• U.S.

Clinton’s Crisis: It’s the Sex, Stupid

5 minute read
Andrew Ferguson

So there we are, my seven-year-old son and I, sitting on the couch last week, watching the evening news. I flatter myself that it’s a scene from the civics textbooks: Dad introducing Junior to the wide world of public affairs. My son knows something is up with President Clinton, but he’s not sure what, precisely, and I’m not sure I want to explain it to him. Suddenly the words Oval Office pop out from the newsreader, and then President, then oral sex, and my son’s brow furrows. He looks up at me, thoroughly puzzled. I reach for the mute button and kill the sound from the TV. This is not what the civics books had in mind.

I mention my homey vignette because already among the pundit class a consensus has emerged about the role of sex in the latest Clinton scandal: it is not, at the deepest level, about sex; the truly damning allegations are about possible perjury, and about the subornation of perjury, and about the obstruction of justice, and about other matters of law.

No. This thing is about sex.

On its face that statement may sound so banal as to be meaningless. Everyone knows sex is involved. My point is different. Sex is the whole ball of wax. If the scandal mortally wounds Clinton, it will be because the public understands the relationship he is alleged to have forged with Monica Lewinsky. It will be because they had sex and because of the kind of sex they had.

In the knowing, irony-drenched world of baby-boomer culture, no one wants to be thought a prig. So let’s stipulate that simple adultery would not have endangered the President politically or created the lurid spectacle before us. He’s been accused of that before and survived. People seemed not to believe his denials in 1992 about Gennifer Flowers–in fact, according to leaks from his recent deposition, the President seems not to have believed them himself–but the public apparently forgave him. An implicit bargain was struck, and it’s hard to imagine a national convulsion erupting from disclosures that, say, he had stashed away somewhere in the Old Executive Office Building a cabaret singer roughly his own age.

The tapes of Monica Lewinsky, though, tell a story that is, shall we say, more complicated. If the tapes are correct–and Bill Clinton, of course, says they are not–the President of the United States is a sexual predator. The story line is boy-meets-girl, with a twist. The boy is 50 years old, married, and the most powerful and famous man in the world; the girl is by many definitions still a girl, a few years older than his daughter: 21, fresh from college, away from home, working for him without pay at her first real job. He is her boss; she is starstruck. He travels in motorcades; she works as a clerk. She is flirtatious and pretty and willing, and he takes her.

Much has already been made about the manner of sex described on the tapes. Not to put too fine a point on it, it is strictly one-way, designed for the maximum pleasure of the recipient. The pleasure of the giver is incidental. The act itself summarizes the relationship, as the tapes reveal it: someone is the supplicant, and it’s not the President. Those of us unlucky enough to remember the late 1960s and early 1970s–before Monica Lewinsky was born–recall the radical-feminist critique of sex as purely a matter of power and exploitation. Under some circumstances the critique seems not so radical. It explains why, for example, professors are enjoined from dating their students. Immaturity and infatuation make you vulnerable, even if you yourself aren’t aware of it, and decent people in positions of power do not exploit the vulnerable for kicks. Here the logic of common morality is inexorable, and the conclusion is harsh: If the President had sex with her, he is not a decent man; he will be understood as such; and his public life will be over.

Why? Maybe no one wants to be thought a moralist these days, but most people are moralists at heart; their standards might be flexible and forgiving, but they’re not infinitely elastic. It is possible, and in the view of some people likely, that the tapes will be exposed as the quite elaborate fantasies, 20 hours’ worth, of an unstable young woman. But if the tapes are true, that wobbly moralism will reassert itself, for many of those irony-drenched boomers are now parents of their own Monica Lewinskys. One of two things will follow. The public will demand that Clinton go; or, tired of watching the news with their fingers on the mute button, they will turn away not only from the President but also from the very idea of public responsibility. And that, needless to say, isn’t what the civics textbooks had in mind either.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com