Why Chatterbox Cares

Is Chatterbox obsessed with Flytrap? Yes. Is this obsession justified? Chatterbox’s pro-Clinton friends, along with Anthony Lewis, Molly Ivins, everyone associated with the movie Primary Colors, and the American people speaking as one, say no. Even Chatterbox’s guru, Charles “Bhagwan” Peters of the Washington Monthly, one of the few journalists who gave credence to the Gennifer Flowers tapes early on, argues that the voters rightly don’t care much about Flytrap because they’ve known the rough contours of Clinton’s character for years.

Let’s concede what the voters apparently believe: Clinton has been a good president, especially considering the alternatives. Chatterbox fully expects that within weeks of his leaving office–whenever that happens–we’ll want him back. So why care about Monica? Four reasons, in order of ascending impeachability:

1) The ease of his corruption: We knew Clinton had affairs and lied about them to the press and public. We didn’t quite know the unhesitating grace with which–if the current charges are true–he orchestrates a campaign to deceive the courts. Hey, honey, you don’t have to turn over those gifts if you no longer have them in your possession! (It was especially shocking to see New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis, who worships the legal process and has taught at Harvard Law, glide smoothly over the distinction between lying to your friends and lying under oath.) True, if Clinton lies about sex that doesn’t mean he necessarily lies about Social Security. The slope isn’t all that slippery. But it’s a slope. Does anyone doubt that if Clinton lied under oath about sex he also lied about Whitewater? About what was given in exchange for campaign contributions? Maybe it stops somewhere, but where?

2) The overconfidence: What kind of alarmingly self-deluded defendant, knowing what Clinton must have known about his own behavior, would have failed to settle the Paula Jones case? So she upped her demand to $2 million? Pay it! There is a failure of judgment here. One day Clinton’s hypertrophied faith in his ability to pull anything out of the fire with a flurry of last-minute salesmanship will prove wrong. Actually, it’s already been proven wrong, since the election, on the “fast track” trade issue, and maybe on Iraq.

3) The role mottle: Christopher Hitchens has complained about the annoying, cloying quality of the modern babble about “role models.” He’s right. Unfortunately Hitchens didn’t design the human brain, which learns by imitation. As Chatterbox’s Darwinian mentor, Robert Wright, notes, we give our presidents a lot, and in exchange we ask them to be a little better in the moral example department than the rest of us. (See this piece by Wright for the basic Darwinian story.) Does Clinton want to restore the family in the ghettos? That will require suppressing the very impulses that Clinton himself has so conspicuously failed to control.

4) Social equality: Clinton’s defenders–including those ordinary focus-grouping Americans–offend the most when they suggest that a certain latitude in moral and criminal matters goes with the president’s exalted position. Director Mike Nichols says “men who get a lot accomplished have powerful libidos. What’s the problem?” The big chief gets many women! That’s been true through most of human history. It’s not supposed to be true in America. America, in this sense, is a conspiracy against human nature–and not just in that we expect monogamy when the rule of history has been polygamy. More perversely, we also expect social equality–nobody is better than anyone else, we all play by the same rules–when the characteristic of previous human society has been the instinctive ranking by status. What Clinton is saying is that he doesn’t have to play by the same rules. He’s too important to be sued while in office. He’s too important to be subject to the intrusive, out-of-control sex harassment inquiries that bedevil his subjects. He boosted the GNP and brought us disaster relief, and we should be grateful and shower him with fleshy offerings. (“Hey, man, what’s the fuss about? He gave a blow job to the economy” is the man-on-the-street interview Chatterbox expects to see any moment now.)

Chatterbox always suspected that Democrats who focus compulsively on the income charts (ex-Labor Secretary Robert Reich, for one) would be all too willing to trade off America’s precious social equality for a minor increase in income equality and prosperity. Now Clinton is making that deal explicit. An impeachable sin? Maybe. Maybe not. But (more than reasons 1 through 3) it goes to the fundamental character, not of Clinton but of our national enterprise–something that’s worth impeaching even a good president to preserve.

Chatterbox has spoken!

IT’S EVERYWHERE: Note that Clinton’s ultimate sin–the sin of corporatism, of seeing society as a single body with individual human components performing different social functions and having different, unequal rights–is the same as Kenneth Starr’s sin. Starr thinks his role is so goddamn important that his prosecutors get a special right to criminalize free speech as “obstruction of justice.” Less obviously, Clinton’s sin is the same one reporters commit when they denounce Starr for impeding “our ability to gather information for the public”–as if the press were a separate institution with special privileges and (inevitably) obligations, the eyes of the social corpus nobly gathering information on behalf of poor, ignorant citizens. Better to stick to the social-egalitarian line: Reporters are citizens, with the same rights and obligations as other citizens (same as Sid Blumenthal, same as Matt Drudge, same as your mother), which include the right to say nasty things about Kenneth Starr.