The Moral Fallout of Clintonism
by Noemie Emery
Heterodoxy | October 1999
Last June, Ann Coulter, a stunning blonde lawyer and activist, wrote a short column for George magazine about the social life or lack thereof in Washington, a place, she said, where traditional mores are reversed or suspended, where romantic lives are subsumed in ambition, and restaurants tend to empty out early so patrons can go home and do what they want to: watch themselves and their friends on TV. In passing, she mentioned a few other oddities: that struggling staffers buy costly gifts for their rich, famous bosses; and that Washington men, instead of asking women to date them, try to get girls to ask them out.
As columns go, it was a pleasant bit of fluff and filler; perhaps too innocuous. It was a shock, therefore, to read the "response" to it that ran in Salon magazine. Titled Ann of a Thousand Lays (seemingly, on no grounds whatsoever), it offered to help her in her "quest for tube steak" with ten useful hints such as these: "Quit injecting yourself with your own urine," "Buy a vibrator," "Stop being a mean bitch," and "Get your head out of your ass." "I think you need to wrack up some quick orgasms," the Salon writer added. "There's one called the 'rabbit' that gets you going from several different angles at once, if you know what I mean."
And what could have caused this explosion of sewage? Possibly, two different things. Ann Coulter is six feet tall and a size six; with sheets of blonde hair that hold their own in the Rapunzel sweepstakes that take place on televised chat fests. She has been mistaken, she says, for the late Carolyn Kennedy, and has cheekbones better suited to the cover of Vogue than the plebian round face of Mrs. Clinton. She is, in short, a Hitchcock blonde, the sort of ice princess likely to wring rants like this out of nerdy male losers. More to the point, she is an ardent conservative, a regular on Rivera, and other talk programs, who wrote a best-seller, High Crimes and Misdemeanors, that made the case for a Clinton impeachment before the sex scandals exploded. Her critiques have veered away from his prurient interests and focused instead on his less fleshly failings, such as his habit of lying in public. Nonetheless, our Salon correspondent has seen fit to call her a "castrating bitch" for spreading lurid sex tales about Clinton.
In fact, Ann Coulter has not spread these stories, and evidence that she is a bitch of any kind is unclear, or is missing. But what is clear is that this is a sorry new stage in an old Clinton pattern, where political foes have been savaged on private sex matters; and women are trashed for their nature as women; attacked for their sex lives, real or imagined; attacked for their looks, their hair, weight, or noses; sometimes described as being hookers or stalkers; called trash, tramps, bimbos, bitches, witches, and sluts.
Under a cover of "correctness" and "caring," Clinton has a long record of verbally battering women, going back before the 1992 campaign. It was his then-aide Betsey Wright who coined the term "bimbo eruptions," and then found the ways to deter them: paying private eyes more than six figures to dig up the dirt about old Clinton girlfriends and threatening them with it. Destroying the speaker was supposed to discredit the story, a smart move when stories are true. So Gennifer Flowers, telling the truth, was attacked from the start as a trash-for-cash bimbo; a cheap bottle-blonde, whose word was worth nothing. Then came Paula Jones, a "tabloid trash" who became "trailer trash." (In the well-known taunt of James Carville, "Drag a $100 bill through a trailer camp, and there's no telling what you'll find." His implication was taken up fairly quickly. "Privately," said The New Republic, "Washington liberals are already pronouncing her, in the words of one, a 'little kurva' [whore]."
Then, there was Kathleen Willey, whose frail, wounded beauty did not lend itself easily to these tactics, though not for want of trying on the part of our leader. "You know what they say about her in Richmond," he gallantly said. And loyal feminist Sheila Jackson Lee was sent out to tell Brit Hume on Fox News Sunday that Mrs. Willey had caused her husband's suicide by going to her job in Washington, where she'd flaunted herself in front of our innocent president (and goaded him into assaulting her) instead of staying home where she belonged.
The famous Gap dress saved Monica Lewinsky from the worst of this treatment, but somehow an old boyfriend just happened to come forward when her name was first mentioned, appearing in a nationally televised press conference with his aggrieved wife and his pony-tail, to tell the world that she had been a teen-aged slut. Loyal Democrats chimed in to cast doubts on her sanity. Mario Cuomo called her an "inveterate liar." Charles Rangel came through with a similar statement: "That poor child has serious emotional problems. And I haven't heard that she played with a full deck in her other experiences."
No one dared lower this kind of boom on Juanita Broaddrick, though, when she came forward there was the sudden appearance of rumors that she'd had an affair with the man she then married, and Clinton friends like Susan Estrich and Jonathan Alter went on the air to suggest that she only thought Clinton had raped her.
