The BOOKPRESS December 1998

Washington Wonderland

Hortense J. Spillers

As far as I know, no other living soul has said yet that a sequence of events might be tragic and farcical at once, but the interlocking scandals aswirl the Washington Beltway suggest that on the road to the millennium, anything like that could happen, and everything like it already has. To catch the drift of the farcical side of things, consider the following comparisons, entertainingly sketched some weeks ago by CNN’s Bill Schneider, between Watergate on the one hand and "Monicagate" (even Le Monde calls it that!) on the other: By now our model impeachment proceedings, the former had to do with real crimes—the solicitation of government agencies to wreck the careers of one’s political enemies, actual or imagined, starting with the in-/famous burglary itself, while the latter concerns "real crimes" that yield a handful of morsels to our repertoire of bathroom humor—the intrusion of one lone cigar (a Freudian blue-plate special), which really wasn’t one, and, according to what a Secret Service agent was supposed to have said, one helluva mess of used Kleenex. As for that "cancer growing on the [Nixon] Presidency," your guess about what got extended in the Clinton Oval Office during those encounters, so vividly described in the heavy-breathing Starr Report, is certainly as good as mine. For John Dean, substitute the intern, whom we know (and really don’t want to) only because of a lady over in Maryland by the name of Linda Tripp, who looks like the "dog" she is, and for Howard Baker’s simply majestic "What did the President know, and when did he know it?" or Barbara Jordan’s eloquent evocations of the U.S. Constitution, bring in "What did the President touch?" and doesn’t it all turn on how you’re defining touch? or even partisan Henry Hyde’s insipid ramblings about "censure plus" and combining the charges against the prez, and on and on, through the endless sickening bathos of unattractive characters, chasing book deals, the kissing and telling, with every garbled sentence of it, every idiotic word and gesture in it, snitched to the Office of the Independent Counsel. But if you believe that those moiling atoms of debased talk, of seduction and betrayal, have nothing to do with us, the law-abiding out here in the boonies, then I have some land I want to sell you down in Arkansas. When we’re done snickering, there are genuine consequences here to consider.

(Meanwhile, the recent mid-term elections did little to alter the congressional balance of power and obsessive talk of impeachment, even though they did place Republican California back in play and cut the House majority by five seats; the real news to write home about the aftermath, however, is the fact that diaper-ready Newt G. has been dispatched back to Georgia on Gladys Knight’s midnight train—at least for now, be warned—as Alfonse D’Amato’s countenance gives way to Chuck Schumer’s, Mr. Faircloth of North Carolina faces retirement, and former Navy seal, Jesse Ventura, acquires The Mind with which to govern the state of Minnesota. Not exactly what the smart money told us to bargain for, but entirely appropriate to the incoherent state of American politics in the late twentieth century.)

I stopped laughing about all the "gates" long before the First Lady’s ridiculed (in some quarters) interview took place on the "Today Show," following her husband’s embarrassing denials that morning he shook a chiding finger at the television cameras where we sat. Remembering how, for example, Maggie Williams, former secretary to the First Lady, and Craig Livingstone, former White House functionary, implicated in the so-called "Filegate," were hassled and hounded, among many others, by the D’Amato and the Thompson investigations over in the Senate, I am as convinced as I will ever need to be that the display of animus toward the Clinton Presidency is not only unusual in its intensity, but downright dangerous in its intransigent character because its proponents appear ready at all costs to reverse the outcome of the last two presidential elections. Throw in the particular venom of Dan Burton and his ignorant, investigative zealots over in the House, and we have what looks like, for all the world, a relic of the McCarthy era, with hearings rehearsed in rolling sequence from virtually one end of this two-term presidency to the other. Not of age during the Roosevelt years, I am told how viscerally hated FDR and Eleanor were in certain quarters of the country, and if the bullet that killed Abe Lincoln can be imagined in suspense for a moment, then finally reposed, just under a century later, in the brain tissue of JFK’s skull, then it is painfully clear that the response to pathological feelings occasionally directed at the Oval Office and its occupant constitutes one of the most dreadful chapters in the career of U.S. democracy. Details aside for the moment, these simultaneously loved and hated figures—the polarized alignment lying close to the heart of the sacred—appear to have a few crucial things in common: Whether it is true or not (and one has been hard-pressed to consistently believe it about William Jefferson, small boy from Hope), each of these leaders is linked in public imagination with the man lowest down and the pursuit of policies that might benefit him and, by the slightest turn of the screw, with practices not inimical, at least, to a leading national mytheme called "The American Negro," by her various other names today, mutatis mutandis, virtually the same character—"black," "African-American," etc. Keep this little detail in mind, for it is hardly minor in this discussion, no pun intended. But if the Clinton Presidency has catalyzed such malicious feelings of revolt, then some of the horror generated in the observer grows out of our fear of, our revulsion at, the constellation of forces that are so cooperatively engaged in trying to subvert it. That is new, I believe, and the tragic feature of consequences that might be reversible, but only if we pay close attention. By not tossing Democrats out of office, wholesale, on November 3, the American voter was signalling his/her willingness to do just that, but the recent hearings, conducted by the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Impeachment Interpretation,1 tell us that the House majority leaders are still tone-deaf, elections be damned, even as they fall back on the claims of constitutional duty and prerogative.

