Life Watch: Encore Clinton, Toujours Clinton

Miss Adelaide, in Guys and Dolls, tells her boyfriend, Nathan Detroit, that the doctor thinks her cold is “chronic.” “I don’t know about that,” says Nathan, “but it sure hangs on.” I don’t know whether Bill Clinton’s condition is chronic, but he sure hangs on. Lifewatch began in the first months of what we have called, derisively, the Age of Clinton, and now that Clinton is in the middle of a crisis that would have been terminal for anyone else, one suspects that he will outlast this column, this magazine, perhaps even print journalism. We are almost tempted to test and appease the “gods of correlation”: If we end this column, would this presidency come to a merciful end?

In his sheer persistence, Mr. Clinton shows a strength that runs beyond the normal intensity of self-preservation. He is serenely detached from a sense of shame that might burden other men seeking out stratagems to save their careers in the face of scandal. With that feigned nonchalance, that facade of steadiness, he shows a tenacity in holding onto his office—far more tenacity and conviction than the Republicans in Congress are ever likely to summon to the project of impeaching him.

At one of his news conferences with the president, Wolf Blitzer of CNN suggested to Mr. Clinton that a young woman had been hurt in this recent scandal, and he asked what the president might have to say at that moment to Monica Lewinsky and her family. There was a long pause, as Clinton pondered the question, and titters were heard in the audience of reporters. And then, as though to appreciate the question as a “move,” as a gesture of art, Clinton said, “That’s good.” But he would not, he said, be diverted from his scheme of preserving his silence on this matter while it is under investigation. Later that night, Ted Koppel reviewed the tape of the performance, and remarked to one of his guests that “He is good, isn’t he?” Perhaps it was too obvious any longer to require any noting that Clinton had, once again, evaded the question. But it was worth noting that, once again, the press had become an accomplice in the evasion, just as Koppel had. Instead of dwelling on the question evaded—and the answers that it invited—Koppel changed the subject to the art of Bill Clinton. He was offering his praise for what was evidently a low art, directed to the concealment of wrongs. But the admiration was undeniable; and what it conveyed, without the need exactly to say it, was that, from this moment of acute embarrassment, Clinton had emerged as the practitioner of a dazzling art. His artfulness was the sign, understood by all, that Clinton would make it. Make it past this set of land-mines, make it past the batteries of independent counsels and grand juries, and of scandals tracing back to other scandals. All of this Koppel managed to convey as he stood back, in a posture of moral detachment, to commend an art detached from any moral end. It is said that Machiavelli was the first one to teach the lesson of taking a posture of detachment in the face of vice, and as the late Leo Strauss once observed, we no longer notice these Machiavellian moves because we have absorbed Machiavelli’s premises as our own.

The media do not seem to doubt that they are in the business of shaping the public mind, and if the media have projected lessons of amorality in their reports, why are they so defensive at the charge that they have helped to carry through a kind of moral anaesthetizing of the American public? The enfeebling of moral coherence can be read in the polls: Most people think that Clinton should leave office if he lied; most people in the same samples register their own estimate that he in fact had lied; but then they conclude that he should not resign. As James Q. Wilson noted, the members of the public profess to want more facts before they would cashier the president—but they also want to stop the investigation, with its churning of facts and controversy. Is all this very far from the surveys showing that people regard abortion as “murder,” and yet would not have the law act to restrain it? But in all of this, Mr. Clinton has stood as a principal tutor. He has taken the American public through a series of adulterous affairs, and through seamy escapades of a sexual character that do not even rise to the level of adultery. He has produced a train of misrepresentations, outright lies, stonewalling, and perhaps even the obstruction of justice. And at every moment, he has given the American public the occasion to say, “This too does not, in the end, matter.” In this way does a public become inoculated against a series of corrupt acts that would have shocked the sensibilities of our people thirty and forty years ago.

