Since I usually write about foreign affairs, I have not covered much of the Monica story. I did have to whip out color on the first day she showed up at the federal courthouse to testify in secret before the grand jury. The frenzy of the photographers and the glee of the television performers and the gawks of the tourists made the story feel even more unwholesome than usual. I kept my sanity that day by escaping for an hour at the National Gallery of Art across the street. I can thus offer no special insights into what is going on in Washington, just a few random thoughts about the Starr report and its aftermath.
The zeal of Kenneth Starr so astounded me that I had to reach for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter to find a meaningful parallel. There is a good deal of Roger Chillingworth, the husband of the adulterous Hester Prynne, in Starr. To avenge his wrong, the relentless Chillingworth transforms himself into a gnarled, satanic creature. “He had begun an investigation, as he imagined,” we are told, “with the severe and equal integrity of a judge, desirous only of truth….But, as he proceeded, a terrible fascination, a kind of fierce, though still calm, necessity seized the old man within its gripe, and never set him free again until he had done all its bidding. He now dug into the poor clergyman’s heart like a miner searching for gold; or, rather, like a sexton delving into a grave, possibly in quest of a jewel that had been buried on the dead man’s bosom, but likely to find nothing save mortality and corruption. Alas for his own soul, if these were what he sought!”
Beyond Starr, however, The Scarlet Letter does not help very much. The aggressive, churlish and demanding Monica Lewinsky is no Hester Prynne. And the adolescent and arrogant Bill Clinton, though just as hypocritical, hardly resembles the guilt-ridden poor clergyman who loved Hester. In fact, I can’t think of much in literature and history that does help very much.
It seems to me that the best way to make sense of the Starr report and its aftermath is to stand aside from it and try to isolate some of the truths that are now heavily fogged in. There are not very many:
1. No matter what sanctimonious journalists and politicians tell you about their high-minded constitutional concerns, the affair is all about sex - tawdry, foolish, rushed sex.
2. Only an Idiot President would have told the truth about the affair if he thought he could get away with a load of lies. Clinton compounded his problem by continuing to lie even when the chances of getting away with it became dimmer and dimmer.
3. Although a lot of people might feel like whacking him over the head for lying, it is doubtful whether he would be found guilty of perjury in court or even prosecuted for it if he were simply Joe Citizen. It is ludicrous to believe that what he did constitutes the equivalent of “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors” - the only grounds for impeachment in the Constitution. But none of this matters.
4. Many Republicans feel that they have him by the balls and hope to make the most of it. For more than two decades, they have lived with the knowledge that the only president ever drummed out of office was a Republican. Now is their chance to even the count. Moreover, there are a lot of visceral Clinton haters in Republican ranks, and they see enough smut to satisfy themselves that they are right to hate. There is something to Chris Rock’s joke that Clinton is being treated as if he were the first black president.
5. If logic prevails, Clinton will probably be censured rather than impeached. By another turn of logic, Clinton might save his party and Al Gore by resigning swiftly. But logic is not sure to prevail.
6. If Clinton survives, he will remain a badly crippled and near impotent president.
Times ahead will be depressing for all but the most ardent Clinton haters. Even they may someday tire of the daily dosage of venom and scum. In the meantime, my advice to Americans is to wander into the National Gallery of Art or something like it whenever the stench gets overpowering.