EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appeared in the February 8, 1999, issue of National Review. (You can dig into NR’s archives anytime here).
There were two hot tickets in December: Nicole Kidman strutting her excellent stuff on Broadway in The Blue Room and the House gallery during the impeachment debate. Glued as I was to the tube for the latter, I might, given the choice, have opted for the peach over the impeachment. The sight of the lightly sheathed Ms. Kidman posing on the cover of Newsweek (coverline: “Nicole Kidman bares all, about her daring Broadway debut, marriage to Tom Cruise, and their fight for privacy”-fight, Nicole, fight!) was a breath of stiffening fresh air. Give me a leggy Australian over a tubby 90210 intern any day. Fun as the saga of Monica and Bill has been, all that remains, at the end of a long, long year of cigar and dress jokes, in which we went from I didn’t inhale to I didn’t impale, is to paraphrase General Ripper’s gloss on Clemenceau and propose that sex is too important to be left to the politicians.
The first sex scandal that popped onto my radar screen was the Profumo affair. I was eleven in 1963. I remember the grown-ups in our household chuckling-when they weren’t crying. The episode produced the first political joke I ever heard: Why is Profumo such a bad carpenter? One screw and the whole cabinet falls apart. With that scandal, you didn’t have to clear the children out of the room before discussing the details. There weren’t really any lurid tidbits beyond the mere fact that Her Majesty’s secretary of war was having a slap-and-tickle with a fetching 21-year-old who was also doing the woolly deed with a Russian naval attache.
Well, we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. Is there a single, gruesome detail of the Monica and Bill saga that we are not privy to? What will she and her British ghostwriter have left to put in their book to titillate us? Her deconstruction of Walt Whitman?
Trust politics to screw up something as basic as sex. It may be a long time before sex is, well, sexy again, instead of just icky. Too bad Ms. Kidman’s run on Broadway is a limited one. We need her.
How did it get to this point? That hand-wringing question has been posed so many times in newspapers lately that if you asked Nexis to cough up the references, it would melt your Pentium processor. But you don’t need a database to be reminded that the decade began with a sex scandal (of sorts), when the people who originated this “sexual McCarthyism” hurled the first handfuls of mud at Clarence Thomas, smearing him for nothing more than a bit of alleged gamey office innuendo about pubic hairs on a Coke can. (To paraphrase again from Dr. Strangelove, if there’s any justice in the next world, the Left is going to have to answer to the Coca-Cola company.) It’s been fun, watching their furious indignation at-how do they put it?-the “politics of personal destruction.” And they do it with straight faces! If I were Justice Thomas, I’d lock the door, break out the soft drinks, and let out a long, triumphant, sibilant “Yesss!”
But these are Pyrrhic pleasures. You know things have gone too far when Larry Flynt, that clammy Caliban, has managed to wheel himself back onto page one. The genie cannot be jimmied back into the bottle. It is too late to send the dress to the dry cleaners. Eros is reeling.
And what a pity. You don’t have to be Camille Paglia to believe that a little healthy carnality is good for the national soul. The key, of course, is discretion. It’s one thing to hear about the libidinous shenanigans of the Kennedy administration ten, fifteen years later. Some among us have surely, in the secret chambers of our hearts, murmured to ourselves, Marilyn? Angie Dickinson? You lucky dog!
To be sure, it gets trickier when one of the concubines is a girlfriend of Sam “Momo” Giancana, or when another, Mary Meyer, is murdered and CIA man James Jesus Angleton is dispatched to remove her diary, but even then there was a kind of-I dunno-thrill, flair, je ne sais quoi in the details. At the very least these were transactions between grownups, not a Beverly Hills ditz and a chief executive who acts like my Labrador retriever, humping unsuspecting dinner guests. (And they had Buddy fixed?)
