The Book Club

Lies, Damned Lies, and … Polls

Dear Brent:

I’m not prepared to fold my hand, of course. It is–or should be, I think–irrelevant to our argument, but no, I don’t believe you on the statistics of alley-cattery by Homo Americanus. No serious social science on the subject has numbers near as high as yours. It proves nothing that 68 percent of us know someone else who’s snuck around on his wife. Nearly everyone knows someone else who’s really good looking or sings like an angel. Still, darn the luck, the vast majority of us stay hum-drum plain and tone-deaf.

But, shucks, you and I have been goading each other into an almost-personal nastiness I would really rather avoid. So how’s ‘bout I unilaterally de-escalate by (optimistically) apologizing for misunderstanding the Mind of Brent?

All week long, I’ve thought that you thought that “Billy” was just being his “bad self” with Monica, upholding America’s “established tradition” of adultery. I thought that you thought that the country has morally destigmatized “lust” outside of marriage, “on the whole.” And I thought that you thought that support for impeachment could only be motivated by a “Holy War” or “Jihad” against such “healthy, loving sex”–that people like Bill Bennett (and, by extension, me) intended ultimately to “arrest” the fornicating “heathens,” “cast them into a fiery furnace,” or have them “stoned to death.” I even thought you used all these words yourself.

Now you tell me, though, that you find the Clinton-Lewinsky relationship “troubling,” “sad,” and “abhorrent.” So we are agreed, after all–for what it’s worth. And we are agreed, too, that it shouldn’t be worth much, at least in isolation. Neither of us would invoke Article II, Section 4 against a chief executive merely for using his office help like a blow-up doll. (I can’t believe I wrote that sentence.) And neither of us, finally, wants the media or justice system to scrutinize our politicians’ sex lives per se.

There remains between us, to be sure, the question of Clinton’s lie. I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to get you to tell me why criminal dishonesty by the president–sustained for most of a year in the judicial branch by his executive officers and agencies–is ever anything less than an atrocity against the Constitution. Why, why, why? (Sorry: Couldn’t resist.) If today were yesterday, I’d say it was ‘cause you thought consensual sex must always win out–that pursuit of the almighty blow job is a higher value than the rule of law.

But that would be a rough accusation, and I’m groping here for common ground, and today is not yesterday. Today you seem not so much to be making normative judgments in your own voice, but instead simply to be offering analytical observations about the man on the street–in Sodom and Gomorrah and other precincts outside my Heavenly beltway. So I’ll throw you a bone: Yeah, lots of folks do seem to be empathetically identifying with the president, imagining themselves in his shoes and squirming about it.

Do I think their fears are legitimate, you ask? Sorry, can’t go that far; I’ve already said I think those fears are stupid. Why do I think such fears exist? Part of the reason, I figure, is that so many otherwise intelligent people wearing suits and ties have spent eight months warning that if Bill Clinton falls, the family bedroom will be breached. If this superstition persists, would I whack America over the head with Bennett’s The Death of Outrage? No, but I might welcome a widespread readership for the book. (It’s Number One on your paper’s bestseller list this week, by the way.)

Here’s one for you. Seriously, now. Do you think it’s legitimate for Joe Sixpack to suspect that American sexuality, writ large, is on trial in the Clinton scandal? Put another way: By what conceivable process, exactly, on the day Al Gore becomes president, will the bishop of Munster enter the city, torture the licentious Anabaptists to death with hot pokers, and hang their bodies in iron cages from the highest steeple?

Affectionately yours,

Dave (“Dave?”)