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
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. . . ”