Follow the Semen

Monica Lewinsky’s blue cocktail dress is a red herring.

Coverage of the Flytrap story has focused almost entirely on one question: Did Bill Clinton have sex with Monica Lewinsky? Yet very few Americans, and almost none of the journalists on the Flytrap beat, have any doubts about the answer. So why has American journalism concentrated on the least mysterious aspect of this story?

One explanation is that “did they have sex” is a question of fact, whereas other Flytrap questions are matters of judgment or policy or values. The social critic Dwight Macdonald wrote in his great 1957 essay, “The Triumph of the Fact” (later reprinted in his book Against the American Grain) that Americans are in love with facts, “valuing Facts in themselves, collecting them as boys collect postage stamps, treating them, in short, as objects of consumption rather than as productive tools.”

Macdonald’s point was that the obsessive accumulation of data had become an unsatisfactory substitute for formulating notions about what anything meant–an argument that seems even more compelling since the advent of the Internet and all-news cable TV channels. His best example of empiricism’s limits was the (apocryphal) story of how, at the dawn of the Enlightenment, a scientist tried to establish the existence of the human soul “not by speculating on the Vital Principle and the Intrinsic Substance of the Soul, as described in Aristotle and the Church Fathers, but by weighing a condemned criminal before and after execution.”

Similarly, the U.S. press corps has spent the last half-year examining whether adultery and perjury disqualify a man to be president by chasing a cocktail dress allegedly stained with the commander in chief’s semen. This fact hunt, while somewhat insane, is also perfectly understandable–and even laudable–in the context of what’s broadly understood to be the press’s mandate to gather information with rigorous impartiality. As press critics never tire of saying, the mainstream press’s job isn’t, or shouldn’t be, to jump to conclusions–even in instances such as Flytrap, where Hypothesis and Conclusion seem separated by a very short evidentiary hop.

It’s true that some Flytrap allegations were poorly sourced and that two respected news organizations, the Wall Street Journal and the Dallas Morning News, had to retract a couple of particularly lurid stories. Media critics such as Pete Hamill and Steven Brill have lacerated the press for getting the facts wrong. But now that Flytrap is entering what looks like its penultimate stage, all this high-minded outrage is starting to look a bit quaint. Lewinsky is expected to tell a grand jury that she did indeed have sex with Clinton and that Clinton encouraged her to lie about the relationship in an affidavit submitted to Paula Jones’ lawyers. And Clinton has agreed to answer grand jury questions via closed-circuit TV.

The president, of course, is one of those few people who still claim there is a factual issue at stake. Before the grand jury, he may admit to having had sex with Lewinsky, thereby admitting to having committed perjury in the Jones suit. (The general view is that perjury in civil suits isn’t easy to prosecute, especially if the suit has been dismissed, as Jones’ was.) Or Clinton could stick to his story and perjure himself before the grand jury (a much more serious crime). Or Clinton might stick to his story because it’s true. But this scenario–never plausible–is even more unlikely now that prosecutors have what the New York Post dubbed the Love Dress.

This dress is what Alfred Hitchcock used to call the McGuffin–the all-important object whose pursuit frames a narrative (examples: the Maltese falcon, Charles Foster Kane’s sled, and the uranium-packed wine bottles in Hitchcock’s own Notorious). The Love Dress’s existence was first speculated upon in the Drudge Report (where it was black) and then on ABC (where it was navy blue). United Press International, passing along the ABC report, asserted Lewinsky had saved a semen-stained dress; in fact, ABC’s Jackie Judd had reported only that Lewinsky said she’d saved such a dress. Then a few news organizations got the stained dress confused with another dress that Lewinsky allegedly had received from Clinton. This other dress was a “multicolored peasant dress” (according to the New York Post), purchased for not much money on Martha’s Vineyard (Time), that might not exist at all (according to Newsweek Washington bureau chief Ann McDaniel) or really be a long T-shirt (William Ginsburg to Barbara Walters on ABC’s 20/20).

Meanwhile, the FBI reportedly was going through Lewinsky’s closets at the Watergate, testing every dress in sight and finding no stains. It turns out (if the latest reports are accurate) the dress had been in hiding with Lewinsky’s Manhattanite mother, Marcia, who turned it over last week to prosecutors in exchange for immunity. An FBI spokeswoman quoted in the New York Times said the agency will first establish whether there is any semen on the dress (easy to do) and then spend “several weeks” finding out whose semen it is (somewhat more difficult but, since the mid-1990s, not all that hard, according to the Washington Post). Assuming the genetic markers point to Clinton (and that Clinton doesn’t resort to claiming a heretofore undisclosed identical twin), scientific empiricism, in collaboration with the more untidy empiricism of daily journalism, will have triumphed.

But please permit an unscientific generalization: There is not a reporter in Washington who seriously doubts, amid this furious DNA hunt, that President Clinton had a sexual encounter with Lewinsky. Indeed, it would likely be hard to find even a White House aide who, in the privacy of his/her home, would tell a spouse that he/she buys Clinton’s story. Whenever a Paul Begala or a Mike McCurry asserts in public that he truly believes Clinton, it’s treated by the press as news, because the common assumption is that Clinton officials believe their boss is lying. And when they say they believe Clinton is telling the truth, every reporter quoting them assumes they’re lying, too.

The only new fact in Flytrap that would qualify as genuine news would be one proving Bill Clinton didn’t have sex with Lewinsky. The important question is not whether Clinton had sex with her and lied about it but what the country should do about this.

In dealing with the real issue, the American press is hobbled by its strengths as well as its weaknesses. Like Macdonald’s fictitious scientist, it is uncomfortable with abstractions. Flytrap is a case of journalists doing precisely what press critics are always hectoring them to do–just supply the facts, don’t indulge in opinion or conclusion–and shows the inadequacy of that journalistic ideal. Some might say the inadequacies of the Flytrap coverage are a point in favor of the British system, in which journalists are freer to reveal their opinions. (The American convention is not quite what it seems: American journalists are permitted to act on their prejudices–the news columns and air time devoted to Flytrap wouldn’t make sense unless reporters and editors believed the accusations. They’re just not permitted to express this belief.) At the very least, Flytrap illustrates the need for less fact chasing and more analysis and illumination of the “what should we do about it” question.

Or maybe the moral is simply the need for more humility about how useful journalism is in addressing matters of public importance. Fifteen years ago, Sidney Blumenthal, now a top adviser to President Clinton, wrote an incisive piece for the New Republic examining why then-President Ronald Reagan’s frequent factual misstatements hadn’t made him as unpopular as Richard Nixon or Jimmy Carter. The answer was that the reporters who assailed Reagan’s howlers were empiricists, but Reagan himself was not. He was animated not by Fact but by Belief. (Reagan unconsciously seconded this judgment at the 1988 Republican convention when, botching a quote from John Adams, he declared, “Facts are stupid things.”) Blumenthal’s boss has very little in common with Reagan and, if anything, wears his beliefs too lightly. But somewhere along the way, he may have absorbed Reagan’s lesson that while Americans like to gather Facts, the power Facts have to settle important questions is vastly overrated.

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