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.