Media: On Bill Clinton and Paula Jones

“‘Tis a Pity He’s a Whore”

OKAY. SO WE DON’T HAVE NIXON to kick around any­more; fortunately we have Joe Klein. I feel as if I owe the guy royalties, given the mileage I’ve gotten out of his whine some 15 years ago in Mother Jones — an irresistibly quotable classic in the annals of male liberal ressentiment — that the left had shamefully turned its attention from the poor to defending the liberties of “women, homosexuals, and mari­juana smokers.” I hereby resolve to stop squeezing that one, on the grounds that Klein’s approach to cultural poli­tics has gotten a lot more subtle, as evidenced by his bizarre piece of free association in last week’s Newsweek, “The Politics of Promiscuity.”

Klein starts out declaring that Paula Jones’s accusations against Bill Clinton, like Anita Hill’s against Clarence Thomas, are unprovable and ought to be of no interest to the media. Clinton’s enemies are “despicable,” motivated by ideology or greed. Besides, “it can be persuasively ar­gued” that politicians’ private lives are irrelevant to their public performance; take John Kennedy (I forgo the obvious interjection). “Indeed,” says Klein, “those who have come to the presidency with a prior history of philandering have been more successful than those who haven’t, at least in the 20th century (as opposed to those who’ve come to the presidency with high IQs, who’ve mostly been fail­ures).” (This in itself is a riveting piece of social analysis, which I will generously leave to other commentators to pick over.)

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But. (You knew there was a “but.”) The issue won’t go away, because there have been so many previous “allega­tions of personal misbehavior” against the president and because “it seems increasingly, and sadly, apparent that the character flaw Bill Clinton’s enemies have fixed upon­ — promiscuity — is a defining characteristic of his public life as well.” That is, the dictionary definition of “promiscuous,” revolving around such concepts as “indiscriminate,” “casual,” and “irregular,” fits the style and substance of Clinton’s governing in both good ways — he is empathetic, skilled at bringing people together and finding common ground, able to disarm opponents and forge compromises­ — and bad — he lacks principle, wants to please everyone, has trouble saying no, fudges the truth, believes he can “seduce, and abandon, at will and without consequences.”

I can’t quarrel with Klein’s assessment of the moral vacuum at the center of Clinton’s operation, especially in foreign affairs. What bemuses me is the not-so-deep struc­ture of this polemic, which unfolds more or less as follows: Sexual harassment charges against public figures are in­herently nebulous and an intrusion of “private life” into public discourse. (Anita Hill, Paula Jones, Gennifer Flow­ers are all the same in the dark; sexual intimidation, marital infidelity, what’s the dif?) Since JFK displayed a suitable, manly decisiveness in public, “acting in a sober, measured — and inspired — manner during the Cuban mis­sile crisis,” we can assume that he was able to contain his sexual weakness, to confine it to the bedroom, where it belonged; his expenditure of bodily fluids did not corrupt. With Clinton, in contrast, the press can be forgiven for breaching the proper boundary between public and pri­vate, because his own libidinal boundaries appear to be alarmingly porous. He is charming and seductive, wont to “wheedle” and “cajole.” “He conveys an impression of complete accessibility, and yet nothing is ever revealed: ‘I’ve had blind dates with women I’ve known more about than I know about Clinton,’ James Carville once com­plained …” In short, Bill is not only too feminine; his femininity is of the unreliable, manipulative, whorish sort. He has let sex invade the core of his being, as we all know women do (this is why it’s so much worse for a woman to be “promiscuous”); and it is this erotic spillover, this gender betrayal, that explains (or at least symbolizes) his abandonment of Haiti and Bosnia.

In conclusion, Klein quotes Clinton’s definition of character as “a journey, not a destination with ringing disapproval: “There is an adolescent, unformed, half-­baked quality to it — as there is to the notion of promiscuity itself: an inability to settle, to stand, to commit … It’s not too much to ask that a leader be mature, fully formed and not flailing about in a narcissistic, existential quest for self-discovery.” Translation: not only has Clin­ton failed to develop a real masculine superego, he hasn’t sufficiently tran­scended his roots in the decade that dare not speak its name. To be worthy of power in this era of settling and commit­ting, it’s not enough simply to refrain from inhaling — one must actively spit out. Live by the ’60s, die by the ’60s: having embraced the twin idols of Nar­cissism and Androgyny, it’s only fitting that Clinton should be zapped by their incestuous offspring, Personal Politics. All clear?

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An emerging theme elsewhere on the Paula Jones beat has been the failure of her case to become Anita Hill II (“Paula stunned by feminists’ silence,” a Post headline observed, while in Sunday’s Times Maureen Dowd offered such tidbits as Bob Dornan, suddenly converted to the cause of fighting sexual harassment, sporting an “I Believe Paula” button). Do feminists have a double standard? Have conservatives promoted Jones’s case mainly to embarrass feminists by making them look like hypocrites? Etc., etc.

When Marx amended Hegel to specify that history re­peats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce, he could have been talking about American popular culture. The outcry over Hill was not only, or even primarily, about sexual harassment per se, but about women’s concerns being ignored by a male-dominated society. It erupted as it did for a whole stew of reasons: the symbolism of the Supreme Court, in the midst of the right’s attempt to pack it with anti-abortion ideologues; the smug protectiveness of the old boys in the Senate; the decade-long, cumulative frustration of women in a political atmosphere that increas­ingly denied the legitimacy of their anger at men. The eruption transformed that atmosphere, putting gender con­flict back on the pop cultural map. It has also had a more problematic effect, namely the push to expand the defini­tion of sexual harassment to cover any kind of male sexual behavior or talk that offends a woman. Even with a relative­ly specific definition — mine is the deliberate use of sexual attention, or expressions of sexual hostility, as a weapon to punish a woman for presuming to take up public space as other than a sexual object-it’s not easy to draw the line between sexual harassment and plain, reflexive sexual pig­gishness. (I believed Hill’s account of what Thomas had said, yet listening to her rendition of his words — abstracted from their original context, his tone of voice, his body language — I never felt I could judge whether he was a harasser, or just a sexist jerk.) And to imagine we can change a piggish sexual culture simply by outlawing it (even if feminists agreed on what kind of sexual expres­sion is sexist, which of course they don’t) suggests a naive and frightening faith in the state. In the wake of all the emotion over Thomas-Hill, many feminists have ar­rived at a quiet recognition of how messy this issue can get. So I don’t think the “silent” women’s groups are merely standing by their man; I think they feel a farce coming on.