"Lookism" was once the ultimate sin among Clinton's feminist groupies, especially regarding his appointees like Janet Reno. But with Linda Tripp, who did not look like Kathleen Willey, the gloves, and the scruples, came off. Sensing a kill, feminist friends came in like circling vultures. She was a freak and a witch and a shrew and a harpy, her size and her hair were endlessly ridiculed, as proof of an unstable and treacherous nature. This is par for the course in misogynist circles, where a woman who is good-looking is either a whore who sleeps around or a repressed bitch who ought to (the somewhat confused thesis of Salon's little mudbath); and a woman who isn't is a figure of fun, who ought to be stoned just on general principles. These cliches, of course, are what feminists are supposed to be fighting against. But with big brother Clinton, they break their own rules.
Women aren't the only ones who get caught in these maelstroms. From the very beginning, timely outings of Clinton opponents have been a constant theme of public life. From the tabloid explosion of Gennifer Flowers through the footling affairs of Dick Morris, to the present day, when the First Family and its hangers-on - the endless array of crooks, victims, and lovers - have replaced sitcom and Hollywood royalty as the new national sources of rumor and gossip, the newsworthy events of the Clinton Administration have seemed more in the line of the Star and the National Enquirer than Foreign Affairs and the Washington Post. In fact, the Clinton Administration and the tabloid press have often appeared to be working in tandem, with their mutual interest in other people's private lives. In recent years, it has often seemed certain that posing a threat to the public career of Bill Clinton is the best way to have your own private linen exposed. Question Clinton's approaches to law and veracity, and all sorts of odd things tend to float to the surface: an old affair here, a love child there, a rumored abortion, a spat with a friend, a teenage arrest - largely a prank - that Clinton's Pentagon breaks its own rules to expose and to publicize.
Time after time, the pattern repeats itself: Dan Burton chairs a committee, and stories appear about a son out of wedlock. Henry Hyde takes a lead role in impeachment proceedings, and a decades-old affair is revealed. Helen Chenoweth, a congresswoman thought in political trouble, is outed on her old affair. Much is made of the House managers' personal troubles. Bob Livingston, the Republicans' soon-to-be Speaker, is outed because of Clintonian revels, and dramatically and very publicly resigns.
It is not just the living, who sometimes can answer, who are subject to these ministrations. The Clintons have stooped now to retro-exposure: outing our long-hallowed dead. In Clinton's defense, our dead founders - Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson; dead war leaders - Dwight Eisenhower and Franklin Roosevelt; and murdered leaders of the 1960s - Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Kennedy - have had their old sins exhumed and their characters darkened to drag them all down to Clintonian levels, making our history read like one long tabloid story. Lucy Mercer and Kay Summersby (who are not certified as guilty by any DNA) are now on a level with fat White House interns, groped in the pantry.
"Hamilton lied when he was Secretary of the Treasury, and he wasn't impeached!" trilled Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), an impassioned Clinton defender. (Hamilton did not lie about his affair with Maria Reynolds, the woman he dallied with in 1792. He was Secretary of the Treasury when the affair occurred, and it became known to several congressmen. He was a private citizen when it became public knowledge five years later. Neither a private citizen nor a cabinet member can be impeached. But, never mind.) In time, this sliming became so extreme that it brought angry defenses for FDR by Rush Limbaugh, a libertarian conservative; and of Eisenhower by Christopher Matthews, an FDR Democrat. Both were enraged at the tarring of heroes and leaders to save the bad name of Bill Clinton, whose only connection to many great men is that all were or may have been adulterers. Other presidents have betrayed their wives, but none other has so looted his country and its history.
No one is too great, or too dead, to be used by this president. A dead founder has his old sins exhumed and exploited. A congressional critic has his private life ransacked. An old girlfriend is threatened and labeled a hooker. And a cover-girl critic of President Clinton becomes the unwitting star of Salon's blue movie, as a way of combating her arguments. This is the war that is politics by means ever ranker than usual. This is the marriage of "statecraft" and porn.
But even in these terms, the Salon piece is different; a new escalation of nastiness. Bad as they were, the exposes were of real things, that actually happened. Other attacks were generic in nature: "You know what they say about her in Richmond," etc. The Salon piece is not real, and it is far from generic. It is a succession of fantasies - raw, detailed, and extremely specific - made up from whole cloth in the "mind" of the author, and projected on to an absolute stranger, with no grounding whatever in fact. This is not a response to Coulter's column in George, which is a mild, Jane Austen-ish riff upon social mores. It is not about her real private life. It is, rather, an attempt to rip apart a critic of Clinton, on the ground this administration has made wholly acceptable; from attacking critics on the basis of what they had actually done, or might have done once, or might even have thought about doing, to attacking them now for what they never did, probably never even thought about doing, and might not have done if they had. This is the new ground of the Imagined Slander, where people are tarred with sins in the minds of their accusers, to which they have no connection whatever, a rather odd sort of political argument. But with Clinton and friends, as we have long watched with wonder, bets of all kinds are off.
