Clinton’s Acquittal (Feb. 17, 1999)

There are two ways to look at Bill Clinton’s persecution, both of them valid, one inspiriting and the other dismal. The inspiriting truth about the long scandal, terminated by senatorial acquittal of the president last Friday by a simple majority on both counts, is that puritanism was vanquished. This is truly a glorious victory. Puritanism runs through America with as dark a trail of misery as in other societies cursed with its oppressive shadow.

A year ago virtually the entire political and journalistic establishment of the United States was united in agreement that President Clinton’s sexual escapades with Monica Lewinsky disqualified him from office. When the affair first surfaced there were gleeful predictions by America’s most seasoned commentators that Clinton would be gone within a month. And when the early polls showed that, contrary to the elites in New York and Washington, ordinary Americans didn’t think Clinton should be hounded from office, didn’t think his personal behavior disqualified him from tenure of the oval office, the experts deprecated the pollsters’ finding. The popular mood, they averred, would soon change.

But the popular mood never did change, despite the Republicans endless hopes - still sputtering as recently as last week - that it would. The House Republicans rushed the Starr report before the people last fall, confident that its graphic details of carnal treachery finish Bill off, and Bill’s ratings rose. The November elections blared the popular verdict once again, and Newt Gingrich lost his speakership. But still the Republicans wouldn’t give up. They voted to impeach and once again Clinton soared in public esteem. Nothing has been more delightful than the discomfiture of the parlor moralists like William Bennett, author of the best-selling Book of the Virtues and the more recent plaintive Death of Outrage.

Clinton was truly saved by the ordinary people. The elites would have finished him off months ago. And what the ordinary people have been saying is that they do not accept the premise (and all the hypocrisies that premise engenders) that presidents and politicians have to be moral exemplars. The ordinary people have stated clearly life is messy, but that getting in that sort of mess is not an impeachable offense.

The dismal aspect to Clinton’s travails concerns the rise of the prosecutorial state, whose shadow ordinary people dislike as much as they do puritans.

I wrote the rise of the prosecutorial state here a couple of weeks ago, and how Clinton’s travails at the hands of Starr and the House managers offer lurid illustrations of this same state in action. Judge Richard Posner said in 1995 that the US “criminalizes more conduct than most, maybe then any, non-Islamic nations.” The very day that the US senate acquitted Bill Clinton, came news that on February 8 the US Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit repealed the Miranda Rule, finding it had been superseded by an Act of Congress in 1968. No longer is the Miranda warning and the defendant’s waiver required, for the defendant’s statement is excluded. Now the test is strictly one of “voluntariness.” But of course the US Supreme Court required the Miranda warning in the mid-1960s precisely because of the murky nature of “voluntariness.” We live in an age when death squads of cops roam the streets of major cities armed with M-9 machine pistols, ready to discharge them at a moment’s notice into the bodies of people reacting with insufficient or excessive speed to commands to raise their hands. These same cops will of course claim that suspects “voluntarily” agreed to make a statement, presumable at the same moment that their heads came “voluntarily” into contact with a policeman’s bludgeon.

The Fourth Circuit is infamously cro-magnon in its outlook. On November 17, 1998, it held that it was not reversible error for a trial judge to tell a jury that he — the judge — believed the defendant was lying and the that he — the judge believed the defendant was guilty. The Fourth Circuit said this might have been error, but was not reversible error, for the trial judge also told the jury they were the final judges of credibility and they should form their own view of the evidence. So the error was harmless.

So these are the two threads running through the entire Lewinsky scandal and impeachment. Saturday’s newspapers were full of trite phrases about the “trauma” of the scandal, and the harrowing protraction of this “national nightmare.” It’s been nothing of the sort. The scandal has been a delight and just when it was beginning to outstay its welcome, the curtain has fallen.

I stand to receive $1,000 from MUGGER, though I shall have to wait until Clinton steps down at the end of his term. MUGGER has conceded that if Clinton is struck dead by a meteorite or run over by a car, my victory will stand, since our bet is about the survival of the scandal, not any statistical bolt from heaven. I also stand to get another $250 from unwise associate of our leader. Even the final week of impeachment there were offers to wager even more money, coming from right-wing conspiratorialists of the devout belief that a fresh wave of scandals will lay Bill low.

