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The Truth, Mainly - 01/03/1994

Fornigate: The firestorm failed

It's a helluva note when you go to a lot of trouble to whip up a juicy presidential scandal and nobody pays attention. We have to feel a little sorry for Cliff Jackson (Bill Clinton's old friend turned enemy) and David Brock (who wrote the book bashing Anita Hill)—as well as the shrillest man in Congress, Rep. Robert Dornan, who served as cheerleader for their efforts.

They're the producers of what one Washington wit has called "Fornigate"—the revelation by two Arkansas state troopers that they didn't have much time for anything else after they'd driven Gov. Clinton to all his "trysts."

That's the name we scandal mongers give to really serious messing around.

The problem—at least for Jackson, Brock, Dornan and Co.—is that nobody seems to give much of a damn.

I have explanations.

First, the timing was bad. It's hard to get worked up about someone else's sex life when you're trying to do all your Christmas shopping in one afternoon.

But even if you shopped early, you might not find the two troopers very credible. Other troopers assigned to the governor's security staff have contradicted their testimony. And according to the New York Times, both have admitted falsifying a report of an accident last year so that one of them could get a $100,000 insurance payment—a fraction of what they might make from a Fornigate book in the works.

That, of course, doesn't mean the charges are false. The president— who, you remember, admitted during the '92 campaign that he'd been guilty of marital "wrongdoing"—seems incapable of a straightforward denial. When reporters asked him directly if there was any truth to the charges, the LA Times quoted him as saying "We…we did, if, the, the, I, I, the stories are just as they have been said. They're outrageous and they're not so."

State Department code-breakers are still working on that one.

The religious right will see our lack of moral outrage as just more evidence the country has gone all to hell. But even though it goes against everything we learned in Sunday School, here's the real reason the firestorm hasn't ignited:

Americans know that some of our best recent presidents have been fornigaters and they don't want to discourage Bill Clinton from joining that distinguished company.

Check the record.

FDR will probably be remembered as the most beloved and most effective president of the century, JFK as the most attractive and inspirational, LBJ as the most muscular twister of legislative arms.

All three messed around.

Lest you think messing around is a partisan practice, consider Dwight David Eisenhower—he whose presidential reputation has been steadily rehabilitated during the last two decades and who may well be considered the best Republican president since the first Roosevelt.

The Truth, Mainly


Ike messed around too.

On the other hand, bad news presidents like Richard Nixon, Herbert Hoover, and Calvin Coolidge didn't mess around. There were rumors about George Bush but they were never nailed down, and Ronald Reagan was in a profession where messing around was so de rigueur that if he indulged he couldn't really take personal credit for it. So neither of them can be considered an exception to the rule.

What, you're probably asking, is the connection between fornigating and effective governing? As a cautious monogamist who doesn't govern anything very effectively, I can only speculate, but here's how it looks to me:

Both activities require a kind of boldness, a willingness to take risks, to go beyond conventionality. It's the quality of character that made FDR a "traitor to his class," that pushed ex-General Eisenhower to warn against the military-industrial complex, that prompted a good old Southern boy like LBJ to do more for civil rights than any president had done before.

And that's the same quality that moved Clinton to try to get fair treatment for gays in the military, to go against his own party on NAFTA, and to take on the NRA, the medical establishment, and the insurance companies.

Fornigate hasn't taken hold because most us believe those accomplishments are more important to the nation than whatever family failures the president may be guilty of—especially since his family seems to have come to terms with them. Most of us weren't looking for a model for our private lives when we voted for Clinton anyway; we were looking for a government that might be on our side again.

Texans, Molly Ivins says, don't care what you do with your sex life so long as it doesn't frighten the horses. If the Clintons can reform our health care system into something more humane than we've got now, most of us won't even worry about the horses.


Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.


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