EVERY American I know is wrung out from all the cycles of spin on Clinton, but his sex scandal still is convulsing the US. It's gone way beyond soap opera. The Starr-crossed president has been hung out to dry by a cynical press corps eager to boost circulation and ratings by airing the dirty details. If I were home in California, the whole Clinton mess would make me mad, sad, and defensive. I voted for the guy twice, after all. But as an American abroad, I am mortified. Long before any trial can take place, his punishment has been dished out by a predominantly Republican Congress, and it's cruel and unusual in the extreme.
By revealing all the excruciating details on the Internet, they've inflicted instant international humiliation. He's a cyber laughing stock. Dignity of office is not an executive privilege in the global village and we can't help smirking. If that infamous cigar had been imported from Havana, Clinton could have been cited for something tangible. We'd not be debating ethics or parsing his sentences to see if untruths were uttered or if the grand jury were cannily misled by a master of the legal loophole. I almost prefer the Mossad Honey Trap theory—Monica as an Israeli agent seems more glamorous than the banal reality.
Why is there such a flap about a virile president proving what sophisticates assume is one of his office perks—that superpower is a potent aphrodisiac? After all, when CNN asked President George Bush about his alleged affair, he snarled: "I won't respond to such a sleazy question", and the matter never came up again. Talk about censure. But Baby Boomers who came of age with rock 'n roll don't get off so lightly. Fleshy Bill Clinton, the sax player, admitted early on that he'd an eye for the ladies, and gained sympathy from people who saw his First Lady as icy and formidable. He wasn't pilloried like former Democratic hopeful Gary Hart, since his wife forgave him. "If it doesn't bother her...," most Americans shrugged. Though some Biblebelters were offended by these postmodern morals, most cared more about tangibles like reduced national debt and unemployment. But then Monica opened her mouth and the press played "Gotcha".
It's hard to stomach the self-righteous condemnation coupled with off-colour jokes and smutty sarcasm. But this scandal is not due only to America's obsession with celebrity sex. There's our fundamental belief in equality—that absolutely no one is above the law. We demand speedy trials with "Liberty and Justice for all"—the O.J. Simpson verdict notwithstanding. Now trial by media gets checked against opinion polls for daily re-affirmation and readjustment. It's getting ugly out there.
Formerly I was under the impression that grand jury hearings in the US were sacrosanct secret—in camera, not on camera—but such certainties are in flux. Buying time for Clinton's lame duck presidency by negotiating how much to whack off his pension is offensive, like bartering democracy. Karen Stouffer, a moderate West Coast Republican who taught high school civics, rules out that option. "For the president to be fined by Congress is unacceptable. The constitution calls for separation of powers. I'd like to see the judiciary committee send the perjury issue back to the original trial court but that wouldn't solve all Clinton's problems."
Recent court martials disgraced a brace of high profile adulterers in the armed forces, so their Commander-in-Chief isn't going to be let off easily, no matter how abject his apologies. Many argue that the president is only sorry he got caught and not truly contrite about the furtive gropes. (One wag wagered that Clinton's India trip may be on again once the CTBT is signed. It would prevent him tainting Democrats by association during mid-term polls, and also provide a chance for the absolution of his confessed sins with a dip in the Ganga.)
Clinton's other sins are alleged to be obstruction of justice, witness tampering, and abuse of power. Even if proven, none of these in a civil case counts as the "treason, high crime and misdemeanours" required for impeachment. Clinton's biggest bugbear would be lying under oath—a grave offence in a nation where the second national pastime is litigation. Got a problem with that? Sue me.
After megabytes of salacious testimonies, at times based on gossip or unsent letters with no expletives deleted, I long for a retrospective gag order. This goes for Monica especially, as in "Gag me with a spoon" (vintage Beverly Hills mallspeak for disgust). I cringe over the utter self-absorption of this spoiled West Coast intern, so eager to be de-briefed. Not every Californian is frenziedly "friendly" like the pushy Ms Lewinsky. She is no victim, though Monica is mired in notoriety of her own making. She is about to parlay her 10 assignations into a lucrative prime-time confession session with Oprah Winfrey. Tote up the tedium: Lewinsky had far more "face time" with the FBI and Starr than with Clinton. She naively burbled to the grand jury: "He kissed me all of a sudden, to shut me up I think." Quite.
Mass audiences who get their legal notions from LA Law re-runs confuse family values with legalistic arguments. The president's testimony is about sex as defined for a specific sexual harassment case and not for passion between consenting partners. Crassly put, do 10 unconsummated trysts really make an affair? If Monica were a bride instead of a willing bit on the side, she could annul this hypothetical marriage on the grounds that it was never consummated. Clinton truly believes he never had full sexual relations with that woman. They fooled around, but didn't go all the way. He must be cursing his mid-life crisis and wishing he'd restricted his 2 am phone calls to his normal Hot Line.
This case is riddled with peculiar personalities. Who is more vile—Linda Tripp, a pre-menopausal divorcee who recorded her own phone sex session with the First Groupie and urged her to stash a soiled dress away for future evidence of a Presidential fling? Or is it Ken Starr, the crusading preacher's son turned smut-hound? Starr's got a persecution complex in reverse: he does all the persecuting. During eight long months of White House stall tactics, few journalists could resist using unverifiable factoids, which if traced to Starr or his inquisitorial staff of 28 lawyers, could get the impeachment process thrown out on a mistrial. Regardless of what happens on Capitol Hill October 5th when representatives vote on the impeachment inquiry, the investigation won't get blown off easily.
It all comes down to getting a gut response in America's issue-driven politics. Opportunists abound and attention spans are short. When the tortured self-scrutiny ceases, whether Clinton stays or goes, the American presidency will survive. It's the press that seems to have lost its stature.
(The author is an American journalist based in New Delhi)