Hitch the Snitch (Continued)

Christopher Hitchens in the Nation offers his lengthiest rationale to date for snitching on Sidney Blumenthal. It’s a curious little essay. Hitchens describes now “In the course of getting hold of the transcripts [of Blumenthal’s grand jury testimony] and so forth, I had a number of conversations with staffers at various House committees. One of them evidently called the House Judiciary Committee, which contacted me on Friday, February 5, while this column was being written. These matters are often decided in the first few minutes...” Hitchens then says that the House counsel “quite clearly knew the answer to the first question she asked me, which was whether I had ever heard Mr. Blumenthal relay the President’s version of events [about Monica being a “stalker”]. 

Well, of course the House counsel “quite clearly knew,” because Hitchens had just told his story to “staffers” at “various” House committees.” Anyone looking for transcripts of these grand jury proceedings would have called the Judiciary Committee, which is presumably what Hitchens did. He told his story to eager committee investigators and then got the call back from in committee counsel, to whom — no prolonged inner struggle here about betraying a friend — Hitchens instantly declared his readiness to swear out the famous affidavit.  

Hitchens, plainly enough, set up the conditions under which an affidavit would be requested, and then followed through. Over and above his normal insensate lust for the limelight he thought that by shopping Sidney, Clinton’s defense would crumble, Democratic senators change their minds, and Bill be brought low by...Hitchens. Treachery couched down with megalomania. This may not be the first time Hitchens has thought that he can turn history’s tide. One of confidently authoritative fellow insisting on anonymity says that in the waning moments of the last presidential election, Hitchens called Dole’s hq to say that he had a story that, if properly laid forth before the American people, could reverse the trend and put Bob Dole in the White House. Hitchens then, on this account, confided that Dick Morris was Clinton’s pimp, procuring women for him at the Jefferson Hotel in Washington. The Dole campaign evidently decided not to go with this charge, which was a blending of Morris’s own podophiliac cavortings at the Jefferson, with long-standing rumors about Clinton trysting spot on Q St. near Dupont Circle, originally published either in this column or in CounterPunch, though at thus distance I cannot fully recall. 

Meanwhile Hitchens’ wife Carol Blue has apparently being trying to beef up evidentiary support for the affidavits issue by her and her husband. A mutual friend says she called Steve Wasserman, now editor of the Los Angeles Times book supplement and a long-time friend, and asked him to confirm by affidavit the fact that shortly after the lunch with Blumenthal either she or Hitchens had recounted to him Blumenthal’s lunchtime retailing of stalker charges. Wasserman, the mutual friend claims, said he most certainly did not recall any such conversation. 

There are some contradictions between Hitchens’ recollection of the famous conversation with Blumenthal and that of his wife Carol. In his self-justifactory Washington Post column Hitchens wrote that “To me, it seems plain that he (Blumenthal) circulated a story in his own name, believing it to be true...” indeed Hitchens’ affidavit makes no mention of Blumenthal citing directly Clinton as the source of “stalker” slurs. But Carol Blue’s affidavit sworn later and separately maintains that “Mr. Blumenthal stated that the President told him that he [the President] was the ‘victim’ of Monica Lewinsky’s ‘sexual advances.’”

Hitchens’ core defense is that he was entirely disgusted by Clinton’s evolving of the Monica-the-stalker defense, and by Blumenthal’s complicity in this defense. Hitchens writes of this as “an unusually revolting strategy strategy.” 

In the Washington Post, he talked with equal outrage about “this foul story, with its equally foul implications,” which was “a crude threat to her of moral and psychic destruction.” Such overheated language falls over the edge of the absurd, when, in the Nation Hitchens describes Bill’s semen stains on the dress as “horrid leavings” which as a phrase is not only overwrought but etymologically barbarous, since the Latin word “horridus” carries the sense of bristling, a status more closely akin to Hitchens’ freshly hirsute chin than Clinton’s semen streaks.

Nothing could be more mundane than semen stains, but they occasionally evoke the silliest hyperbole. Many years ago the late drama critic Ken Tynan described the semen stains on the St. Just Character’s trousers in Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade as of positively sacral significance.

Hitchens’ tumid evocation of Monica as Dickensian victim was backed up by his fellow snitch Linda Tripp who went into Hitchensian contortions to justify her own betrayals, claiming that she told all in order to save Monica from Bill, but Tripp did also say on NBC that the stalker charges about Monica long predated any White House use, since Monica was described thus by her work mates. The problem may be that as in Moynihan’s famous remark about deviancy, “stalking” is being defined down. It used to mean an activity truly crazed and menacing. But now it can carry the lighter sense of a woman doing her utmost to make herself available to the target of desire — which is exactly what, all agree, Monica did. 

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