I didn’t realize how much I was counting on Larry Flynt until I noticed I had spent Monday evening trying to find on the Web or TV a report of the much-anticipated news conference in which he had promised to offer up the names of several prominent right-wingers whose sex lives were at odds with their speeches. Trent Lott with the Congressional page in the conservatory? Elizabeth Dole with the Viagra in the bathrooms of the Red Cross? (Don’t laugh; one story did quote Flynt as saying not all the miscreants were men.) Arlen Specter with himself in a dress? A friend in the know had told me to expect something big. Coming on the heels of DNA tests that scotched last week’s big poli-sex story–Bill Clinton’s supposed 13-year-old love child–Flynt’s promise to send more Republicans off to the Home for Retired Hypocrites was an exciting prospect.
Imagine my disappointment when I woke up the next morning and found out his press conference had fizzled: Bob Barr refusing to answer questions in divorce proceedings about his soon-to-be third wife is not exactly the stuff that screaming tabloid headlines are made of. Flynt’s other charge, that Barr, an anti-choicer, went along with his second wife’s abortion in 1983, hasn’t clicked with the media either. Barr does seem to lead a charmed life, defended against those appalled by his speechmaking before the racist, eugenicist Council of Conservative Citizens by no less a liberal stalwart than Nat Hentoff. Hentoff wrote a column in the Washington Post portraying Barr, whose ACLU rating is 7 percent, as a civil liberties hero because he’s against roving wiretaps and the proposed universal medical-data card.
No matter how loftily the anti-Clintonites resist the charge, the impeachment does keep coming back to sex. Maybe it shouldn’t; maybe it should be about campaign finance abuses; or about bombing Iraq, as some leftists, including me, have said. (Historian Jesse Lemisch, who wrote a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education attacking the Schlesinger-Wilentz petition, circulated his own petition to that effect at the recent convention of the American Historical Association.) Maybe it should even be about perjury and witness-pressuring, as conservatives keep insisting it is. But it isn’t, and more than a year of haranguing and scolding by an army of preachers and politicos and pundits hasn’t been able to change that. It’s about sex, and everyone knows it. Why else, after all, does Representative Lindsey Graham intone that if senators only knew what was contained in documents that have not been admitted into evidence–documents that, we are given to understand, pertain to other, possibly violent sexual episodes in the President’s past–they would vote to convict him in a heartbeat.
That this is all about sex is the only way to understand why the President and the First Lady are the most admired man and woman in the country, with Monica Lewinsky not far behind. The economy doesn’t explain it, although Republicans now cling to the idea that Americans are too stupefied by prosperity to rise to the necessary heights of rock-ribbed sternness in service of moral principle. Besides, the people most opposed to impeachment are the people at the bottom, who’ve benefited the least from the boom and who have suffered the most from Clinton’s co-opting of Republican issues.
The Republicans wanted a showdown on “morality” and they got one. In the New York Times William Safire devoted an entire column to marveling at the loyalty Bill Clinton inspires from people who ought by rights to be furious with him–his wife, Susan McDougal, Web Hubbell, Harold Ickes and the two out of three Americans who tell polls they plan to stick by the President even if the charges turn out to be true. Safire couldn’t wrap his mind around the obvious answer: People cling to Clinton because they don’t believe he’s done anything so terrible, given that he is, after all, a politician; and they hate and fear Clinton’s enemies, whom they see, correctly, as narrow-minded reactionaries with a dangerous agenda. It’s not just that most people have skeletons in their own sexual closets, and if they don’t their best friend does. It’s that they don’t have the strict, old-fashioned beliefs about sexual morality of the anti-Clintonites, and they know, moreover, that many of the anti-Clintonites don’t have them either.
Everyone from Maureen Dowd on down has enjoyed attacking feminists for coming to the defense of the President. But on this issue, NOW and Feminist Majority are squarely in tune with American women, and the Independent Women’s Forum and the Concerned Women of America–not to mention Linda Tripp and Lucianne Goldberg–are not. Maybe the truth is, women understand that powerful men are mostly creeps, and mostly get away with it. As the Washington Post reported in an insufficiently noted front-page story awhile back, the oft-repeated assertion that Clinton would have been quickly fired had he been a corporate CEO is just not true. So if one set of creeps attacks the head creep from the other side, something besides women’s workplace equality is probably at issue. The President may not be God’s gift to feminism, but as defenders of women, his attackers have no credibility at all.
I’m not going to worry that Larry Flynt has jumped into the ring, distracting “the American people” from listening to their betters–whether it’s George Will fretting about the loss of “masculine” virtues like stoicism and hard work (who cleans his house, I wonder?) or the 160 religious academics, most notably Jean Bethke Elshtain, who signed a hand-wringing ad bemoaning the President’s convenient deployment of the concept of Christian forgiveness. Of all the weird little corners to focus on! If “politics and morality are inseparable,” as they declare, how come we didn’t hear from these people when the President was gutting welfare? Or when Reagan was secretly funding the contras and illegally mining the harbor of Corinto? If the impeachment proceedings are really not about the Constitution or the presidency or the ability to keep a straight face in public life, much less History and American Destiny; if they’re really a referendum on sexual liberalism, modern gender roles and “the sixties,” Larry Flynt and the people are on the same side.