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The Puritans' Comic Opera Is Grotesque

When allegations of sexual misbehavior lead to talk of impeachment, the anti-Clinton campaign turns scary.

January 23, 1998|ALEXANDER COCKBURN | Alexander Cockburn writes for the Nation and other publications

Has there ever been such a grotesque spectacle as the commotion over Monica Lewinsky, which, the TV anchormen portentously inform us, may force Bill Clinton from the White House? In its superficial guise the scandal offers unusually ripe examples of hypocrisy and moral posturing. At a deeper level, the conduct of independent counsel Kenneth Starr is profoundly sinister, a travesty of his supposed function and an outrageous assault on civil liberties.

The American people did not elect Bill Clinton to be a good husband. Probably half the folks who pulled the lever for him in 1992 reckoned Gennifer Flowers might have been telling the truth. In 1996 many of the people who chose him over Bob Dole no doubt thought there might be some merit in Paula Jones' charges.

But now, at the notion that Clinton might have had a fling with Lewinsky, prominent citizens have become unhinged, saying that if it was true and he covered it up, he was finished. Lewinsky's attorney snarls that if the president had been intimate with his client, he was "a misogynist," unfit to dwell in 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

What's going on here? Lewinsky is not a 16-year-old. She's an adult. If Bill Clinton had an affair with her, it may have been bad judgment and a poor show but it scarcely comes under the heading of misogyny.

What we're seeing here is one of the most disgusting of all spectacles: Puritans wringing their hands while clambering on one another's shoulders to peep in the bedroom window.

Some people pretend to be outraged, not so much at the possibility that Clinton and Lewinsky might have been intimate, but that he "lied" about it. They talk heavily about "perjury under oath" and "obstruction of justice." What "justice" is involved here, beyond Starr hauling water for Paula Jones' lawyers? Have we reached this level of malign absurdity that someone being discreet about an affair has to plead the 5th Amendment to get out of a perjury rap?

This brings us to Starr, a man who has spent more than $30 million on erratic and fruitless investigations across three years, including a prolonged dip into the speculations of right-wing nuts that Vince Foster was murdered. Starr gets wind of the possibility of a relationship between the president and a White House gofer, and the next thing we know, he's telling the FBI to tape a microphone to Linda Tripp's thigh so she can go and elicit confidences from Lewinsky, hoping to nail Vernon Jordan and then getting Jordan to nail Clinton.

Now we have the horrible spectacle of Starr and his legal team alternately tempting Lewinsky with immunity or threatening to throw her into a prison cell next to Susan McDougal unless she tells all. What next? DNA tests?

All this from a man originally mandated to probe bygone real estate transactions in Arkansas now marching us down the road toward a Puritan police state in an attempt to distract us from his miserable failures.

We aren't living in the 17th century. We are at the end of the 20th century, when 23-year-old women can have sex without being burned at the stake or threatened with prison, and when married presidents can have affairs--as most of them have--without facing impeachment.

Impeachment? The word is being tossed about as though Clinton had been criminally negligent in supervising the affairs of the nation. Remember those members of the House committee back in Watergate time who debated the articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon? They were looking at real crimes, real conspiracies to pervert justice, and still they agonized and hesitated. So now we're discussing impeachment of Bill Clinton for denying that he had any sexual dealings with a White House staffer, and maybe suggesting to Lewinsky she might keep quiet about it, maybe fixing her up with a new job? Get real.

Here's Fidel Castro in a historic encounter with the pope, and every anchorman in Cuba is cross-cutting to Washington and photos of Monica Lewinsky. Here's Benjamin Netanyahu, fresh from a meeting with Jerry Falwell (a big vendor of the Vince Foster fantasies) heading into his important meeting with Bill Clinton with a light heart, knowing that the heat is off Israel because the president of the United States might have dallied with a subordinate. Here's a comic opera staged by the Inquisition.

What a pitiful spectacle for this nation!

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