It’s hard to be a novelist in the age of soap opera. The slow accretion of 500 well-wrought words a day seems pointless beside the dizzying and breathless plotlines served up by the evening news. The semen-stained dress! The tape-recorded confessions! But with a few years’ perspective, all the national soaps will blend into one: the brothers Menendez, O.J. Simpson, Monica Lewinsky. They burn brightly for a while, then disappear into yellowing stacks of old paper.
Yet the ever-changing news still manages to pre-empt the other stories we might tell and to hound the subtler tales off the screen. And we are the losers. We tell each other stories to get human truths. But there is no truth in the sound and fury of the national soap opera, only, at best, benchmarks to track our changing mores. Just a few years ago the mere hint of monkey business was enough to bring a presidential candidate down. (Remember Gary Hart in 1990?) Now the evening talk shows are full of jokes about White House knee pads, but will anything come of it?
I think we are witnessing the delayed effect of all those revelations about FDR, LBJ and JFK that have filled our cultural discourse for the last several years. We learned belatedly that our heroes had feet of clay. Now we learn about their feet of clay while they’re stepping in it. That’s the only difference.
Will we get bored with sex? Has the soap opera mentality so permeated politics that we are unsurprised by salacious revelations? By now we know that presidents are flawed and interns will be ambitious. Are we ready to go back to a pagan view of the gods in which they share our human failings and we just laugh, seeing ourselves in them?
Bill Clinton fits nicely into the Zeus archetype of King of the Gods. We expect a larger-than-life appetite from this larger-than-life leader. Why should he be bound by bourgeois constraints? Have we forgotten that the President is the alpha male of the tribe and that maybe, like chimps and gibbons, he’s entitled to the youngest and the most nubile females? Nature teaches us that what the alpha male wants the alpha male gets. Anyone who has ever watched women falling all over each other to date fat middle-aged moguls should have no doubt about the desirability of the president’s penis. It was Evelyn Lincoln, JFK’s secretary, who reported him having to beat the women off with sticks. Sexual harassment indeed!
Hilary is no more surprised by Bill’s revelation than the wife of an alcoholic is when he drinks again. She may be disappointed, but she’s not shocked. Monica is one of many. A recent political cartoon showed elephants, zebras and antelopes looking at Bill and Hillary and saying: “They have strange mating habits.” But their mating habits are
all too predictable. “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac,” said Henry Kissinger. And he wasn’t even as cute as Bill.
Since we already know the worst about Bill Clinton, the verdict of history can only ennoble him. Already it seems he is being redeemed. “Surely a king who loves pleasure is less dangerous than one who loves glory,” Nancy Mitford once said. This seems to sum up Bill Clinton’s essential benignity. Worse than fucking individual women is fucking the
I happened to be in France right before the Paula Jones case was dismissed. The French believe that the president’s penis is entitled to privacy, as my French friend expressed in her opinion of the whole situation: “Of course the President cannot tell the truth about all these women. A gentlemen never tells the truth about ladies. It would be rude.”
Perhaps this is the approach Bill should have taken last Monday: “I am a gentleman,” he might have said, “and a gentleman must always be discreet. To set an example for the nation, let me say I never touched that woman, or that woman, or that woman, or even that woman for that matter. . .”
This story first appeared on NERVE in 1998.