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The Making of Conventional Wisdom Department: in a recent column in Newsday, James P. Pinkerton of the con­servative Manhattan Institute opines, “More than a quarter of all American babies are born outside of marriage. The rate among some groups is much higher, leading, everyone by now agrees, to the chaos and crime of the urban under­class.” Everyone agrees? I don’t think so. There’s been a fair amount of com­mentary, some of which I’ve written my­self, disputing this latest attempt to blame the social and economic crisis of the (black) poor on women’s out-of-con­trol breeding. What “everyone” means is “everyone who counts,” which includes ultraconservatives like Charles Murray (whom Pinkerton refers to as a “gloomy social scientist,” diplomatically omitting mention of his right-wing politics) but excludes anyone to the cultural left of, say, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. ■



Long ago and far away, a scary band of right-wing ideologues and muck-manufacturing opportunists undertook to putsch an American president—and nearly succeeded. Adapted from the bestseller by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons, The Hunting of the President opens with Bill Clinton’s impeachment proceedings and flashes back to explicate the smears and allegations used to snare him: Troopergate, Whitewater, Paula Jones, the death of Vince Foster, and finally . . . Monica.

As co-directed and co-written by sitcom impresario and longtime F.O.B. Harry Thomason, Hunting plays like a sinister infomercial. Thomason did as much as anyone to craft Clinton’s image, most famously with the 1992 campaign film The Man From Hope. But if that was high-concept Capra, Hunting is low-rent Oliver Stone. Overwrought and often hysterical, filled with distracting montages and portentous drumbeats, the documentary feels as cheesy as its subject—or its smiling villain, Witchfinder-General Kenneth Starr. Still, the film makes one essential point. By recalling the nature of the media pile-on (with everyone hoping for another career-making Watergate), it demonstrates the way tabloid story trumps truth. (It also suggests the guilt behind the passivity in reporting the actual putsch that brought George W. Bush to power in 2000.)

The Hunting of the President successfully evokes the Clinton era as a period of collective delusion. Does anyone care? Clinton may yet reintroduce himself as an issue in the current campaign. But the post–9-11 zeitgeist has effectively defined the Clinton crucifixion as the climax of the ridiculous scandals and tawdry excitements that characterized America’s now forgotten fin de siècle.


Clinton’s Deal: Justice Denied

In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.

—George Orwell

Before beginning an intermittent series on the Clinton legacy, it’s necessary to try to disturb the general relief among most of the citizenry, including George W. Bush, about independent counsel Robert Ray’s agreement to end any criminal liability for William Jefferson Clinton. This discounting of justice is far more pernicious than the late-night pardons of Marc Rich and others.

Titled “An Agreed Order of Discipline,” the deal was calculatedly made with Clinton and his lawyer by Robert Ray just before Clinton left office. On succeeding the much bastinadoed Kenneth Starr, Ray pledged that he would affirm the principle that “no person is above the law, not even the President of the United States.”

On January 19, Ray told the nation what he had secured from Clinton to prevent his indictment. Clinton admitted he “knowingly gave evasive and misleading testimony” in his deposition in the Paula Jones case. Clinton also admitted his testimony was “prejudicial to the administration of justice.” As punishment, Clinton’s law license was suspended for five years, and he paid a $25,000 fine to the Arkansas Bar Association. Furthermore, he agreed not to try to get reimbursement for his legal fees connected with the independent counsel’s investigation.

“No person is above the law, not even the President of the United States.”

Immediately, Robert Ray had to deal with the meticulous manipulation of language that Clinton’s defenders—in the White House, in Congress, and in the professioriat—had engaged in during the impeachment process.

On the day the deal was revealed, the president’s lawyer, David Kendall—who had negotiated with Robert Ray for weeks—was asked by a reporter whether Clinton now admitted he had intentionally lied.

“He did not lie,” Kendall said. “We have not admitted he lied. And he did not do so today.”

Upholding the slippery tradition of Clinton press secretaries, Clinton’s last presidential spokesman, Jake Siewart, solemnly told a reporter that Clinton was not saying that he knowingly gave false testimony.

But on NBC’s Meet the Press (January 21), Robert Ray was ready for the spinners. “That’s why it’s in writing,” he said of the deal. Clinton had indeed admitted that his answers during the Paula Jones deposition, made under oath, were false.

Ray, however, allowed Clinton to agree that he had lied only in his Paula Jones testimony. But Clinton had lied again, under oath, before a federal grand jury—as the American public watched on television. By clearing Clinton of this more serious act of perjury, Ray failed his own responsibility to make sure that Clinton—as president and chief administrator of the law—was not above the law.

Predictably, on the same edition of Meet the Press, James Carville, Clinton’s longtime whirling minister of propaganda, said triumphantly about the deal:

“Never, ever was there any allegation about the president’s testimony before the grand jury; never, ever anything about obstruction of justice.” But Ray, as the January 20 New York Times reported, “had been investigating whether to charge Mr. Clinton after he leaves office with crimes like perjury and obstruction of justice.”

Clinton did commit perjury and obstruction of justice, and Robert Ray has let him off the hook on his testimony before the grand jury.

Richard Posner, chief judge of the federal Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, also lectures at the University of Chicago law school and is a prodigious writer of scholarly books on the law. In one of those books—An Affair of State: The Investigation, Impeachment, and Trial of President Clinton (Harvard University Press), Posner states unequivocally:

“It is clear that Clinton perjured himself in the Paula Jones deposition, even though, as Clinton’s defenders emphasized, the crime of perjury is narrowly defined in federal law.”

Posner continues: “A number of the president’s lies before the [federal] grand jury were incontestably material to the grand jury’s investigation into whether he had perjured himself in the Paula Jones case, and whether he and others had committed other obstructions of justice in that case . . . The charge of perjury before the grand jury [was] even stronger than the charge of perjury at the deposition in the Paula Jones case.” (Emphasis added.)

Posner makes a point of noting that perjury is included in the definition of obstruction of justice—along with tampering with witnesses, which, Posner writes, Clinton also did. (Remember the then president’s craftily planned conversation with his secretary, Betty Currie?)

“The maximum punishment,” Posner writes, “for one count of perjury or subornation of perjury is five years in prison, and for one count of witness tampering, 10 years.”

In Clinton’s case, said Posner, if justice had been done—and considering the skills of his defense team—the likely sentence would have been 30 to 37 months.

But Robert Ray refused to indict Clinton because—as Ray told Tim Russert on Meet the Press—he acted “in the best interest of the country, so that the new president would be afforded an opportunity with some space . . . for a fresh start.” Astonishingly, Ray added, “Sometimes we may rely too much on law and constitution and statutes.” History will judge Robert Ray’s commitment to the Constitution, along with Clinton’s.

So for the convenience of George W. Bush, who doesn’t have to worry about pardoning Clinton, and to fulfill the desire of many in this country to let all of this ignominy come to closure, Ray has carved an exception into that mantra, “the rule of law.” So Clinton will escape. An ordinary citizen who obstructed justice—even the CEO of a major company who committed serial perjury—would have to face a trial.