Actually, the Salon piece does have an odd sort of genesis, stemming in equal parts from the misogyny implicit in Clinton's attacks on his girlfriends and victims and from the White House's attack on Ken Starr. When Starr was first named to investigate Clinton, updated versions of the Betsey Wright bimbo patrols were sent out to delve into his background (and those of his aides and associates), hoping to find dirt a la Bob Livingston. When no dirt was found, new tactics were called for and were quickly designed and perfected; much like those tried in Salon. Let us recall that the White House line throughout the scandal and trial was that Clinton was being pursued for his private behavior...his "affair", such as it was, with Lewinsky, and not for perjury and obstruction of justice, which might tend to make attitudes relevant. With the charge of hypocrisy out of the question - Starr had never done anything remotely like Clinton - a new line of attack was quickly developed: the Special Prosecutor had not sinned quite enough. He was too square and too straight to be normal or human. He was not man enough to be judging the President. He was repressed, oppressive, and deeply perverted. He was jealous of the wide-ranging sex life of our leader. He was driven by Puritan rage.
In "An Affair of State", his elegant dissection of the scandals and trial, Judge Richard A. Posner, a man so detached one cannot read in his book his political leanings, details in disgust the "campaign of vilification" the White House inflicted on Starr. At almost the moment the scandal had broken, Abeno Mikva, an ex-White House counsel, stepped forth to call Starr "out of control," "a bottom feeder" weirdly obsessed with "gossipy talk between two young women." Mikva admitted, "I know nothing about the facts but I think Judge Starr is sick." And James Carville (who has a way with words), who called Paula Jones a tramp from a trailer park, called Starr a "media whore" and "an abusive, privacy-invading, sex-obsessed, right-wing, constitutionally insensitive, boring, obsequious, and miserable little man."
The problem with this, aside from its nastiness, is that it seems to be wholly untrue. Starr, of course, seems no more obsessed, repressed, or possessed than Ann Coulter seems frigid, promiscuous, bulimic, anorexic, bitchy, or bigoted, all of which the Salon piece has called her. As Posner writes, "Nothing is known about Starr's personal life that would support such a theory. There is no basis for the claim by Clinton's defenders that the vigor with which Starr pursued the investigation was a consequence of his being a sex-obsessed Puritan witch hunter, or a Puritan of any kind."
And does this remind you, in any particular, of the rancid attack in Salon? Both are sex-based attacks upon critics of Clinton, based on no knowledge or facts whatsoever, but projected onto them by Bill Clinton's friends. This is the Clintons' time-honored approach. When criticized, challenged, or questioned on any grounds whatsoever, delve into the sexual pasts of your critics. If dirt emerges, expose it, or leak it, and make sure that it reaches a very large audience. If nothing emerges, do not let this deter you. Go on and make something up. Or, let the lack of a record become a perversion; your critic is deeply repressed. Too repressed to be trusted in judging our leader. It is the win-win, or spin-spin, solution. Criticize Clinton, and his friends will find something deeply wrong with your past or your attitudes. Count on it happening. It does, all the time.
And Salon is very much among the friends of Bill Clinton: at times, they could almost be twins. An online publication, Salon bowed in around the time the Lewinsky scandal broke open. It quickly defined itself by this event. The magazine and the moment seemed made for each other. It quickly became associated with the defense of Bill Clinton and with the Clinton approach. It fell into line with the White House defense, which was that the investigations and the impeachment process were all about sex and invasions of privacy; and that Clinton's critics were obsessed or were hypocrites. Salon ran numerous personal attacks on Ken Starr, in the terms so deplored by Judge Posner. It was Salon that broke the story of Henry Hyde's decades-old relationship, before he really was in public life. Again, it was the tone that made it distinctive. Other magazines - The Nation, for instance - defended Clinton in the impeachment fracas, but not exactly in this tone of voice. This tone of voice does not appear in the National Review, The New Republic, the Weekly Standard, the American Spectator, or the many other magazines that write about politics. Nor does it appear in the glossies that write about culture and style: Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, George, Capital Style, or Tina Brown's Talk magazine. It appears more often in Hustler, and other publications that come in brown wrappers, or are placed on the higher store shelves behind barriers, where children cannot read, much less reach, them. It also appears, in a modified version, in Carville's attacks on Ken Starr.
It is not likely the White House asked Salon's author to write this attack on Ann Coulter, or urged the editor to publish it. But it did set a tone of political discourse, in which such things were welcome and normative. It is not possible to imagine another administration in which this could have happened, another president who might have sanctioned this, or another mainstream magazine in which it could have been published. As Posner says of the slanders by Carville and Mikva, "Clinton could easily have silenced, and even more easily disavowed, his irresponsible defenders. He did neither. He either encouraged or condoned a 'low road' attack on Starr."
