“Isn’t he a little old to have a girlfriend?” That was the perplexed comment that greeted my first halting efforts to explain the Clinton scandal to my children, ages 6 and 9. I promptly began quoting the profundity to my friends and reflecting indignantly, along with the rest of America, on what a poor role model the overgrown youth in the White House is for our youth. As the days have passed, though, I’ve had an unnerving revelation: The evasive man in the White House is a great role model for us parents.
Parents are under siege. With children who are literate but not large, and omnipresent X-rated news, mothers and fathers have been in for a lot of lip-biting, brow-furrowing, and earnest throat-clearing. Willy-nilly, we all turn into Slick Willies. At least I did. Herewith the unsubpoenaed diary of an artful dodger.
1 Weak-Kneed Denial: For the first two days after the scandal breaks, I snatch up the newspaper hurriedly at breakfast. When the older child makes a grab for it, I say, a nervous twitch in my jaw and a certain tightness in my voice, “There is no interesting news.” I go to work worrying what the kids will hear in school, whether I’ve been too evasive, how much more I’m going to have to say.
2 Weaseling Out of It: The question comes over the weekend. I emphasize the lying part, and search for the formulation that will permit me to avoid anything that directly links the president to sex (a concept I am not even sure my audience is able to define). Hence my choice of the term “a girlfriend.” I readily agree that he is “a little old”–if it’s true–and quickly steer the discussion in another direction. That’s easy, since they find the friend with the secret tape recorder fascinating.
3 Dramatic Denial: When pressed about my own opinion a day or so later, I say firmly, without jaw-twitching, that if the president has done what he is accused of, he should definitely step down. That seems to satisfy them.
4 Well-Timed Distraction: It’s Tuesday, and when the State of the Union message comes on at 9:00 p.m., I eagerly give in when the kids plead from their beds to be allowed to come out and watch a little. Some wholesome, boring television–their president doing what grown-ups are supposed to do: talk and talk and talk about nothing interesting. I give a little civics lesson, and go on about the beauties of the House chamber. Their eyes glaze over, and they don’t protest when they are sent back to bed.
5 Hunkering Down: For the rest of the week I follow a modified limited-hangout strategy, saying things like, we’ll just have to wait and see, the evidence isn’t in yet, we just aren’t in a position to explain anything more. Luckily, it’s a classmate, not one of my own kids, who asks his mother at bedtime, “What’s oral sex?”
6 Conspiracy Hysteria: Friday evening, it looks like it might be safe to turn on the television, since the day’s news has featured, of all things, reticence. Information about Lewinsky has been barred in Paula Jones’ lawsuit, and Monica doesn’t seem to be offering as much dirt as hoped. Quickly discovering my mistake– “It’s OK to have sex, just not all the time,” declares a talking head–I turn off the tube. My kids object. I rant about nosy prosecutors and a media conspiracy to drag out this unpleasant business for much too long. It’s like “indoor” and “outdoor” voices, I sputter: Some things should not be endlessly discussed in public; they’re private matters. I believe my own outburst. I’m also hoping that by irately staking out the high ground, I can distract the kids from their many questions about you know what. They look at me calmly and figure it’s a good moment to bargain for another cookie.
7 Damage Control: The second weekend arrives, and I conclude that it’s time to deal with my audience on a less ad hoc basis. I call a couple of other parents to compare notes and confer about strategy (it turns out my friend fielded the dread question with the old deafness routine). I want something more organized to rely on, some material at the ready. At my out-of-date public library, I peruse books on the beauties of baby-making. At my up-to-date local bookstore, I peruse books about how touching parts of “your changing body” feels so good. I have no idea what to buy and suppose the best course is probably to get a little bit of everything. This is an issue that is not going away. I’m quite sure my children know they’re not getting the full version of events. I have the feeling they’re going to let me get away with it, and I think, on balance, that is all for the best. They are, after all, children.