Jennifer Qureshi, a 26-year-old teacher, delivered the judgment of history when she told the January 20 New York Post: “It’s not a good message for our country. It tells people that if you do something wrong, there’s a way to get away with it.”


NY Mirror

This column may not be suitable for anyone with certain types of heart disease,
bladder problems, or uncontrolled blood pressure, or someone who’s swelling, nursing, or taking medications. Read on only after consulting your doctor. But
anyway: At the New York Film Critics Awards, I got all of the above conditions when I happened to sit next to the very woman who’d denied me an interview with Catherine Keener. I cunt—I mean can’t—tell you how charmed I was. Rather than vent—or try to talk to Keener—we focused on the evening’s expectedly quirky highlights, from Alexander Payne revealing that Pauline Kael told him, “The last half hour of Election gets a bit wobbly, doesn’t it?” to John Waters saying that Pedro Almodóvar‘s characters—like “grateful rape victims” and a wheelchair-bound guy who likes cunnilingus—are the type he’d like to have over for dinner. Waters must have done the guest list for this event, where Richard Belzer admitted he was on the toilet when he got the call to present an award to the South Park movie. Mr. Hankey would have been so proud!

At the gigunda Harper’s Bazaar bash at the Robert Miller Gallery, there were no grateful rape victims—only gleeful fashionistas lining up to vehemently air kiss the mag’s new editor, Kate Betts. They were all wearing black and playing that party game—you know, you snub everyone until they say hello first, and then you gush over them as if no one else ever mattered. I took a number, then asked Betts if she agrees with what Gwyneth Paltrow says in the mag—that fashion’s the only way women can express themselves on a daily basis. “No, not the only way,” she said. “Let me list the ways!” Well, one way would be to tell me whether she saw the Page Six item anticipating a possible catfight at the party between Betts and her ex-boss, Anna Wintour. “Oh, yeah,” Betts said, mildly amused. “I mean, please!” I took that to mean there would indeed be a vicious brawl involving lots of flying Prada, so I fled in a panic.

Even quicker than they scan Monica Lewinsky‘s new body on those Jenny Craig commercials, I went uptown for the Downtown party for Paper, which at least was sit-down. Model Karen Elson is semiexposed and seemingly elongated on the mag’s cover, but at this Brasserie event, she told me it’s all her. “Fuck yeah, it’s my body!” she declared. “And I’m not ashamed of it. I might as well show it while I’m young!” It’s the only way women can express themselves on a daily basis.

Everyone was covered up again at the Holy Smoke party at Nicole’s, that department-store boîte where, having nabbed a pricey ensemble, you can promptly flaunt it over veal sausages. Famed (for other places) restaurateur Drew Nieporent told me that Nicole’s got two stars in the Times, but then, “their new food critic can’t count past two.” Nieporent gave this bash higher marks, especially when Kate Winslet entered and he blurted, “They said she was too heavy for the Titanic, but if you ask me, she’s got it in all the right places tonight!” And she’s not ashamed of it!

That was clearly the best recent night out for heteros and food—and tramping around town in a tutu has helped me uncover some other high points of modern life. Ready? The best cruise spot is the main listening wall at the downtown Virgin Megastore. Simply strap on your headphones, shake your bon-bon to Macy Gray, and throw a wanton smile at the person next to you (unless they’re listening to Jewel). Before you know it, you’ll be making beautiful music together—or at least you’ve gotten to tighten your culo and hear a few free tracks.

The most bizarre new cooking/chat show is the one hosted by Ainsley Harriott, that British creature who, after telling us how his wife and kids are his whole world, minces around the kitchen in a flamboyantly wrist-flapping way that makes RuPaul look like Ving Rhames. Harriott—who was discovered by Merv Griffin—shoots his show, appropriately enough, at the Chelsea Piers (and actually, it’s an occasionally funsy romp).

From the kitschy kitchen to the awful office, the wackiest newish excursion in theater is Becky Mode‘s Fully Committed, with the amazing Mark Setlock as a restaurant reservations clerk and all his tormentors. When I called for comps, I was aptly told that the play was fully committed that week. It was worth waiting for, deliciously littered as it is with references to “global fusion cuisine” and “Mr. Zagat‘s headcheese,” not to mention relentless digs at Naomi Campbell. It’s a fabulously droll commentary on the hollow absurdity of my—I mean that—crowd, but though I give it way more than two stars, next time I want an even better seat, with more flattering lighting!

The most popular new East Village restaurant—and it’s not the one Fully Committed‘s based on—is Leshko’s, the former beloved Polish dive, which is now a sleek and lively trendoid spot courtesy of the Barracuda guys. The global fusion food is tangy and there’s still an occasional pierogi to remind you of the days before gentrification.

The cutest moment in that perennial pierogi Eartha Kitt‘s act at Café Carlyle comes when she tells the audience, “I’ve found my birth certificate and I’m proud to reveal that on January 17th . . . I want presents!” But if you want presence, the equally long-running Jackie Mason is still the best solo kvetcher since before Mark Setlock was born. Alas, in his Broadway show, Mason continues to dabble in ancient ethnic stereotypes, not seeming to realize that people have become more similar than different. Mason clings to the idea that Puerto Ricans are violent and Jews always go to doctors, and even as mockable clichés, these are as moldy as escargot jokes (which he also does). Still, the devilishly deadpan comic’s riotous about what I assumed had been a spent subject, as it were—Clinton‘s sexuality. Long may he run!

Speaking of Clinton’s sexuality—long may he run at the mouth—I recently happened to appear on a talk show with Paula Jones, the subject, naturally, being celebrity plastic surgery. Someone in the audience asked Jones, “Do you pick your nose?” and she seemed mildly outraged, saying, “No, I don’t do that. I’m a lady!” When they came back from the commercial, it was explained that the guy actually meant, “Do you choose your nose?” “No, I left it up to my doctor,” responded Jones, more calmly.

By the way, now that two-faced Linda Tripp got a facelift, what about her other one, ba-dum-pum? And while we’re talking shiny purple faces, the most entendre-laden merch—yes, we’re still doing bests—remains the endearingly innuendo-filled Teletubby stuff. I was recently gifted with a Tinky Winky scrubbing device, which consists of the Tinkster wearing what looks like a flowing purple gown (actually the scrub part). The name of this fey trinket? “Bath and shower pouf.” You heard me—pouf!

But back to Clinton’s sexuality—poof!—how dare Hillary defend marriage as an institution so sacred it shouldn’t be extended to gays? Her idea of marriage has her only speaking to the hubby when it comes time to swallow his endless stream of public apologies for whatever trick the dry cleaner just uncovered. And now, are you all a little nauseous? I admit the last half hour was a little wobbly.


Wag This!

