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The Truth, Mainly - 09/21/1998

Finding humor in sex scandal

The Clinton-Starr Follies amuse some people, but not all. Perhaps not the disappointed reformists who had such high hopes in '92. Probably not Hillary. Certainly not Chelsea, the most poignant victim of her father's recklessness and of Starr's monomaniacal pursuit.

But we need to put this in perspective. H.L. Mencken can help.

He's the one, you remember, who defined Puritanism as "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy."

Back in the 1920s when many American writers and artists were running off to Paris to escape what H. L. called the "booboisie," he stayed behind. One of his reasons was "my congenital weakness for comedy of the grosser varieties. The United States, to my eye, is incomparably the greatest show on earth….What could be more delightful than the endless struggle of the Puritan to make joy unlawful and impossible?"

If Mencken could be so entertained in the reign of Warren G. Harding, think how he'd be guffawing today.

We have a president who, for all his genuine gifts, has a seriously comic flaw. It is, as a friend explained to me, technically called a disconnect between his brain and his male member, the result of traumatic early onset of midlife crisis just as young Billy Clinton was reaching puberty.

Sounds awful, but my friend says it's not an uncommon problem.

So when a buxom intern coyly shows him her underwear and says she has a crush on him, the president goes comically stupid.

Sex may be a thing of transcendent beauty to the participants, but as a spectator sport it's slapstick. Seen through an Oval Office window, it's buffoonery. It's undignified. As Twain would say, it's French.

Which is one good reason most people don't like to talk about their sex lives. Our president is so averse to talking about his that he lies under oath about it. What sex life?

Now, caught in his lie, he's being humiliated. But he handles humiliation well. He's been there before.

"The heavy-breathing Ken Starr" (as Maureen Dowd calls him) thinks the president's sex life is something all of us should talk about. And he shows us how to talk about it in great salacious, prurient, lip-smacking detail-445 pages of it.

The Porn Check on my Macintosh blew a fuse.

His "referral," full of dropped drawers, stained dresses, and big cigars, shows that "the endless struggle of the Puritan" continues.

Meanwhile, the president's opponents, having said so many times that this is not about sex, are apparently starting to believe it. The problem isn't his hanky panky, they seem to think, but his refusal to talk about his hanky panky.

And to show they really mean it, some of them have begun to talk pre-emptively about their own hanky panky.

The Truth, Mainly


•Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind), who in another context called Clinton a "scumbag," has admitted fathering a child in his own extramarital messing about.

•Rep. Helen Chenowith (R-Idaho), who called the Clinton-Lewinsky storybook romance a "sordid spectacle," now tells us that she had her own storybook romance with a man who was married to someone else.

•And even kindly Henry Hyde (R-Ill), who is chair of the House committee that will decide whether impeachment goes forward, admitted to an affair three decades ago. Both he and his paramour were married to other people at the time.

The three have discovered that tabloid sharks are non-partisan, that they go into feeding frenzies when they smell blood, whether it's Democrat or Republican.

As the sharks close in, we can expect more gaudy confessions, mainly designed to forestall future investigative reporters, future special counsels. Because as delicious as it is to expose a president's sex life, it's even more delicious to expose the sex lives of people morally indignant about the president's.

And there will always be something to expose.

In "All the King's Men," Robert Penn Warren has Willie Stark tell Jack Burden to dig up dirt on a political foe. Maybe there isn't anything, Jack says.

"There is always something," Willie says. "Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something."

That might serve as Ken Starr's motto. A man with less zeal to nail Clinton might have given up after three years. But Starr had faith, and in the fourth year, Monica appeared before him. There is always something.

Which means an unending supply of comedy of the grosser varieties.

So bring in the clowns. Bring on the whoopie cushions. Give us more salacious details, more humiliation, more retaliation.


Lincoln English Professor Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays.


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