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Free Willie

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The president leaves a stain on his presidency, his marriage and, literally, on Monica Lewinsky.

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Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt is well known for her wit and her keen sense of both the ridiculous and the sublime. Her "Subject to...

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Can it really be that President Clinton will have to step down from the White House because he had--omigod--extramarital oral sex with an adult human female not his wife? Not rape, not sexual harassment, not child molestation or sleeping with his best friend's wife, nothing painful or kinky or involving drugs or costumes? This in a country where half the kids over 15 have as many piercings and tattoos as lifers in the gulag and the front cover of this month's Reader's Digest, on view in every grocery store, trumpets an article within as "Surprising Health Benefits of Sex!"

I watch the talking-head shows, I listen to the radio and thumb through the endless gray wastes of moaning and harrumphing that fill the daily papers, and I am just astonished. American journalists, who know all there is to know about the routine licentiousness of politicians and are no angels themselves either, I might add, seem unable to wrap their heads around the banal Monica Lewinsky scandal and put it in its place. Clinton-haters like George Will and Maureen Dowd I can understand, but Bob Herbert?

Well, I feel sorry for President Clinton. True, he's a creep and a schmucko, to use Ms. Lewinsky's pet names for him, also a dissembler: I always believed Gennifer Flowers and, most of the time, Paula Jones. Worse, he's a hypocrite, who, as Barbara Ehrenreich points out, has pandered to the right on family values, castigating teens for having sex and women for bearing "illegitimate" children; he signed a welfare bill that, among other cruelties, cuts food stamps while providing millions for classes in abstinence. It's hard to sympathize with a man who's now lying in the strait and narrow bed he helped make for so many others.

Nonetheless, I do sympathize with him. President Clinton executed the brain-damaged Rickey Ray Rector and pushed through a draconian crime bill; he bombed Baghdad and may well do so again. But this love affair is nobody's business but his, his wife's and Ms. Lewiusky's. None of them are complaining, so why should CNN? I don't even care that he may have fibbed in his deposition to Jones's lawyers, or asked Lewinsky to back him up, because they had no right to ask about consensual sex in the first place. Or do we now believe that infidelity is ipso facto suggestive of sexual harassment? It seems to me that the risks of having a philanderer in the White House-whom people have already knowingly elected twice-are far less than the risks of permitting special prosecutors and others to play Savonarola. How would you like to be deposed about your sexual partners and practices? If I thought I'd get away with it, I'd lie too.

When it comes to sex, journalists reason like children. We are told that a President can't run the country if, as Gennifer Flowers cleverly put it, "He's thinking with his other head"--but before the scandal broke, nobody charged President Clinton with inattention or stupidity. Or take the view put forward not only by countless right-wing commentators but even by progressive Norman Solomon: Someone who would lie about one thing would lie about others. As a general rule, this is quite false: Most people manage to confine their mendacity to a few subject areas, of which sex is probably number one. Politicians, however, lie all the time, whether or not they sleep around. That's what the media should care about, instead of trying to persuade ordinary folk that the President is the national Daddy and that the First Family is supposed to enact a pageant of domestic virtue. Thank heaven polls suggest that most people have more sense.

You wait and see, I told the Last Marxist when the Lewinsky story broke. This will all be blamed on feminism. The women's movement will be gleefully mocked as hoist by its own petard, deprived of "Hillary's husband" because it turned all sex into sexual harassment. The L.M. compared me to an old grandma worrying that Woody Allen is bad for the Jews. But the Lewinsky scandal is already being used to make feminists look like special pleaders: Where, assorted male pundits wonder, are the charges that Bill Clinton "doesn't get it," the defense of the much-maligned Flowers and Jones, the warning to the White House not even to think about trashing Monica Lewinsky, whom Clinton has already referred to as That Woman and aides are calling The Stalker? "If Paula Jones is telling the truth," Gloria Steinem told me in a phone interview,"Bill Clinton made a ridiculous gross proposal. She said no, and he accepted it. Clarence Thomas and Bob Packwood did not: The key concept here is respect for women's will."

But then, of course, there are those feminists who see younger women as unable, really, to assert their will with a powerful older man. Some of these commentators are clearly temporary converts seizing a partisan opportunity. It was a bit of a shock to troll through Nexis and find the Independent Women's Forum's Christina Hoff Sommers ("She's only a child") and Rita Simon, who heads the right-wing libertarian Women's Freedom Network, enlisting in the frailflower brigade. Wouldn't you know that when these doughty opponents of "victimology" found a victim, it would be a woman who, so far as we know, was a volunteer?

Sommers and Simon ought to smoke a peace pipe with Catharine MacKinnon and Brandeis professor Linda Hirshman, with whom I had a friendly chat on the Pacifica Radio show Democracy Now. I pointed out that there's no evidence that Monica Lewinsky was bullied or coerced or intimidated into sex and quite a bit of evidence that she was a willing, even eager, participant; that many young women actually like to have sex with powerful older men; that Lewinsky's current troubles spring not from the embraces of the President but from the secret and illegal tapings of her "friend" Linda Tripp. For these mild observations I was likened to Katie Roiphe, and dismissed as a free-love advocate from the sixties and as someone who supported the "right of powerful men" to take advantage of their subordinates.

"Feminism means respecting the free will of women," said Steinem. "No means no, and yes means yes." In his current predicament, the President could do worse than remind the nation, and its pundits, of that crucial distinction.

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