Washington— Though none of the president’s men (and this includes you, Madeleine) had, by last week’s end, apparently even entertained the notion of reparations for the survivors of what the Commander in Chief coolly characterized as the “regrettable” but also “inevitable” bombing of the very Kosovar civilian refugees NATO is ostensibly there to protect, some in Democratic political circles nonetheless were fretting about money. Not money to pay for war, mind you, but money to pay Bill and Hillary’s legal bills.

If the first couple’s partisans are to be believed, before last Monday— when Judge Susan Webber Wright slapped Clinton with a contempt citation, ordering him to pay what could amount to $1 million in court expenses for lying under oath in the Paula Jones case— the Clintons already were looking at about $10 million in legal bills for matters ranging from Whitewater to Paula Jones to impeachment. According to the latest report from the Clinton Legal Expense Trust, $4.5 million has been raised, softening those blows. Included in Judge Wright’s citation is the order that Clinton pay “any reasonable expenses” borne by Jones, which covers her legal fees (though not her nose job).

Though undeniably embarrassing to Clinton, it evidently didn’t rise to the level of Wag the Dog action— but, then, a war was already on. And according to informed sources, the president’s legal team is inclined not to launch a characteristic courtroom crusade against the ruling— even though it may thus end up costing more— because, while harsh, it is seen as essentially a hard slap on the wrist. Even so, Anthony Essaye, the Washington lawyer who heads the Clinton Legal Expense Trust, frets for his president. “It just goes on and on and on,” he sighs. “I’m not even sure if the trust will cover these expenses. We only cover the payments we think are in the four corners of the trust—basically the wording is to pay the personal legal fees of the president and first lady, and it’s really a question of how you interpret that.”

The most interesting matter of semantics, however, is likely to revolve around Wright’s language ordering that Clinton pay Jones’s legal expenses stemming from the president’s January 17, 1998, deposition. “What we’re talking about would be costs directly associated with his fib,” says Frank J. Donatelli, a veteran Republican Washington lawyer and lobbyist. “I would assume that would mean any costs in connection with preparing for that deposition. But remember, Jones brought in a different legal team after the deposition. The second batch of lawyers who tried the case could get a lot of that money, but the first batch . . . I don’t think they could get in on this for more than a couple thousand dollars.”

Another longtime Washington attorney— declining to give his name, pleading weariness with “the whole damn mess”— echoes Donatelli’s assessment, saying the first round in this latest of Clinton’s legal travails is likely to be between Jones’s initial attorneys and her subsequent counsel from Donovan Campbell, the Dallas firm. “It would not surprise me if Gilbert Davis and Joseph Cammarata subscribe to a very, dare I say, liberal definition of efforts in preparing for the deposition and try to submit all of their bills from as far back as they possibly can,” the litigator said. But if Donovan Campbell feels its fees are being unduly encroached upon by Jones’s original lawyers and a disagreement becomes contentious, it might be a while before it becomes clear just how much Clinton owes.

Of course, both Clintons still don’t know what the final fare on the brief meter is going to be. Although Independent Inquisitor Kenneth Starr shot his impeachment wad last year, he can keep his office running for another two years, and though he has exhausted the constitutional mechanism for political removal of the president, he can still file criminal charges after Clinton leaves office. Hillary, too, might not be in the clear. While it seems unlikely at this point, Starr associate Hickman Ewing’s recent testimony in the Susan McDougal case that he drafted an indictment against the first lady has caused some in Washington to wonder if Mrs. Clinton has seen her last day in court.

So far, according to Essaye, of the $4.5 million raised— drawing on donations as diverse as $1 from pensioners to $5000 from the likes of Robert De Niro— $588,000 has gone to cover trust expenses, leaving a little under $4 million for the hired guns. Since more than half of expenses cover direct mail for fundraising, the Clinton legal trust would seem to be a remarkable success. But $4 million is a long way from $10 million, and absent the drama of impeachment— which moved tens of thousands of people to contribute— the growth of the fund is by no means assured.

“It used to be said that in cases like this, the client, in the end, wouldn’t have to pay the full tab, because high-profile clients like this give you publicity or bring you acclaim,” says Essaye. “That doesn’t wash so much these days. I belong to a large firm comparable to [presidential lawyer David Kendall’s] Williams & Connolly, and I assure you, there aren’t a lot of free rides anymore. There’s lots of pressure to ensure that financial obligations are met.”

Here, too, Clinton could have a problem, since, having been cited for contempt, he faces possible disbarment, which could imperil his earning potential when he leaves office. (It’s hard to be a law firm’s high-priced rainmaker, like Clinton pal Vernon Jordan, without, well, being a lawyer.) Few, however, doubt Clinton’s moneymaking potential after he leaves office. One scenario has him relying on the tender mercies of Hollywood friends; though after the seaminess of impeachment, it’s unclear whether, say, DreamWorks SKG would want to add a “C” to its moniker. Moneymaking aside, Donatelli says he expects an amicable arrangement eventually will be hammered out between the Clintons and their lawyers.

“I would expect they’ll continue to carry the bill after he leaves office, they’ll get jobs, their lawyers will see what the salaries and signing bonuses are and set about negotiating the final fee,” he says. “The firms would try to capture as much as possible, they’d plead poverty, and they’d all arrive at some understanding. At some point, you run beyond what the client is capable of paying, so you settle for a certain amount on the dollar.”

Which leads to a novel interpretation of Hillary’s flirtations with a New York Senate bid. Donatelli, although he doesn’t believe it to be a motivating factor, points out that if Hillary does run, she might get a better deal on her legal bills. “The fact that she would run for public office would probably lower her ability to pay,” he says, “and I don’t think, under those circumstances, they’d file a lien against her.”

Research: Ginger Adams Otis


Scandalous Beauty

Paula Jones has a new face to go with her new hairdo. Hillary Clinton’s been done over so many times even she doesn’t remember what she looks like. Monica Lewinsky checked into a fat farm. And now betrayer to the stars Linda Tripp has a new face to go with her slimmed-down body. The cost in plastic surgery and colorists alone must be triple the national debt.

What’s up with that? It’s one thing to be labeled trailer trash, whore, moron, liar, thief, tramp, con artist, even traitor. It’s a whole other thing to be called fat, ugly, or dumpy— at least for us women, who’ve been beaten up since birth by magazines which suggest— sometimes subliminally and sometimes right out there— that we are all fat, ugly, and/or dumpy. (Unless, of course, you are fabulous enough to look like you need to be hooked up to an IV and force-fed intravenously.) Sexgate broke down all barriers, though, and even the mainstream press took particular glee in skewering the less-than-model looks of Paula, Hillary, Monica, and Linda. Nobody— not even women— thought this was unusual or unfair.

Meantime, look at some of the men involved in this same sleazy scandal. Big Bill looks like he got his hair cut in prison, Kenneth Starr (a/k/a Torquemada) wears clothes he must have picked out in 1967, and mouthpiece James Carville has a face only married cousins could love. Has the media ever made fun of their looks? No. Men apparently are more important than the sum of their outer parts— no matter how terrifying those parts happen to be.

