of the Senate. They’re flags that celebrate a regime different in degree but not in kind from the Third Reich.

So, as you can see, I was in a fabulous mood when I returned to the Senate chamber with my shiny new press gallery ID and was–after about an hour’s wait for the first shift–ushered to one of the coveted seats in the chamber. I listened to Representative James Rogan talking self-righteously about “truthfulness.” Still, I couldn’t fault his arguments: I know I’d be cheering them on if it had been Richard Nixon in the dock, charged with perjury and obstructing justice, even on so negligible a matter as consensual oral sex. (I don’t buy the argument I hear from some of my cynical liberal friends that the analogy doesn’t hold because “Nixon never got a blow job in his life.”) Why, then, do I feel, if not sympathetic toward Mr. Clinton, then hostile to his prosecutors? Here I would like to explore with you my theory on this question. My evolving hypothesis that the entire Clinton impeachment crisis, at least the internal dynamics of it, is more about race than sex. And that therein can be found the answer to the crucial novelist’s question William Safire had raised in a recent column–”Why the Loyalty?”; why haven’t Mr. Clinton’s associates turned on him, resigned, or ratted him out (except for Dick Morris, of course)? Why have the Democratic senators in this chamber put their historical reputation on the line to endorse his equivocations about his sleazebag behavior? Why have so many of his associates, personal and political, friends and family stuck with him despite the ruin he has brought so many of them?

The answer has to do with race and con artistry. It’s a belief I’d been feeling my way toward in the wake of a startling encounter in the street a few weeks before I went down to Washington: an encounter in which I ran into the guy I like to think of as “my con artist.” “My” con artist, because somehow when you’ve been had by a true artist, there’s a kind of bond; you’ve both collaborated in a work of con art. In any case, I think of my con artist as the inventor of the most brilliant, idiosyncratic New York City street con ever devised. A con game that is both fiendishly ingenious–it would have to be to con cynical New Yorkers who trust no one and think they’ve seen through everyone. Brilliant because it embodies a deeply shrewd insight into New Yorkers’ liberal guilt about race.

Here’s how it worked on me (I’ve since read an account somewhere that suggests I’m far from alone in my victimhood):

I’m walking down 48th Street minding my own business when a tall, thin, light-skinned black guy passes me by–and says something I only hear over my shoulder. But something that makes me stop and turn around. To find him grinning with friendly but hesitant recognition. “You don’t remember me?” he says, looking a little crestfallen, making me feel I’ve insulted him by failing to know his name.

“Come on,” he says a bit plaintively, making me worry he thought I was snubbing him because of his race. “O.K., who’s your closest black friend?” he asked. I gave him a name (I’m not saying it was from a long list). Let’s call the person A.

“Exactly,” he said. “I met you at A.’s. Remember that thing at his place that time? I’m his cousin Ray.”

I’ve always had a problem, I think it’s congenital, connecting names to faces I know. But here I didn’t think I even knew the face. But hell, “That thing, at his place, that time.” It was vague enough to admit the possibility that I might have met “Cousin Ray” at A.’s place.

Then he ratcheted things up in a really fiendish way when I asked, “How’s A. doing? I thought he was out of the country.”

“No. He’s back. He was talking about you the other day. You know he’s got cancer.”

Suddenly, I felt doubly awful. Not just for A.’s diagnosis, but for not having been in close enough touch with “my closest black friend” to know.

With a chiaroscuro of worry and guilt swirling within me, I was then in a peculiarly vulnerable state when “Cousin Ray” confided in me a small problem he was having: He’d been taking classes at Hunter College, he said, commuting there from his job in Queens in a car A. had handed down to him, and he’d run out of gas a little while ago over on First Avenue. He’d walked to a gas station to buy a can of gas, but they’d wanted a deposit on the gas can of $28, and he just had a couple bucks on him. There was a subtle but unmistakable implication that racial distrust, if not racism, was at work in the demand for the gas can deposit.

I don’t think he even had to ask. I handed him a 20 and a 10. Nothing too good for the cousin of my closest black friend. He made me write out my address so he could return the loan in person tomorrow, thanked me profusely and told me A. would really like to hear from me, what with his illness and all.