That corruption may be understood, or more readily confused, when the political class offers no signals of condemnation or tries to teach a different lesson. In the face of the scandals, Republicans have been urged, out of prudence, to avoid saying anything that appears too judgmental or moralistic, or shows too gleeful a reaction to the troubles of Bill Clinton. But if people have held back in the past from public scolding, they have found other ways of conveying disapproval—most simply, by taking some evident steps to shun the company of men they regard as disreputable. Clinton, that sensitive political animal, knows just what it means when respectable groups seek out his company and show him respect and affection in these dark times. And one of the places that he has been able to count on for that cover and support is his own alma mater, Georgetown University. Even in the presence of the most lurid charges against Mr. Clinton, Fr. Leo O’Donovan, the president of the university, was willing to celebrate again his school’s most highly-placed alumnus. And in celebrating Clinton, Fr. O’Donovan conveys an even more dramatic point that he does not need to make explicit: Namely, there is nothing in Catholic teaching that raises the slightest doubt about the moral uprightness of Bill Clinton or casts an adverse judgment on any of his works. In another day, that kind of teaching would have been called the giving of scandal.

But this business with Clinton has not suffered from a want of attention in the press, and I raise it here only because there is a strand of connection to those first days of the Clinton presidency, a strand that has gone curiously unremarked. In the first weeks of his presidency, Clinton stupefied and astonished his own supporters by coming out with a high-octane initiative on behalf of gay rights and gays in the military. His ratings in the polls fell precipitously, and the reaction simply bore out the common sense of the matter: Bill Clinton would never have made this issue a part of his campaign, much less a central part, and dared to stake his election on a drive for gay rights. Clinton would thereafter find the means of backing away, even though his heart was still on the side of gay rights. As one observer put it, he is solidly placed on that side, for everything in his makeup impels him to the side of sexual libertinism in all of its forms. He would sign the Defense of Marriage Act, but at midnight, on the presidential plane, without hoopla or celebration, or pens to hand out as souvenirs.

But when the scandal erupted over Monica Lewinsky, Clinton moved to a position that finally put himself at odds with the claims of gay rights, or “gay sex,” at the root. He insisted that he had no “sexual relationship” with “that woman.” Reporters quickly pointed out that Mr. Clinton did not regard oral sex as adultery, and for the same reason it may not even count as a “sexual” relation. That is, there is no coupling of the bodies in the “natural” form that counts, say, for the consummation of a marriage. For that natural form, that mingling of the bodies, is part of the act of begetting, and that is the understanding of “sexuality” in the strictest sense. As John Paul II would say, it is the meaning of sexuality that is “imprinted in our natures,” in the fact that we are made as men and women. That difference in gender marks the meaning and purpose of sexuality, in the begetting of new life. And it alerts us to the fact that there are many bizarre forms of orgasmic stimulation that could never claim the name of a “sexual” relation. A man may lie down with an animal, but he would not have a “sexual relationship” with “that animal.” Rodney Dangerfield once famously remarked, “I was afraid the first time I had sex. I was afraid because I was all alone.” There is no joke, no laugh, unless everyone grasps immediately that this is not really sex. Neither would it be sex if two people simply replicated, in tandem, the masturbation implicit in the joke. From this point, the complete argument on homosexuality could be enfolded. We are not apt to use the law to condemn masturbation, but it takes an understanding quite gravely disordered to take a form of masturbation, treat it as a “sexual relationship,” and then convert that relation into nothing less than a fundamental way of life.

Six years into his presidency, Bill Clinton has finally affirmed the premises that deny the very meaning and legitimacy of gay sex as a form of “sexuality.” Wonder to behold, he is indeed a New Democrat after all. He marks a return to a traditional understanding of sexuality, and again he incorporates the moral perspective of the Republican party. Now, it is simply a matter of getting the Republicans to do the same.


Hadley P. Arkes (born 1940) is an American political scientist and the Edward N. Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions at Amherst College, where he has taught since 1966.

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