Monday, July 05, 2004

Sex, Lies and No Chalabi

July 4, 2004
Sex, Lies and No Chalabi

No sooner did the epic Ronald Reagan funeral finally sputter out, leaving about as much residual trace on the national memory as the last "Matrix" sequel, than it was Bill Clinton's turn for the saturation resurrection tour. Like its immediate predecessor, the Clinton mediathon quickly proved too much of a muchness.

For me, toxic shock started to set in before "My Life" officially went on sale. When Mr. Clinton and Dan Rather jointly donned rustic wear for an Arkansas summit on "60 Minutes," they seemed as authentic as Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie slumming in red-state America on the Fox reality show "The Simple Life 2." On publication day 36 hours later, Mr. Clinton did "Oprah," this time in an income-appropriate power suit, set off by a natty pink tie that once again matched his interviewer's ensemble. The hour began with two separate standing ovations -- one each for the host and the author. It concluded with her giving him two thumbs up. In between, the mutually assured narcissism never quit. The closest the conversation got to testy was when Oprah asked why her status as a White House visitor did not propel her onto any of the book's 957 pages. The author blamed his editor -- a vast Alfred A. Knopf conspiracy.

As with the Reagan farewell, pundits obsessively ask of the Clinton rollout: how will it affect the election? This is a recipe for infinite bloviation, since there is no answer. Voting day is four long months away. The more realistic question is what the re-emergence of these past presidents tells us about the country that will make that choice. The comeback kid's current comeback, even more dramatically than the weeklong siege of Reagan redux, gives us a snapshot of an America eager to wallow in any past, even the silt of Whitewater, to escape the world we live in now. It's a mood that feels less like the sunny nostalgia we imbibe on the Fourth of July than high anxiety. Better a clear-cut evil empire than an axis of evil whose members can't always be distinguished from our "allies." Better lying under oath about oral sex than dissembling with impunity about gathering "mushroom clouds" to justify the wholesale shipping of American troops into a shooting gallery.

This isn't to say that the spirit of Kenneth Starr has been exorcised from public life. But it's now mutated into a parody of itself, a reliable form of national comic relief just when we need it. Even as Americans gorge on porn, Washington's Keystone sex Kops remain on the march. On June 22, the same day that "My Life" hit the shelves with its promise of a fresh slice of Monica, the Senate voted almost unanimously, in a rare bipartisan gesture, to increase by more than $240,000 the penalty on broadcasters who trade in "indecency." Like an outrageous coincidence in a bedroom farce, the day of this historic vote was also the one on which Vice President Cheney, visiting the Senate floor for a photo session, used a four-letter word to tell a Democratic Senator, Patrick Leahy, what he could do to himself.

Mr. Cheney didn't seem to realize he had chosen the very word that had helped spur the Congressional smut crackdown in the first place -- the one Bono had used at the Golden Globes last year. Has the vice president no sense of indecency? Had C-Span only caught his transgression on camera, we might have seen Brian Lamb placed under house arrest and fined on the spot. Later Mr. Cheney said he "felt better after I had done it," and of all commentators, only Jon Stewart had a theory as to why. The vice president's demand that Senator Leahy commit an act of auto-eroticism, he reasoned, may be a signal that the Republicans are belatedly endorsing the gay-friendly ethos of the Clinton administration. "I think it's them opening up their hearts to a different lifestyle," Mr. Stewart said to Larry King.

In its account of the Cheney incident, The Washington Post ran the expletive verbatim -- another throwback to the Clinton era. It was the first time the paper had printed this epithet since publishing the unexpurgated Starr Report in 1998. The White House didn't seem to mind. Though Andrew Card, the president's chief of staff, condemned John Kerry for using this same word in a Rolling Stone interview in December -- "I'm very disappointed that he would use that kind of language," the sorrowful Mr. Card had said -- this time the transgression was given a pass. We're all moral relativists now.

Surely the moral clarity promised by Mr. Clinton's successors is long gone. Much as Democrats helped push for the television V-chip while looking the other way at their president's private life, so the party of Kenneth Starr now tosses worthless family-friendly initiatives to religious conservatives while countenancing Clinton-style behavior among its own if holding on to power is at stake. You could see this dynamic in action, conveniently enough, during the same week of the "My Life" publication. President Bush was in the swing state of Ohio promoting a "healthy marriage" program to a cheering crowd just as fellow Republicans were rallying around a rumored swing voter of another sort, Jack Ryan, the party's scandal-beset senatorial candidate in Illinois.