Needless to say, he never dropped off the money, and A. didn’t have cancer–nor a cousin named Ray. But what a brilliant con, worth every penny of the 28 bucks to witness a pure piece of satiric performance art even if the target was me. Every great con game embodies an insight into human psychology, and this one was no exception. On one level, I suspected I was being conned, but he knew I’d come across with the $28 because it would make a guilty liberal’s relationship to his “closest black friend” momentarily more real. But Cousin Ray gave me another insight into the appeal of the con artist–and into the whole Clinton loyalty question–when I ran into him again on Madison Avenue just a couple weeks ago. And he started to run the very same con on me:

Once again, the over-the-shoulder remark, the hesitantly friendly grin, the plaintive “You don’t remember me?” when suddenly I did remember him.

“Yeah, I gave you 28 bucks,” I said. At which point he walked off rapidly and disappeared into the holiday-shopping throng.

A revealing encounter: Looking back, it’s interesting that I didn’t say “You owe me $28″; it was “I gave you $28.” I didn’t particularly feel ripped off, or I didn’t feel only ripped off; I felt enlightened as well. I’d gotten my money’s worth. I’d learned something. I felt, I think, a certain good-humored gratitude to “Cousin Ray” for teaching me something.

Feeling gratitude toward a skillful con artist who takes you is not unique. It’s there in Janet Malcolm’s utterly fascinating new book, The Crime of Sheila McGough, the focus of which is a seductive Clinton-like con artist, a Southern-accented securities fraud specialist named Bob Bailes who ruins the life of his lawyer, Sheila McGough–gets her sent to jail–steals from scores of other people, but leaves them, if not laughing, then vaguely bemused, grateful, appreciative of his Southern charm and his art. Great con artists will cheat you, but they’ll make sure they entertain you as well, leave you feeling you got what you belatedly learned you paid for.

And here, I think, in this conjunction of con artistry and racial guilt, is the answer to Mr. Safire’s “Why the Loyalty?” question. Bill Clinton is a con artist; liberals (but not only liberals: judging from the polls, the rest of America as well) forgive him because he’s a lovable con artist, but more importantly because beneath the con, we sense that his heart’s in the right place on race. And that even if it isn’t, even if that’s a con, too–even if he just says rather than does the right thing–he makes us feel better. He’s a Southerner who could have gone the way of Trent Lott and Bob Barr and their Confederate confederates. But Bill Clinton went the other way, did the right thing on race. In his Willie Stark-like mixture of appetite, fraud and genuine human feeling, his apparent decency about race is what makes us want to forgive his sins and defend him from his enemies, many of whom are Southerners who, you sense, hate him because of his racial liberalism. “Black folks know,” said Emile Milne, Representative Charles Rangel’s press secretary, “that Bill Clinton’s got problems with these people [the Barrs and the Lotts] mainly because of the company he keeps.” Because he really does have close black friends. I think Toni Morrison may be a bit hyperbolic in saying Bill Clinton is “Our First Black President,” but for many white liberals, Bill Clinton is “our closest black friend.”

(4) In Which the Supreme Impeachment Chairman Makes a Surprising Pledge to Your Correspondent

Let’s return now to that moment over breakfast when I confronted Henry Hyde about the noxious CCC. I’d felt bad about interrupting his breakfast on this climactic day of his case, but in the end I was glad I did it. Because to my great surprise–with a little nudge–Henry Hyde seemed willing to do the right thing.

“Don’t you think there should be a resolution condemning them?” I asked Chairman Hyde.

“You mean that racist group?” he asked me, looking like he wanted to get back to his omelet.

“Yes,” I said, “that one.”

“The trouble is, there are so many of these outfits running around …”

“But this one has enlisted–”

“Yeah,” he said, hastily heading off any explicit Bob Barr reference, “I’d support a resolution like that.”

Henry Hyde supporting the condemnation of the Council of Conservative Citizens! I think that’s admirable. I think that’s news. I think we should hold him to that pledge. I think somebody on the Democratic side in the House or Senate, Representative Jerrold Nadler, maybe, or Senator Chuck Schumer, should take Henry Hyde at his word, as recorded here, hold him to his pledge and ask him to sign on as a co-sponsor of a joint Congressional resolution condemning the CCC.

“A low, dishonest decade.” That’s what W.H. Auden called the 30′s, but the past year has felt like a low, dishonest decade compressed into just 12 months. The next few weeks promise to get lower down and dirtier, a decade’s worth of bipartisan hypocrisy and dishonesty compressed into a matter of days, and nobody’s going to come out of it looking good. A resolution condemning, censuring the white supremacists of the CCC won’t end racism. But it will make a statement. A statement that everyone in the benighted city of Washington should be able to come together on. A statement condemning those who romanticize human bondage and the rape and murder the system of slavery legitimized. It might be the only constructive thing to come out of the entire wasted year we’ve spent under Betty Currie’s bed.

To be continued …