The Breakfast Table

Vicarious Glee

Dear Lucianne–

It isn’t reluctance, exactly. It’s more a case of having such complex feelings about the whole thing–so many on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other-hands–that I fear once we really start, the subject will entirely usurp these exchanges of ours. We won’t be discussing the news anymore, or anything else of interest, we’ll just be hashing over the scandal. And I’m not sure we were hired to do that either.

But since I’m forced to interpret your last posting, macho-style, as the cyber equivalent of “Do you want to step outside?” I suppose I have no choice but to engage. No less an authority than Norman Mailer tells us that when a gentleman is challenged to fight, he’s honor-bound to oblige.

So…I don’t know if Clinton will have to resign, but right now I’d put the odds at better than even. The tawdry details, once widely known, will probably make it impossible for him to govern. And he’s alienated so many people along the way whom he’d need if he were to try to make a successful fight for political survival.

But the whole business makes me very queasy–independent of Bill Clinton, independent of the tawdry details of this specific scandal. I don’t think it’s good for the country. I don’t think it’s a healthy thing for our sex lives to be regarded as a legitimate source of public inquiry. And I mean anyone’s sex life, so long as it involves consenting adults. The erotic is a realm which by its very nature tends toward the unruly; how many of us, even the most conventional among us, would want the details of his or her erotic life to be known and dissected by the media? Even when our sexual experiences are shared exclusively with our legally wedded spouses?

Don’t get me wrong. I have my share of prurient interest, perhaps more than my share, I take great (albeit guilty) pleasure in reading this sort of thing once it’s out there. The Martin Luther King tapes, the myriad JFK stories, Nancy Reagan’s youthful escapades, Gingrich’s desk, Clarence Thomas’ viewing habits. The temptation to take vicarious glee from these stories can be close to irresistible. But I don’t think I have the right to know them. I don’t think I’m better off knowing them. And I don’t think the country’s better off when the sex lives of its leaders–or of anyone else, for that matter–are considered fair game.

I don’t like outing. I think it’s a vicious practice, whether directed at gays or straights. If we value our own privacy, we should respect the privacy of others. Yes, up to and including the President of the United States. Whoever he or she may be, and regardless of party affiliation.

“It’s the lies, not the sex,” people say. And yes, it may well be the lies–the lies told under oath–that do Clinton in. But even ordinarily honest people lie about sex. I suspect quite a few of my friends, honorable people most of them, also lie about sex. To me, to each other, to everybody. Once you put people under oath and start demanding that they reveal the details of their sex lives, I think you’ve crossed a line that civilized society really shouldn’t cross.

And I strongly suspect the political well has now been poisoned for an entire generation at least: for a generation of Republicans as well as Democrats, because that sort of unruliness doesn’t restrict itself to one party or the other. We’re in for a deluge of hypocrisy of biblical proportions, and our national discourse will not be the better for it.

I’m sure we’ll both have lots more to say about all this in the days ahead. And the utter vacuity of today’s papers seems almost intentionally designed to deny us any other topics. But I still harbor the hope we’ll find a way to range over other territory as well.