Take the fall of Al D’Amato. Despite the fact that D’Amato himself should have been indicted by the fashion police for crimes against the state, he crashed and burned partly because he made disparaging remarks about another man’s looks. He called Jerry Nadler “Jerry Waddler,” remember? The press— the same folks who excoriated Paula Jones for her big hair and nose, Hillary for her haircuts and legs, Monica for her beret and butt, and Linda Tripp on all counts— went crazy over the fact that Senator Al was so tactless as to make a joke about a man’s weight. Right. Have you ever seen Jerry Nadler? If the man wants to step on the scale, he goes to a weigh station on the New York State Thruway! But we’re not allowed to say that out loud.

Women don’t get the same pass. Even women busy prosecuting scandals need to look like Baywatch babes. Remember Marcia Clark? She went into the O.J. trial looking like a D.A. and came out a computer-enhanced version of herself. There were daily fashion updates on Marcia’s clothes and hair. Why? Did any reporter ever take the time out to mention that Johnnie Cochran’s ties must have been made from his mother’s couch? Or that O.J.’s Bruno Magli shoes belonged on an orthodontist? Or that Barry Scheck looks like he himself is missing some crucial DNA? No!

I can think of only two high-profile women who are totally oblivious to media taunts about their appearance. The first is Janet Reno. Of course she’d probably coldcock the first reporter who suggested a makeover, so fear is a big factor in the decision not to taunt her.

Then there’s Camilla Parker Bowles. The woman who would be queen is so breathtakingly unaware of how she looks and how the media hates her for it, that the more they beat her up, the less she pretties up, and the happier she seems. This of course is in sharp and ironic contrast to poor, beautiful, dead Diana, love object of the media. Diana, unlike her rival, dieted, dressed, shopped, exercised, threw up, and struggled to be always gorgeous for the press who adored her. And they paid her back in spades— they loved her unflinchingly. In fact, they loved her to death.


The Glitterati Attack Ken Starr

Suddenly, an extraordinary multinational, multicultural manifesto has appeared. It is an urgent demand to do justice. The range of the illuminati who signed recalled the denunciation of the Vietnam War by renowned intellectuals, writers, actors, and filmmakers.

Among the signers of this new call to conscience are Nobel laureates Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Gabriel García Márquez (author of the stunning A Hundred Years of Solitude). Also at the barricades are William Styron, Lauren Bacall, Jacques Derrida, Sophia Loren, Carlos Fuentes, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Pierre Boulez, Vanessa Redgrave, and Bernardo Bertolucci.

You might think they would be calling for an end to the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo or for immediate relief to the hundreds of thousands of black Christians and animists in the south of Sudan, many of whom are subject to slavery from the Muslim government in the north. (A horrifying tragedy that has dropped out of the news.)

No, these stars are engaged in a much more vital crusade. They rise to demand that William Jefferson Clinton be, at long last, rescued from “inquisitorial harassment by a fanatic prosecutor with unlimited power.” They instruct us that “a statesman is answerable to public opinion or to the law only for his public acts.” (Emphasis added.)

As this stirring petition was being circulated, another defender of this persecuted president also attacked the press for contributing to Clinton’s ordeal. As the champagne glasses were being refilled at a Hollywood fundraiser, Barbra Streisand charged that American journalists no longer “respect the boundaries between public and private behavior.”

Let us look at just a few of the president’s public acts that are part of the impeachment inquiry and which will lead, I believe, to actual impeachment. Committing perjury before a federal grand jury, as Clinton is revealed to have done, is not a private act, no matter the private behavior being lied about. And perjury is the most dangerous of all public acts because it can hide all other crimes.

Most repellent is what Bill Clinton has done to Paula Jones. Not, as she alleges, in Little Rock. That hasn’t been proved yet. But Jones went to court to have her case heard. That was her right, as it is yours and mine.

Paula Jones also had the right to due process–fairness. In his deposition in her case, Clinton committed perjury, thereby, as The Washington Post has said in an editorial, corrupting the evidence in her suit and subverting Paula Jones’s right to a fair hearing.

It doesn’t matter that his lie, in that deposition, was about his sexual acts with Monica Lewinsky. As the chief law enforcement officer of the United States, Clinton placed himself above the law to save himself. By doing that, he obstructed justice.

There are other counts of perjury and obstruction of justice against Clinton. Clinton is a serial violator of other peoples’ constitutional rights.

Also, this leader of the free world lied to his cabinet and to his faithful retainers in the White House, and then deliberately sent them forth to lie publicly to the rest of us.

The international illuminati now coming to Clinton’s rescue insist that all of the president’s desperate deceptions of his beloved American people are due to the “inquisitorial harassment” of Inspector Javert, a/k/a Kenneth Starr. The independent prosecutor presumably forced the president to go against his better nature.

Ronald Rotunda, a constitutional law professor at the University of Illinois, makes plain this part of the case against Clinton: “If the president can perjure himself with no consequences, is there really a basis then for saying he is covered by any law?” (Censure won’t do and, in any case, is an unconstitutional bill of attainder because there hasn’t been a trial. Resignation will do fine.)

By the way, the literary figures who are marshaling support for this president ignore the fact that he tried fiercely to get the Supreme Court to uphold the Communications Decency Act, which would have removed from the Internet anything “indecent” and therefore not fit for children. This is not grounds for impeachment, but it further illuminates what Jesse Jackson said to me before he became Clinton’s spiritual adviser. “He is a hollow man,” Jackson told me. “He has no principles he’ll fight for if they’ll cost him popularity.”

At about the same time the international luminaries issued their pro-Clinton manifesto, The New Yorker assembled a herd of literary minds to defend the president. Among them was Toni Morrison, who charges that “the president is being stolen from us.” The “bootsteps of the Independent Counsel,” she adds, have trampled on his privacy. Jackboots?

As for privacy, this is the president who tried mightily to get Congress to give the FBI the power to use “roving wiretaps”–in other words, to listen in on any phone a targeted person might use. And no warrant would have been required. That is a direct subversion of the Fourth Amendment. “Roving wiretaps,” by the way, can be used in bedrooms.

Also in The New Yorker, Jane Smiley tells us that what-
ever happened in the Oval Office showed “at the very least” the president’s “desire to make a connection with another person . . . this desire to connect is something I trust.”

Does she also trust the way this president treats the long line of women he has used and discarded, like so much soiled underwear? That’s not an impeachable offense, but under equal protection of the laws, as mandated by the Fourteenth Amendment, maybe it should be.

I do concede that Clinton’s chutzpah knows no bounds. When he appeared recently at New York University Law School, Clinton said–as reported in the September 23 New York Post–that it is his Republican enemies who are threatening the Constitution by their relentless pursuit of him.