For those who missed this delightful bit of hard-core politics, here are the good parts: unsealed court documents from Mr. Ryan's custody battle with his former wife, the TV starlet Jeri Ryan ("Star Trek: Voyager"), included accusations that he had tried to coerce her into joining him in public sex at a New York club equipped with "cages, whips and other apparatus hanging from the ceiling." Mr. Ryan, whose denomination of religiosity extends to opposing legal abortion and gay civil rights, defended himself, saying, "There's no breaking of the Ten Commandments anywhere." On The Chicago Sun-Times's Web site, coverage of this scandal carried banners touting Mr. Clinton's "My Life" as a "related advertising link."

George F. Will, who wrote a column last fall extolling Mr. Ryan for his daily attendance at mass and an overall beneficence that makes "the rest of us seem like moral slackers," did not raise his voice in condemnation now. Nor did any major Republican leader, including Mr. Cheney, who had just appeared at a Ryan fund-raiser. "Jack Ryan, unlike Bill Clinton, did not commit adultery and did not lie," was how the columnist Robert Novak stood up for his man, sounding very much like Arnold Schwarzenegger's conservative apologists of last summer. Mr. Ryan, who had been regularly praised by Mr. Will and other admirers for being "Hollywood handsome," dropped out of the race anyway last week but only because he lacked Mr. Schwarzenegger's big-screen bravura (and poll numbers) to tough it out.

Mr. Ryan's demise was the cue for another sex sleuth minted in the Clinton years, Matt Drudge, to seek tit for tat by trying to gin up a new Clinton-style scandal about a Democrat. A banner story on his site, unsullied by any evidence, suggested that "media outlets" might soon go to court to unseal John Kerry's divorce records just as Mr. Ryan's had been. Even if this titillating possibility hadn't been posted just as an American marine was taken hostage in Iraq, it's hard to imagine it creating the stir in 2004 it would have six years ago. An earlier attempt by Drudge to pin an intern on Mr. Kerry had also flopped, despite the efforts of the former Bush speechwriter David Frum to keep the rumor alive on The National Review's Web site until it was proved false.

Such prurient fun and games, Washington style, seem like innocent escapism post-9/11. Not even Mr. Clinton's renewed omnipresence can help us revive the apocalyptic hysteria that attended the Lewinsky revelations. History is supposed to play out first as tragedy, then as farce. But this time you have to wonder if the farce, though once taken as tragedy, came first. Mr. Clinton's claim that he had "never had sexual relations with that woman" just doesn't seem as compelling as Mr. Bush's replay of the same script last month when disowning his administration's soured affair with Ahmad Chalabi. Asked if Mr. Chalabi had fed us some of the false intelligence on weapons of mass destruction that took us to war in Iraq, the president said he had never "had any extensive conversations" with that man and knew him from greeting him on a rope line (more shades of Monica!). To buy that, you have to believe that Mr. Chalabi's appearance with Laura Bush as a guest of honor at January's State of the Union is as irrelevant to this president's assertion of innocence as the stained dress was to his predecessor's.

Two days after Mr. Clinton's appearance on "Oprah," Mr. Bush aped him again -- becoming the first sitting president to be questioned by prosecutors at the White House since Mr. Starr was in his Whitewater heyday. Ah, Whitewater! I wonder if any of its sleazy particulars are as vivid in the public mind as the alleged crime that led the new special prosecutor to question Mr. Bush 10 days ago: the leaking of the name of an undercover C.I.A. officer (to the ubiquitous Mr. Novak) by an administration official as payback for the agent's husband's criticism of Mr. Bush. Somehow wartime scandals that threaten national security, putting American lives in jeopardy, trump those of money and real estate just as they do sex.

Many of Mr. Clinton's old antagonists, as we're learning since "My Life" was published, are starting to realize exactly that. "The Monica Lewinsky stuff now really seems so last century," said the conservative radio host Laura Ingraham on Fox as book buyers lined up for Mr. Clinton. "I mean, it just seems so old and tired and nothing new." Thus the new tactic is to update the brief to include 9/11. When Mr. Clinton appeared on "60 Minutes," the same anti-Clinton group that led the Whitewater charge a decade ago took out ads implying that it's entirely the former president's fault that al Qaeda wasn't stopped.

Actually, there's more than enough blame to go around -- Osama bin Laden has now gotten away during two presidencies. How the current president used semantic tricks to conflate Saddam with bin Laden, allowing him to escape yet again, is something we'd rather not think about just now. No doubt the Clinton revival will be as short-lived as Reagan's. But for the moment it takes us back to that halcyon time when we could despise a president for falsifying the meaning of a word as free of terror as "is."