The Breakfast Table

Necrophiliac Communing


When the Senate is conducting a presidential impeachment–the first in 131 years, and only the second in our history–and the New York Times nevertheless boasts a front-page story about toilet training, you know we must be drifting, becalmed, between storms. But in a funny way, this doldrums phenomenon isn’t really peculiar to this week alone. The whole impeachment process has seemed oddly dissociated from any kind of historic drama. I realize that several reporters claimed the opening ceremonies in the Senate chamber provided the sense of momentousness previously lacking, and I suppose it’s possible that the thing had that sort of impact when experienced in person. But frankly, I’m inclined to doubt it. I remain an agnostic about Cokie’s chills. Impeachment 1999 continues to have a Marx Brothers quality; we’re watching a constitutional crisis in Freedonia.

But what’s the cause of this lackadaisical reception? Is it the nature of Clinton’s alleged crimes, so penny-ante, so lacking in grandeur? Is it the general sense of national contentment that otherwise obtains? Is it the pervasive notion that, regardless of what transpires during the trial, everything will eventually end anticlimactically?

My guess is that it’s a little bit of all of these, but that there’s one other factor which might be even more decisive: Both sides are so hateful, and have behaved so egregiously, that there’s simply no rooting interest. If you don’t have any rooting interest in a process as intrinsically adversarial as this, it’s like watching a sports event when you don’t have money riding on the outcome. A yawner, even with the presidency at stake.

On balance, if we can believe the polls, people endorse the job Clinton has been doing and would prefer to see him serve out his term. And I find those poll numbers credible; I think he’s been a reasonably effective president and the country is in better shape as a result of his stewardship. But I doubt there are many people out there who also believe he has ennobled the office. Quite the contrary. As you said in your note, we’re way beyond chagrin or dismay at anything this guy can possibly have done. Forget his wife communing with the spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt; you can almost believe Clinton had the actual body disinterred for a little necrophiliac communing of his own. But still, if you contrast the low-rent style of the fellow with the hypocritical, inquisitorial zeal of the sex police who have been pursuing him so relentlessly, he suddenly starts looking more like a victim than a malefactor.

The result: A kind of benumbed lassitude. Please, let the guy off with a wrist-slap and be sure to stay out of our faces.

But hey, the morning paper wasn’t a total loss. That toilet-training story was a page-turner! Having now read it, I get the distinct impression I may be starting a little late.

It’s also my impression that you may have had a few passing things to say about my novel in this most recent entry of yours, although I wasn’t paying close attention. But permit me to offer one small observation about it myself: While, from a marketing point of view, its utterly unexpected and serendipitous appearance during a White House sex scandal can only be regarded as a gift from the gods, it does have a concomitant downside: I’m afraid the way people read the book will be affected, and distorted, by the political context in which it fortuitously appeared.

I’m not complaining, mind you. I hope the same thing happens with everything else I ever write.