As I write this, Bill Clinton's approval ratings are in the 60-70 percent range. And that's after his admission he cravenly lied to us in January.
Some of us are ticked off that the President has spent his political capital on Monica rather than on, say, HMO or campaign reform.
But the Professional President Pursuers (PPP)those who've been after Clinton since his first termare even more frustrated than we are. It drives them crazy that after four years and $40 million, Ken Starr has the goods on the President and two-thirds of us don't seem to care.
The standard explanation is the economy: let Bill engage in any sex he wants as long it doesn't frighten the horses or the stock market. And that's often coupled with the charge that most Americans are so post-modern that we've lost our capacity for moral indignation, thereby becoming French.
Au contraire, I say.
Arthur Schlesinger, a gent of the old school, had this to say about Clinton's January lie:
"Gentlemen always lie about their sex lives. Only a cad will tell the truth about his sexual affairs."
Note the antique ring to that. Maybe 19th century. It was also the 19th century that gave us the figure that Ken Starr is often compared tothe monomaniacal villain of "Les Miserables," Inspector Javert.
It's true that English teachers' brains often dry up, like Don Quixote's, from reading too many books. Mine have dried up to the point that I have this theory:
It's not our post-modern morality that keeps Clinton's ratings so high. It's our pre-modern morality.
` That's what leads us to be more offended by the PPP than by the President. It's not that Clinton disgusts us less, but that Starr disgusts us more.
My own guide in moral matters goes all the way back to the early 14th century and Dante's "Inferno." It's a book that still scares the bejesus out of me. I like to imagine that two-thirds of Americans read Dante late at night in the privacy of their own homes and are thus frightened into living reasonably moral lives.
Unlike some of today's moralists who say all sin is equally loathsome, Dante envisioned a clear-cut heirarchy of wickedness. His Hell is a cone-shaped pit housing the exquisitely symbolic torture of the damned, the scheme being that the more serious your sin the deeper in the pitand the farther from heavenyou go.
So Bill Clinton is in trouble. He'll certainly go to hell for his sexual dalliancesbut maybe no deeper than the second circle where the Lustful and the Carnal are punished by being blown about by windstorms.
He also could end up in the more serious third circle where the gluttons are punished, but we're talking sex here.
Put the worst interpretation on the Monica business and Bill might go as deep as Section l of Circle 8 where Panderers and Seducers are whipped by really mean demons. That assumes that Bill, not Monica, did the seducing.
The Truth, Mainly
Dante is silent about non-malicious lying, but he does put False Witnesses clear down in Section 10 of Circle 8. Dante uses the term in the sense of the Biblical "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor," and so far at least, the President hasn't been charged with that.
Dante is also silent on humiliating wives and daughters, a sexist oversight.
But any way you look at it, the President is in for a bad time hereafter.
The PPP, though, wouldn't fare well either.
Many of them are full of wrath. Listen to Limbaugh's daily venom. Dante puts the Wrathful in Circle 5, immersed in slime, fighting each other.
Some of the PPP, I suspect, will end up in Section 6 of Circle 8 with the Hypocrites, weighed down by robes beautiful on the outside, hellishly heavy on the inside. That assumes that some of them have lied about their own hanky-panky. Perhaps none have. Perhaps pigs fly.
Others may be even deeper. Ken Starr and Lucianne Goldberg might sink to Section 8 of Circle 8 where Evil Counselors goLucianne for evilly counseling Ms. Tripp to secretly tape Monica on the telephone, Starr for evilly counseling Ms. Tripp to secretly tape her at the Ritz Carlton.
Dante punishes Evil Counselors by hiding them inside flames. Yikes.
And poor Linda, for following the counsel of her Evil Counselors, may be way down in the part of Circle 9 reserved for the Treacherous to Guests, "Invite-Someone-to-Dine-at-the-Ritz-Carlton-and-Betray-Her" division.
The Treacherous to Guests are frozen into the same lake of ice Satan is.
A few TV journalistsSam Donaldson comes to mindwill be in the section of Hell reserved for Nasty Smirkers and Lewd Insinuators. They'll be punished by being stripped buck naked while fiends wearing nastily smirking Clinton masks will make really lewd insinuations about their body parts.
Lincoln English Professor Satterfield writes
to salvage clarity from his confusion.
His column appears on alternate Mondays.