Rehearsing in the Oval Office study for the next cover of Cigar Aficionado is not the stuff of romantic legend. Nor is slamming the already emotionally distraught Kathleen Willey up against a wall. These pathetic tableaux are a far cry from Marilyn Monroe stumbling into the cabinet room, adjusting her bra strap, and breathily telling the assembled ministers, “I think his back is better.” Compare that with 60 Minutes:
Ed Bradley: When you say he took your hand . . .
Kathleen Willey: Right.
Bradley: . . . and put it on him . . .
Bradley: Where on him?
Willey: On . . . on his genitals.
Bradley: Was he . . . aroused?
Willey: (Sighs) Uh-huh.
Bradley: What were you thinking?
Willey: Well, I . . . I was . . . there was . . . I . . . there were all kinds of things going through my mind.
These and other excerpts from the Clintonian Kama Sutra are not calculated to make us murmur, You lucky dog. The thought that comes to my mind is–Duuude! What were you thinking?
What we have here is a variation of Gresham’s Law: bad sex driving out the good. Suppose-just suppose, for a moment-that instead of twelve months of page-one revelations on the order of the Penthouse Forum, it had simply been rumored, knowingly rumored, that Clinton was carrying on an affair de cuur with an attractive actress; further, that the First Lady was complaisante, so long as the arrangement was carried on with the utmost delicatesse, to say nothing of discretion, with Madame X discreetly waiting, en peignoir, in Bungalow Six of the Beverly Hills Hotel, or the Presidential Suite at the Waldorf.
(Notice the vocabulary we’re using here? Does it suggest a certain national model?)
Would we-really-mind? Okay, apart from Bill Bennett, Curator of National Outrage. Think what it would do for our relations with the French. They might even let our warplanes fly through their airspace en route to bombing Tripoli. Hell, they might even come along.
But, sigh (as Kathleen Willey would put it), that is not the current model for Presidential Mistress. The combination of adamant presidential denial, prosecutorial zeal, and a panting, 24-hour media has given us All the President’s Semen. Clinton’s legacy-apart from welfare reform and midnight basketball-will be that he turned sex into something to be winced at, rather than winked at. Not one ounce of piping-hot magma from this never-ending bimbo eruption has been anything other than revolt-o-rama, beginning with the artless, fatal come-on to Paula Jones, “Kiss it”-Mr. Smooth!-to the “distinguishing physical characteristics” (the First Member, you will recall, is apparently, like its owner, bent), to this moment of tendresse, as recounted in the Starr report:
Ms. Lewinsky testified that during this bathroom encounter, she and the President kissed, and he touched her bare breasts with his hands and his mouth. The President “was talking about performing oral sex on me,” according to Ms. Lewinsky. But she stopped him because she was menstruating, and he did not. Ms. Lewinsky did perform oral sex on him.
Afterward, she and the President moved to the Oval Office and talked. According to Ms. Lewinsky: “[H]e was chewing on a cigar, and then he had the cigar in his hand and he was kind of looking at the cigar in . . . sort of a naughty way. And so . . . I looked at the cigar and I looked at him and I said, ‘We can do that, too, sometime.’”
Who, emerging from this year-long bath of dirty water, could with enthusiasm make whoopee? Surely the most frequently uttered phrase in America this year has been, Not tonight, dear, I have a headache. Things have come to a fine pass when it falls to an Arkansas judge to define ars amatoria for us:
For the purposes of this deposition, a person engages in “sexual relations” when the person knowingly engages in or causes contact with the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, or buttocks of any person with an intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person.
Now that we’ve got that straight, what can I fix you to drink?
Why then, given the high gross-out factor, has this lurid drama held our interest-despite the insistence of Mr. and Mrs. Middle America that they don’t want to hear one more word? (Liars, liars, pants on fire!)
Good question. I’m not sure I have a clue, other than the distinct possibility that we revel in this stuff. As a presidential issue, it’s certainly more interesting than Social Security reform, or “Saving Social Security,” as we now put it. The problem is that it’s more entertaining than just about anything, including historic papal visits to Havana. The poor Pope was lucky to make page one. And thank heavens we live in the age of the split screen so that we weren’t forced to choose between watching the president get impeached and phosphorescent ack-ack fire over Baghdad.
