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Commentary | PERSPECTIVE ON THE CLINTON SCANDAL

Private Matters, Public Business

Sparks from crossed wires--suspect dealings in Arkansas and a penchant for women-- light a bonfire.

January 28, 1998|CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS | Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the Nation

Montesquieu remarked that if a great city or a great state should fall as the result of an apparent "accident," then there would be a general reason why it required only an accident to make them fall. This may appear to be a tautology, but it actually holds up very well as a means of analyzing what we lazily refer to as a "sex scandal."

If a rust-free zipper were enough on its own to cripple a politician, then quite clearly Bill Clinton would be remembered, if at all, as a mediocre governor of the great state of Arkansas. It is therefore silly to describe the present unseemly furor as a prurient outburst over one man's apparently self-destructive sexual compulsions.

Until recently, this same man was fairly successfully fighting a delaying action against two long-standing complaints. The first was that he had imported unsavory Arkansas business practices to Washington, along with some of the practitioners like the disgraced Webster Hubbell. The second was that he viewed stray women as spoils along the trail.

Think of these two strands as wires, neither of them especially "live." (Everybody knew something about both, and few people believed there was no substance to either story, but a fairly general benefit of doubt was still being awarded.) Now the two wires have crossed and touched. Vernon Jordan's fellow board members at Revlon gave a suspiciously large contract to Hubbell at just the moment when his usefulness as anybody's attorney had come to an end. The same Revlon well was revisited by the busy Jordan when it came time to furnish Monica Lewinsky with a soft landing. So does this represent a Clinton machine modus operandi when it comes to potentially embarrassing witnesses? Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr would be failing in his task if he did not put the question but, more to the point, so would we. This was all waiting to happen.

That diagnosis also meets the general criterion for any supposed "sex scandal." Very few of these, upon examination, turn out to have been purely or even mainly sexual. John Profumo, the celebrated British defense minister, had a torrid romance with a call girl named Christine Keeler. The British press and public would have been as broad-minded, or as bored, as they had been about the mistresses and hookers of many of their prime ministers and monarchs, were it not for the following facts: Profumo lied to his Cabinet colleagues and then to Parliament about the affair. And Keeler was enjoying a simultaneous romance with a Soviet intelligence officer named Ivanov. After that, it would have been casuistry at best to point out that Profumo was not legally under oath when he told the lies.

Or consider Dick Morris, Clinton's other best friend. The tarts from the "escort service" we could have--with a slight shudder--overlooked. But Morris' carryings-on in the Jefferson Hotel were an allegory of the way business was being conducted at the Democratic National Committee and even in the franchising of the Lincoln Bedroom. His exorbitant political bills necessitated the debauching, not just of himself, but of a presidential election. So the dirty little story served to illuminate the dirty big one.

People love to show how adult they are on these occasions. In France, we are incessantly told, presidents have mistresses and even unofficial children and nobody minds. But if Francois Mitterrand's mistress had been added to his overpaid staff, the French would have minded, because they know there is such a thing as corruption. The Greeks never cared about the private peccadilloes of their politicians until Andreas Papandreou's mistress got above herself and started acting as if she'd been elected.

Had Clinton begun by saying: "Yes, I did love Gennifer, but that's my business," many of us would have rejoiced and defended him. Instead, he disowned and insulted her and said he'd been innocent of at least that adultery, and treated the voters as if they were saps. Having apparently put Lewinsky into the quick-fix world of Jordan and Morris, he is in no position to claim that it's a private emotional matter, and has no right to confuse his business with that of the country's. Which is why he has a scandal on his hands and why we need feel no pang when he falsely claims that the press and public are wasting his valuable time, when the truth is exactly the other way about.

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