Likewise, he can be also regarded as having "encouraged or condoned" the Salon attack on Ann Coulter, by making it seem unexceptional, by the tone of his comments on Jones, Willey, and others, and by those of his flacks and his lawyers. He has mainstreamed abuse into the political dialogue; a "legacy" to truly chill the heart.
"Ugly times call for ugly tactics," says David Talbot, Salon's editor. And he ought to know. He has done his part to make the times uglier, though it is not the times that are culpable. What is culpable is the aberrant nature of Clinton and the strains of mounting a defense in his behalf. Clinton, of course, cannot be defended; he can just be excused on the grounds that he is not that much worse than are others, who either did what he did, or wanted to do it, or should have wanted to do it, in the event that they did not.
Thus the scurrilous nature of the current political dialogue. Thus the outings, the tarrings, the slurs against everyone: blonde pundits, dead heroes, old girlfriends; Henry Hyde, Kenneth Starr, and Ann Coulter; FDR, DDE, JFK. Thus the politics of smut and exposure as the sole way to maintain viability. Thus the tactics of Salon, and its strange editorial standards. Thus too the alliance with Hustler and with its political guide, Larry Flynt.
Hustler entered the political lists last October when Flynt took out an ad in the Washington Post, offering payments of one million dollars a piece to people who could come forth with proof of adultery among members of Congress. Then the publisher issued a caveat: he was interested only in dirt on Republicans, as his intent was to help President Clinton. Of course. No protests came from the President, or from his party, or from his, and its, feminist backers. In a news conference, the President's press secretary referred to Hustler as a "news magazine." A "news magazine" like Salon. As Michael Kelly wrote in the Washington Post. "The president's pornographer, who has a professional interest in undermining conservatives, openly pays cash for Republican sex secrets. And the President stands by, in silent support. Among friends, he laughs about that merry prankster, Flynt. And the President's party, eaten to the core by the ravages of Clinton's cowardice and selfishness, stands by."
It did more than stand by. It applauded. "Tuesday morning," Kelly went on, "the distinguished Democratic senator from New Jersey, Frank Lautenberg, appeared on television to perform his contemptible duty. Noting that Barr was the fifth Republican to be outed, Lautenberg praised such efforts. 'Larry Flynt says his mission is against hypocrisy, and boy, I think that's a pretty good mission,' he said."
Hustler and Salon are now the pet rags of the Clintonized Democrats, the two magazines that best express their sensibilities and their governing ethic. When criticized for things having to do with facts or with issues, hammer your critics for personal matters, while claiming your own "zone of privacy." Salon has now added this ruffle to Hustler: if you can't find bad things about an opponent, invent them, out of your own wormy mind. Perhaps Salon's author wants assignments from Hustler or a job at the White House in the spin-control office, if one can still tell the difference between them. It gets harder and harder each day.
So his party, as Clinton will leave it, is something not too different from the Jerry Springer Show. It is the party in which Springer himself was proposed as a possible senator; a party in which Geoffrey Fieger, the foul-mouthed attorney for Dr. Kevorkian, could, and did, run for a governorship. (His four-letter campaign assailed every religion imaginable.) What a team the two of them would make. Mr. Springer has declined the offer, but perhaps Mr. Flynt will step in, in his place. Or, should Hillary Clinton drop out in New York, carpetbagging being no longer an issue, Mr. Flynt might want to run there. Or, he might go to New Jersey and try to fill the seat being vacated by his fan Senator Lautenberg; it seems not a moment too soon. But Mr. Flynt has already given a possible gift to his favorite party; a new symbol, should the donkey retire, that would seem to be more up to date. He is the man, one recalls, who once ran a picture on the cover of Hustler of a naked woman being fed headfirst into a meat grinder: an offense that brought shrieks from feminists, with protests, pickets, and demands that he be fed headfirst into a meat grinder; and that the First Amendment be suspended, at least in his case. But his de facto alliance with our first female president (see the authentication from Toni Morrison, Mary Gordon, and others) went unremarked on by our feminist leaders; and the people who spent most of last year inveighing against "sexual McCarthyism" (and had more to say later) saw nothing amiss in all this.
Clinton has succeeded in uniting feminists and Larry Flynt behind him and in his party, a stunning feat of coalition-building that would stagger masters such as FDR. Flynt's infamous cover could run as the art work for Salon's little essay and would work well as the logo for Clinton's new feminized party; as it explains so well what he was, and is, doing. Our ambitious president has finally nailed down his legacy as one of the few men who reshape and define their own following. He has given his party a wholly new image. In the '40s and '60s, it once was the party of freedom. It now is the party of porn.
Ms. Emery wrote Slouching Towards Clinton in the June/July 1999 issue of Heterodoxy.
1999 Center for the Study of Popular Culture