Never was a game of cherchez la femme less tantalizing. To paraphrase Robert Bolt’s Thomas More: It profits a president not to lose his office for all the world-but for Monica?
What was the attraction–not for him, but for us? Could it be that we require sex scandals to amuse us and keep us comfortably appalled, and since the traditional source-Hollywood-is no longer in a position to supply them, we’ll take them where we can?
It used to be that Tinseltown could be counted on to provide us regularly with a nice moral stinkeroo to keep us riveted and tut-tutting. But over the years, L.A. scandal fatigue has set in, as it may now be starting to in Washington. We defined deviancy down. Hollywood lost its capacity to shock-unless you count O. J. Simpson, but that was a murder case, not a sex scandal qua sex scandal. Woody Allen’s untidy family affair did provide arresting summer entertainment a few years back; but Woody Allen is a New York, not an L.A., phenomenon.
We have come to expect bad behavior from our entertainers. Only the slyest Captain Renauds among us could read People magazine and pronounce themselves shocked, shocked that an actor’s marriage has ended after two weeks or that another actor has run off with still another’s wife, or husband; that Elizabeth Taylor has decided to marry another construction worker, this time really for keeps.
This is a shame, for Hollywood has historically provided us with real beauts in the Department of Depravity, beginning with another notorious insertion of a phallic object. (Fatty Arbuckle certainly had to answer to the Coca-Cola company.) Now it takes a spectacular sanguinary feat by an ex-football player and Hertz spokesman to get us to read past the jump. Mere marital irregularities and hanky-panky with the panatellas don’t stand a chance. The 44-year-old director of Titanic has just given the heave-to to his fourth wife, for yet another of his female players (the one who played the wholesome granddaughter!). Are we scandalized? Did we even notice? Doubtless, the bounder’s name will soon appear on a back-page New York Times celebrity petition equating impeachment with coup d’etat. And to think that Ingrid Bergman was cold-shouldered for having a child out of wedlock! (“Out of wedlock”? What’s that, Gen-Xers will ask, some new kind of traffic jam?)
A once-proud center of immorality, which in a typical week could provoke enough outrage to keep The 700 Club steaming for a year, is now reduced to brief, idiotic amusements: Rob Lowe’s home video, Pee Wee Herman’s arrest on the movie-theater balcony, Hugh Grant–Duuude!–on Sunset Boulevard, Eddie Murphy’s misunderstood samaritanism on same. Ellen DeGeneres tried, one senses, to spin her domestic arrangements into a scandal, only to find in the end that the public didn’t really care, just wanted the jokes.
Into this abhorrent vacuum came Bill Clinton; copiously, it appears.
Power may be, as Henry Kissinger has famously uttered, the ultimate aphrodisiac, but there’s another saying: Politics is show biz for ugly people. And who, really, wants to know the details about sex between ugly people? For that matter, how much do you want to know about sex between beautiful people? The last Washington coupling that any self-respecting person would pay $ 7.50 at the box office to see interpreted by actors was JFK and Marilyn. (Kevin Costner as JFK; Mira Sorvino as Marilyn; Steve Buscemi as Arthur Schlesinger Jr.?)
Ronald Reagan, who is looking better and better every day, used to talk about what he considered the sexiest movie scene he ever saw. At the end, the just-married couple disappear into a hotel room and close the door. If that wasn’t racy enough, the door re-opens and out comes a hand to hang a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the doorknob.
The Gipper would practically blush while describing this. This was a man, as has often been noted in the past year, who refused to remove his jacket in the Oval Office out of respect for it. (Ou sont les neiges . . . ?!) How perfect that, by the end of 1998, the most talked-about sex scene in America was the one in Tom Wolfe’s Man in Full–between horses. It seemed so wholesome by contrast! Perhaps this year’s Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, due out any moment now, will help to restore the lost -y in sex.