This is the president who has eviscerated the right to habeas corpus, thereby increasing the possibility that innocent men and women will be executed because–with few exceptions–they now have only one year to persuade a federal court to review their conviction or sentences. Since 1973, nearly 70 men have been released from death row after six or more years because they have finally been proved innocent.

Ken Starr didn’t do that. Clinton is not fit to be president, and his felonies–perjury along with obstruction of justice–will lead to his impeachment.


Seined, Sealed, Delivered

Did Vanity Fair freelancer Lynn Hirschberg, author of this month’s cover profile of Jerry Seinfeld, provide an advance copy to the comedian, in violation of the monthly’s policy? That is the conclusion reached by an internal Vanity Fair investigation into how Seinfeld ended up making changes on his own, already favorable profile.

But Hirschberg flatly denies that she leaked the piece: “I did not give the article to Jerry Seinfeld,” she told the Voice on Monday. She said she had a theory as to how Seinfeld acquired an advance copy, but declined to say what it was.

Whatever her theory, the editors at Vanity Fair are not buying it. They say they no longer intend to use Hirschberg’s work.

“It’s a fucking pain,” Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter told the Voice on Monday. “You set up things so that this can’t happen, and all you can do if it comes from the reporter is not to use that reporter in the future.”

This might be considered–given the subject–a controversy about nothing. Moreover, in classic Seinfeldian fashion, the entire brouhaha erupted over a tiny but significant detail: desired changes to a single sentence in a piece that is over 6000 words long.

The Seingate scandal, however, created headaches for Vanity Fair staffers for two weeks, as bits of it dripped out onto the New York Post‘s Page Six. “It took three days of doing nothing else but getting to the bottom of this,” Carter says. The spat appears to have been a catalyst for Seinfeld firing his longtime publicist Lori Jonas, right in the middle of the program’s largest publicity blitz. It also masks a serious ethical question: how far is celebrity-profile journalism willing to go in exchange for access to the entertainment industry’s most glittering sources?

According to VF staffers, the magazine first became aware something was amiss during a phone call Hirschberg made to senior editor Ned Zeman, saying that she wanted to make changes in her story, following a conversation with Seinfeld.

This phone call took place late in the editorial process: the piece had already been edited and set into “mechanicals,” which reproduce the story in the way it will be laid out when published. Changes at this stage are costly, and must preserve the exact number of lines in the story. Zeman took note of a fact-checking change, apparently about the number of cars Seinfeld owns. They also changed the wording of a Seinfeld joke about the ubiquity of bloody T-shirts in detergent ads. Zeman balked, however, at Hirschberg’s request to soften a phrase in a paragraph about what has happened to the Seinfeld series since co-creator Larry David departed.

The paragraph began as follows: “For the last two seasons, much has been made of [former producer Larry] David’s absence from Seinfeld. ‘I know the critics say the show is not as good,’ says Seinfeld, showing a rare sign of vulnerability.” The portion that Hirschberg says she wanted to alter was a sentence saying that after David’s departure, “a certain broadness set in” to the characters and plot. She wanted it to say instead that “the characters shifted” after David left.

Zeman told Hirschberg he was unwilling to change this material, and found the conversation “a little suspect,” in the words of a VF staffer. (Hirschberg, for her part, says that she only suggested the change, and did not fight when Zeman declined.) Zeman then consulted the story’s fact checker, James Buss, and asked him to double-check the car statistic. During that confirmation, Zeman’s suspicion that Seinfeld had seen the story deepened. He notified the managing editor, Chris Garrett (Carter was in Los Angeles).

Garrett in turn told features editor Jane Sarkin, who called Seinfeld’s publicist, Lori Jonas, and confronted her with Zeman’s suspicions that she had an unauthorized advance copy of the story. Jonas confirmed that she had it, and said it had come from Hirschberg. Jonas provided VF with a copy of an envelope that had Hirschberg’s name on it, implying that the story had been enclosed. Jonas also faxed a copy of the story that included a routing slip indicating that it had come from Zeman’s office, and he claims the only copy he gave out was to Hirschberg. (Shortly after that, Seinfeld dumped Jonas as a publicist.)

Even against this assembled paper trail, Hirschberg continues to deny that she gave the piece to Seinfeld, Jonas, or anyone else. According to Hirschberg, Jonas ended up with the envelope only because Hirschberg had spent part of Oscar night with Seinfeld, and left him tickets to various parties in that envelope.

“It’s very unfortunate that he got a copy, and he should not have gotten a copy,” insists Hirschberg. “But it did not come from me.” She notes that the leak ultimately had no journalistic consequences, since nothing of importance was actually changed.

In a way, that’s what is at stake here: the appearance of following rules in a magazine culture so obsessed with celebrity that rules can seem irrelevant. In practice, entertainment celebrities and their high-octane publicity squads control much of what we read in glossy outlets like VF. They can, for example, reject writers whose work they feel is too critical, declare certain subject matters to be off-limits, and negotiate for photo and cover placement.

Still, allowing a subject to retract material that has already been written and edited is considered beyond the pale–even at VF. As Columbia journalism professor James William Carey puts it, “Once you concede authority over the text, you end up in endless argument, and it becomes unclear who is the writer. We might as well let the source write the piece and save ourselves the work and the public the deception.”

VF‘s publicist, Beth Kseniak, called the episode “a very serious breach of the editorial process.” And Carter says that nothing like this has ever happened at Vanity Fair in the five-and-a-half years he’s been editor.

The magazine did explore the possibility that a staffer at VF could have surreptitiously snuck a copy of the profile to either Seinfeld and/or his erstwhile publicist. Last week, the magazine’s management convened a meeting with everyone who worked on the story to see whether or not there had been a leak. Management concluded that while VF cannot prove Hirschberg responsible, access to the piece was so limited that she is the only plausible suspect.

One significant person who might be able to clear up this explosive disagreement is Seinfeld himself. Elizabeth Clark of Castle Rock Entertainment, who’s currently handling Seinfeld’s publicity, said: “He’s stepping back from this, and not commenting. I don’t even know what happened.”

Jones’s Landmark Decision

Paula Jones–as of this writing–is still unannounced about whether or not she will appeal the decision to toss out her sexual harassment suit against Bill Clinton. But a number of journalists have been posing a question about a decision she made four years ago.

Supposedly, Jones’s outrage began when she read David Brock’s original Troopergate story in The American Spectator in December 1993. It quoted a trooper’s recollection of bringing a woman identified only as “Paula” to a room in the Excelsior Hotel where governor Clinton was. Upon exiting, according to the trooper, “Paula” said that she was willing to become the governor’s “regular girlfriend.”

If Jones was offended by the implication that she’d had consensual sex with Clinton, why did she pursue the very risky strategy of suing the president? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to sue the Spectator–or at least to force it to run a retraction?

