The Breakfast Table

Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address Revisited

Dear Lucianne–

Okay, it’s time to wrap up, and it has fallen to me–only because I live on the laggard coast–to do the wrapping. So let me say first of all that you’ve been a very personable interlocutor, and it’s been gratifying to note that we appear to have grown less wary of one another–I might even go so far as to say friendlier–as the week has progressed. If there’s a better reason to argue with somebody, I can’t imagine what it is.

But in preparation for writing this last letter, I’ve been re-reading the entirety of our correspondence, and I’ve been doing so with a gathering sense of disquiet. Not, I hasten to add, because of the tone. As far as I can see, there has been no personal animosity between us, either from you toward me or from me toward you. I’ve found these exchanges of ours–even the most confrontational among them–to be well within bounds. But there are authentic and profound differences of principle between us, differences which are far from trivial. Looking over some of the things you’ve said to me, especially in the earlier part of the week, has been unsettling. And reading your few words on the subject in your latest letter unquestionably adds to my discomfort. On issues related to privacy, we don’t merely disagree, we are diametrically opposed. No synthesis is possible, no verbal formulation or well-intentioned expression of good will can finesse differences as great as these. You are proud of what you’ve engendered, and I believe it to have been utterly catastrophic. You don’t merely think you were justified, you believe you were compelled to do what you did, whereas I find the justifications you’ve proffered to be insupportable and in some cases incomprehensible.

Which isn’t the reaction I had hoped for. One wants to believe momentous events are set in motion by people with a comprehensive and serious sense of purpose, independent of whether one agrees with them or not. The destruction of a presidency is a paradigmatic momentous event.

But frankly, as I review the apologia you’ve offered for your actions of the last seven months, I find a staggering array of contradictions: First it’s all about sex, then it isn’t about sex at all but rather theft, then, damn it, yes, it’s about sex again. It’s about principle, but then no, it’s personal and proudly so. In one passage you portray yourself as a virtual Madame Defarge, conducting a one-woman campaign to reform the moral fabric of the entire country (“cleansed of the values of the sixties for once and for all,” you write), and in another you’re concerned solely with behavior occurring in the immediate environs of the Oval Office, and profess total indifference to sexual shenanigans in any other locale. There’s a paragraph in which you take me to task for what you call my live-and-let-live approach to life, and yet there’s another in which you cite our differences as healthily representative of how a vibrant democracy is meant to function. You attribute all negative publicity about yourself and Linda Tripp to a concerted White House disinformation campaign, but you scoff at the notion of a right-wing conspiracy doing anything similar to the Clintons. You accuse the president of illegally violating your sealed court records, but when I ask you to demonstrate this to me–offering your cause full support if you can do so–you respond by complaining about lawyer’s fees and mentioning another action against U.S. News which you similarly decided not to pursue. You offer ominous hints about the source of various damaging facts which have been published in various venues, but you don’t quite make any overt connections, let alone make a serious attempt to demonstrate them.

In short, the reasons you adduce for your participation in the Lewinsky story aren’t simply contradictory, although they certainly are contradictory. Frequently they go well beyond the contradictory and veer toward the incoherent. Which suggests–this is the most charitable interpretation–which suggests they’re an ad hoc after-the-fact rationale. Your motivation, in other words, doesn’t resemble a comprehensive and serious sense of purpose at all, not to my eyes. It seems more like inchoate resentment, malicious mischief, personal pique.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not shedding tears for Bill Clinton. Like a majority of Americans, I do think he’s been an effective president. In fact, I think he’s arguably the most effective of the presidents we’ve had since JFK was assassinated, which admittedly isn’t setting the bar terribly high. Nevertheless, his stewardship of the country, as distinct from his conduct of his own personal life, has been enlightened and responsible, and the nation is in better shape as a result of his presidency. So I think it’s a shame, maybe even a tragedy, that it’s come to this. If you take the trouble to look over the list of our post-war presidents, you’ll find effectiveness isn’t so common a commodity that we can afford to be cavalier about it. But I also think Clinton has been so complicit in his own undoing, so narcissistic and undisciplined and reckless (I believe we’re both aware that, as a catchphrase, “The Lewinsky Matter” is a misnomer), and is by temperament so casual about other people’s feelings, that it may have been only a matter of time before something like this came along. When you know the water is filled with circling sharks, you have to be pretty foolish to risk giving yourself a nick. Clinton was in it chest-high, and yet insisted on wielding his razor with crazed abandon.

Which isn’t to suggest I understand why anybody would choose to bring down a president in this particular way. I mean, somebody is obviously going to be willing to do it. That much is predictable, and is one of the reasons Clinton’s personal behavior should be considered so reckless and irresponsible. But I can’t understand why anybody would want to be that somebody. There’s a line of scripture Lincoln quotes in his Second Inaugural Address: “Woe unto the world because of offences! For it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” That expresses how I feel about maliciously revealing the sexual secrets of another person, even when it’s a person as devil-may-care as Bill Clinton. For six years now, goodness knows, there’s been a pack of people slavering to do that very thing, and sooner or later one or another of them was likely to succeed. But no one was required to run with that particular pack; even Clinton’s most ferocious opponents had a choice about how to go about opposing him.

It all seems to tawdry, so…forgive this unfashionable word, but so un-American. Yes, the tawdriness extends to the president’s own behavior, of course. As I’ve already said, I’m not here to defend him, that isn’t my wicket. But the tawdriness also encompasses the leering search for evidence of sexual activity and the gloating glee with which such evidence was found and presented. (One of the iconic images of the late ‘90s will almost certainly be Linda Tripp standing on the steps of the DC courthouse sounding aggrieved. Good heavens!) If you oppose Clinton’s policies, then fight them honorably in the arena. You’ll lose some and you’ll win some. That’s democracy. That’s politics. And if you think he’s been venal or corrupt, then please, by all means show us the evidence. But let’s stay out of each other’s bedrooms (and since you sometimes interpret my words very literally, let me be clear that by bedrooms I mean any spaces where sexual activity might be taking place, from the local Motel 6 to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue). Let’s allow each other a little privacy. Let’s be grown-ups about the unruliness and complexity of adult sexual relationships. They aren’t anyone else’s business, and history is pretty damned persuasive that sexual malfeasance doesn’t equate in any significant way with public misbehavior.

In your most recent letter, you refer to yourself as a libertarian. Well, it doesn’t strike me as particularly libertarian to involve oneself in other people’s sexual lives. Quite the contrary. When all is said and done, I believe this self-created morals crusade you’ve appointed yourself to lead will end up doing inestimable damage to our country. It will coarsen our political discourse beyond recognition, it will invite a whole new level of intrusion into our personal lives, it will scare away talented and dedicated people in both parties from public service, and it will generate vast noxious clouds of hypocrisy and sanctimoniousness. And the damage will remain with us for a generation or more.

To my mind, that’s a much more destructive legacy than a few brainless blow-jobs in the Oval Office.

But for all our differences, I write to you with my warmest personal wishes,


Mon., 8/24; Tues., 8/25; Wed., 8/26; Thurs., 8/27; Fri., 8/28