Brock himself addressed–but did not answer–the question in his renowned April Esquire mea culpa. “That she sued you,” Brock wrote in a parenthetical addressed to the president, “rather than me may have been an early clue to her motives.”

The question arose again in the April 12 front-page Washington Post profile of Jones. The Post quoted an unidentified friend of Jones’s who said: “She just wanted a retraction at first….There was no talk about suing. In her mind, she thought [attorney Danny] Traylor would just call The American Spectator and say, ‘Hey, you have to take this back. It didn’t happen. She said no to Bill Clinton.’ Traylor never got the retraction.”

There’s a reason he never got a retraction from the Spectator. According to two knowledgeable sources, neither Traylor nor anyone working on Jones’s behalf ever contacted the Spectator about correcting their original story.

Why would that be? Well, if you believe a recent Salon story by Murray Waas, it’s because attorneys for the conservative Landmark Legal Foundation “advised Jones and Traylor not to sue the American Spectator.” Landmark, as reported here last week, has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the anti-Clinton billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, who also happens to have generously funded the Spectator. An important Spectator source confirmed to the Voice that “at the time, I was told she was persuaded not to go after the Spectator by the Landmark lawyers, that there was a feeling like we were all on the same side.”

Landmark president Mark Levin did not return calls seeking comment.

Research: Kaelen Wilson-Goldie


Hands-On Prez

It’s the oldest story ever told: Poor innocent Adam lost his rib, his heart, and literally the whole world to a no-good apple tart who was rotten to the core. And upstanding world leaders (like Bill on the Hill) have been helpless before (pick one) tarts, sluts, tramps, Lolitas, femmes fatale, seductresses, and whores, ever since.

As the media is quick to point out, it’s not only the seductresses who cause the trouble. It’s usually also the wives. If only these brave and brilliant men had married women who were (pick two) better, thinner, nicer, sexier, lesbians or not lesbians, then these poor men wouldn’t have had to (pick three) stray, screw around, cheat, have oral sex in the congressional office/Oval Office, have sex on the Capitol steps. Hey–it’s lonely at the top. And crowded under the desk.

Take these genuine American heroes who got into trouble for no good reason: Bill sent Flowers, Gary lost his Hart to a dish of Rice, Wayne made Hay with his Ray, Bill (again) had his Jones exposed, Wilbur landed flat on his Fanny, Charles got Robbed and Tai’d up, Teddy took a dive for Mary Jo, and now poor Bill (again) is being unfairly accused of intern-al affairs. It’s a damn shame, I tell you.

To help President Bill, last week journalists reasoned that Hillary must be happy her hubby is in trouble because she needs the work, and anyway, Monica Lewinsky is no innocent because she grew up in 90210-land, and if you watch the show you know that kids in that area code are very early wise in the ways of sex. Besides, girls get their periods earlier nowadays–meaning (I think) that girls, like dogs, must begin having sex within seconds of that momentous occasion. No-good rotten roundheels.

Luckily for our great country, most of these helpless national leaders have had wives at least smart enough to recognize their own shortcomings at the wifely arts. We know this because most of these wives have stood firmly behind their men. Even Kathy Bleiler (Mrs. Andy Bleiler, to you) stood by her man when the drama teacher came forward (at a press conference, yet!) to tell the world of his affair with ”Los Angeles Lolita” Lewinsky. And the fate of the nation wasn’t even at stake. Is that a great woman or what?

Not, however, as great as Hillary Clinton is for standing by her man–on more than two occasions–when he has been unfairly accused of screwing around. The first lady does have a few problems, however. First, she doesn’t look like her dead mother-in-law, Virginia. Every other seductress who’s ever won Bill’s heart and, er, mind, is nearly a photocopy of Virginia, with long, dark hair (Gennifer Flowers was a brunette when she and Bill met), curves, and clingy clothes.

According to Dick Morris, Hillary probably doesn’t appreciate sex with a handsome dude like Bill. Of course, this handsomeness may be short-lived. Alarmingly, his nose seems to be growing larger every day. Now, now, don’t start with that. I’m here to report that his nose has not grown to this frightening size because he’s lying. His name is Bill Clinton, not Billnocchio.We knew he wasn’t a liar when we elected him. He said he didn’t inhale, and he said he didn’t sleep with Gennifer Flowers (who was at that time merely naked in Penthouse).

So let’s all pray together, now, that the horrid lies made up by the newest harlots Monica Lewinsky and Paula Jones are also proved false. And even if the tramps are telling the truth, who cares? After all, it’s only the obstruction of justice issue that’s a problem legally. William Jefferson Clinton is too upstanding a lawyer to have suggested to his pal Vernon Jordan that he advise Monica to lie. No lawyer in his right mind would ask someone to do something worse–commit perjury–than the original charge (shtupping). As of now, lying under oath is illegal and shtupping is not.

But hey–no matter how it shakes out, Hillary can’t throw the bum out. That particular move requires an act of Congress.


Gigglegate and Gomorrah

When all this was just about Paula Jones, I was already worried that it was a very bad idea to allow a sitting president to be sued privately. As a matter of cost-benefit analysis, there is simply too much at stake to allow private civil disputes to derail the entire executive branch and our commander in chief. Once a president is actually elected, the magnitude of palace politics allows for too many opportunities to use such litigation for subversive political ends. For what it’s worth at this point, I think we ought to have extended the statute of limitations and settled upon some form of plaintiff compensation for the unusual measure of Jones’s having to wait until the end of Clinton’s second term.

One of the great dilemmas posed by such suits is embodied in the current crisis. A defendant–or any party in private litigation–is constrained by the rules of evidence, and the proceedings are presumably monitored by a judge and lawyers so as to maintain an orderly unfolding of fact winnowed from wild rumor, of reason winnowed from inflammatory allegation. The political sphere, on the other hand, is nothing if not filled with intrigue and hyperbole, backroom deals and public relations. This contrast between the constraint of the courtroom and the noisy brawl of soapbox politics is precisely the catch-22 in which President Clinton is now caught.

Does he follow the advice of lawyers and keep his mouth shut in deference to the presumed orderliness and due process of a grand jury investigation? Or does he defer to the demands of his office, the exigencies of the political, which yammer for him to make a full accounting to his constituents as loudly and quickly as possible?

The tension between these two simultaneously imposed procedural offerings is ultimately paralyzing. And with no clarity about procedural standards, the biggest propaganda machine will surely win; the loudest mouth, even if it’s Rush Limbaugh’s, will easily enjoy the last laugh.

Ironically, this dilemma was precisely the one imposed upon Lani Guinier when she went through the rabid maligning and misrepre-sentation of her scholarship that was so carefully orchestrated by the same right-wing think tanks that have kept Ken Starr so busy with imagined graft for these many years. Rather than by the ethical constraint of trial practice, however, Guinier was silenced by a White House protocol that did not allow her to speak; she was caught between the perceived political need for damage-controlling presidential aloofness from what watchers of tabloid television believed her to stand for, and the straightforward–published, even–truth of what she stood for.

Similarly, Anita Hill, in her most recent book, Speaking Truth to Power, describes how she was hamstrung by such a procedural split: she was supposedly a character witness in a judicial appointment process, and as such there were plenty of procedural options by which the Senate could have allowed her testimony to proceed without it becoming a spectacle of voyeuristic excess, a media circus par excellence. Instead, she found herself caught up in a mock ”trial” in which all of the rules of evidence were, indeed, nothing less than mocked.

The jumbling of process achieved by pitting one set of standards against another is the core of what I find most troubling about this current made-for-TV spectacle. The resulting unregulated hoopla obscures the degree to which, as of this writing, there is no case against the president. This is not Watergate, where there was a confirmed burglary, confirmed illegal bugging, and confirmed Republican involvement in plans to bring down the Democratic Party by a confirmed web of planted lies.

Nor is this a ”he said, she said” situation. President Clinton has denied that there was an affair; so has Monica Lewinsky, under oath.

Of course, there is this other, more tantalizing swirl of rumor to contend with: a cottage industry has arisen from just listing all the words Clinton didn’t use in denying the affair. You could fill a dictionary with ’em! And rumor has it that, after nearly a 10-hour interrogation with no lawyer, Lewinsky has changed her story. Rumor also has it that she lives with her mother, coincidentally enough, in the Watergate apartment complex. Rumor also has it that her mother concocted a story about having had an affair with Placido Domingo, which Domingo denied. ”Selectively leaked” tapes seem to indicate that Lewinsky ”confessed”–the press keeps using that word–all sorts of juicy tidbits to a White House staffer hired during the Bush administration, Linda Tripp. (It is apparently fact, not rumor, that Tripp’s now famous literary agent, Lucianne Goldberg, began her career as a paid operative in Richard Nixon’s campaign of dirty tricks: Goldberg went to work for George McGovern for the sole purpose of subverting his candidacy. Tripp was one of the last people to see Vincent Foster alive. And I’m sure it was nothing more than a big goofy accident that Tripp was the one who told the press all about how another young woman, Kathleen Willey, emerged from the president’s office looking rumpled and ”suspiciously” happy.)

A good many of the rumors now fogging the national atmosphere seem to have emanated from Ken Starr’s office, which is also quite peculiar. It is peculiar because this is supposedly an investigation for a putative grand jury proceeding, ordinarily covered by a blanket of silence. Ordinarily someone would be held in contempt for such an inflammatory and unsubstantiated revelation–but what to do when it seems that Starr’s chamber is the contemptuous source itself? What to do when the ”independent” counsel seems to be a hired gun of the far right wing, a provocateur of the first order? What to do when the fox is guarding the henhouse of truth?

That this is palace politics must be clear to every halfway thoughtful person. It’s not quite the alien baby the Clintons were supposed to have adopted, but because the allegations involve near terrestrials, there’s even a chance that they could be true. Besides, this is so much sexier than your average alien plot. While some people have described the national response as puritanical, I think it’s more like a Victorian boarding school spanking fantasy. Young master Billy has been accused of improper dalliances, so we are going to flay his nether parts mercilessly while assuring him that it hurts us ever so much more than it hurts him.

But, seriously, what if it were true? Sexual scandal, no less than sexual harassment, is troubling because it is private, embarrassing, humiliating, demeaning. It ought to be handled with dignity and some sheltering of those involved. There is no dignity in any of this. And whether in going after Anita Hill or promoting Paula Jones or in slicing Monica Lewinsky into a thousand little pieces, the thing that this nation still seems not to have ”gotten” is the need for dignified resolution. But of course real remediation is only relevant if you truly believe that this is not a vendetta against the Clintons–if you really believe that Ken Starr is not at all concerned with his friend Clarence Thomas’s vindication, the recoupment of Richard Nixon’s reputation, the fulfillment of Ronald Reagan’s dreamiest dreams, and the sinister humor of the Terminator’s ”gotcha”-style endings.

But what is happening to the entire executive branch is distressing, far beyond the stew of fact versus nonfact: doubt, cast like a rain of stones, is endangering not just domestic stability but the value of our currency, the making of war and peace, the standing of our country in the community of nations. Yet with all that at stake, the level of vehement, unsubstantiated mudslinging, and the rollicking abandonment of any presumption of innocence or office are unprecedented, as though the Super Bowl were mere warm-up for the State of the Union. Pass the chips, put the brewskies on ice. A wild barrage of unproven allegations has hardened into a ”pattern” of quasifact. The stage is set for ”payback,” as Rush Limbaugh keeps characterizing the matter; nags and feminazis, up yours, he chortles with a vengeance which he seems to think is being exacted in the name of Vietnam, political incorrectness, oppressed conservatives, cigar smokers, beef eaters, and the global economy.

We Americans have always liked to think of ourselves as a fair people. But I think in recent years we have given ourselves over to a sensationalizing habit of thought–an orgy of voyeurism that is related to the kind of thinking that makes difficult the lives of those who must go through the world as any kind of stereotype–whether ”beautiful blond” women, ”ugly feminists,” ”young black males,” gays, the disabled, or ”straight white men” for that matter. This is not just about national moods or creeping ”cynicism”; it is also an abandonment of considered procedures for debate in favor of the worst kinds of immorality plays. It is media-assisted political pornography–the same pornography that cost this nation the open input of one of our most intelligent female voices and the potential for a new and expansive image of the First Lady’s role. Instead, the horrific typecasting of Hillary Rodham Clinton, at the beginning of this administration, effectively drove her out of any meaningful public life other than photo ops with needy children.

The whoo-dingy, bread-and-circus nature of this should give us pause; the appalling seriousness of what is at stake in this crisis deserves some quiet digestion, some waiting rather than imagining, on the part of us the citizenry. The last thing that gave the media such a will to live was the O.J. Simpson verdict, which, serendipitously enough, threatened to preempt the last State of the Union message. The New York Times even ran a piece about how the scandal has given the press ”a renewed sense of purpose.”

But why this and not the visits of Netanyahu and Arafat? Why this and not the arrest of ”the Serbian Adolf”? Why this and not the story on U.S. visa policies based on ethnicity and looks? Why this and not the unpacking, indeed the slow draining, of the courts? Why do we allow visiting heads of state to be crushed to the side while enquiring minds press to know more about what I have come to think of, ever since Anita Hill, as The Exorcist factor?

It is too easy to dismiss what is going on as just the media trying to sell a product. It is a disgrace and an embarrassment that Matt Drudge and Howard Stern have become the new role models of the free world’s free press. Yes, they should have their say, but there can be no better moment to appeal–repeatedly–to the political function of real and reliable information from a viable free press in a democracy that hopes to continue functioning as such.