(It is important to note, however, that there is a bit of movement within Republican ranks away from a definitive disposition on an impeachment program, or so we are told by the bean-counters and the professional fixers; according to certain "talking heads," Hyde and Co. are trying to figure out how to "gavel down" what they’ve started up, or, in effect, how to get loose of the "tarbaby" they have concocted. With an admirably skillful nose for the main chance, Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter (R), went on the "box" just a few days ago to sketch a way out—if the House votes articles of impeachment that wend their way to the Senate chamber for a trial, there will not be enough votes in that body to accomplish the deed, but—Specter continued as if he were simply going over logistics for a St. Pat’s Day Parade—not to worry, inasmuch as the ex-president could be prosecuted for lying under oath. In other words, the failure of an impeachment vote in the Senate now needn’t mark the end of the world for those who hanker after the big Fall because the courts could try him once he is bereft of whatever protections of office he currently enjoys, and for my money, they are, in this case, neither numerous nor unassailable. Bear in mind that the gist of this strategy was aired a few weeks ago on "Larry King Live" by Governor Cuomo. Following out this logic, we would let Clinton off the hook for now, but might experience the satisfaction of a civic catharsis later on. That we are having recourse here to logic-chopping of the most scholastic sort goes far to explain the terrible dilemma of meaning and practice of which the Clinton Affair is only symptomatic. Did we make this bed?)

There are so many places where one might start an inquiry into this ongoing mess that even thinking about it brings on a headache, but one needs to dispose of the man first, since he is the current eye of a storm that the rest of us might be buffeted by well beyond elections 2000 and his Presidency. Today’s incredible talk of impeachment, then, has both to do with Bill Clinton, most immediately, and, in the long term,with prospects for a progressive social and political practice and its implications for pluralist democracy in the United States. We are in the midst, no less, of a concrete trial of the staying power of democratic principles and the extent to which the citizen body is able to discern the difference between banditry under the cover of law and outright rejection of it and the authentic workings of constitutional justice. On the latter point, the President himself has been unhelpful. Even though outrage at his folly will do little to stanch the powerful hemorrhaging that threatens to overwhelm his legacy, we are stunned nevertheless at the degree of arrogance and forgetfulness that brought him to this pass. We, let alone he, could not afford the Monica-error; now when I say "we," I’m not trying to sneak one over on the reader—I should say that I am a lifelong Democrat, voted for the "big guy" twice, admire Hillary Rodham, and I have always pulled for him, even in moments of gravest doubt and suspicion, e.g., the Grenier, Elders, and Foster fiascoes, etc. There has even been a tad of regional pride in my vigilance, inasmuch as I share a childhood and a river with this President; my "we," then, refers to that cadre of readers for whom Clinton’s lapse of judgment has been exceedingly costly, as I am even willing to invoke a bit of cynicism in the matter—if you can’t be good then be careful, stupid ! That he got caught with his drawers down in this thing is simply ridiculous. Even if he were entrapped and cajoled into it, his behavior was still stupid. The eminently missable Monica—my hairdresser calls her the "Pillsbury doughboy"—might have been sent packing, with a note hair-pinned to that blue cocktail dress, back home to mama, but she wasn’t, and what might have in fact remained "private," "nobody’s business, but ours," and stayed, thereby, out of the collective sight and hearing has escaped to oxygen and the light of day. Now what? The muddle that Clinton has made—albeit, mightily assisted—is absolute and mimics the confusion that his gestures of political compromise have engendered often enough. For that reason, it defies sense, somehow boggles the mind: If the public hadn’t found out about the liaison, would it have been wrong-doing nonetheless? I have never learned sufficient philosophical patience, which is the true terrain of a question like the one I have posed, analogous as it is to that tree that fell in the forest, but no one heard, or more appositely, the multiple sexual shenanigans that have unfolded in the White House over the tumbling decades, we might imagine, but the public never knew, and except for the most elaborate of ruses (at least semi-criminal), would be none the wiser now. But the impeachment proponents tell us that the problem here is not the sex piece, but the President’s having lied, first, to a federal judge during a civil deposition (January 17, 1998) and then to a federal grand jury. (August 17, 1998). The defense answers back that the lie was not material, because: 1) the grand jury to which the President bore false witness had been convened in a civil case—Paula Jones vs. Clinton—in which the judge who conducted the deposition would later rule that facts divulged on discovery, concerning Monica Lewinsky in particular, would not be admissible at trial in the Jones case and 2) even if the President did commit perjury in response to questions concerning Lewinsky, his doing so became moot, insofar as Judge Susan Webber Wright granted the President’s lawyer, Robert Bennett, a summary judgment, which ruled that the sexual harrassment charges brought by the Jones party were not legally sustainable.2 Whew ! The byzantine character of the legal profile of the Clinton Affair will not flatter the lay person’s normal intelligence. Its nice distinctions (as the wording of reason #1 outlined above will demonstrate) require a kind of "poetic faith" in a context never meant for the "willing suspension of disbelief." And if the way here is treacherous and winding, then we understand more fully how one small linguistic slippage lets a camel's hump right through the eye of a needle.

Judge Wright’s stipulated definition of "sexual relations"—as the Jones lawyers were trying to determine how many women, who, what, where, etc.—and what exactly happened to it in the President’s hands are nothing short of miraculous: Advanced for the purposes of the Clinton Deposition in January, Judge Wright’s messed-up grammar yielded this judicial glitch—"A person engages in ‘sexual relations’ when the person knowingly engages in or causes—(1)contact with the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, or buttocks of any person with an intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person . . . ‘Contact’ means intentional touching, either directly or through clothing." (p. 4 of 146). A year ago, "sexual relations" were a lot easier to define, as one could usually tell whether or not she was having them, but what difficulties we are going to endure now! Our clever "deponent," raised in the Bible Belt, where the favored "missionary position" marks both a state of grace and the decline from it, disposed of the breach that the judge’s definition opened: "[I]f the deponent is the person who has oral sex performed on him, then the contact is with—not with anything on that list [well, technically speaking, he was not wrong!], but with the lips of another person. It seems to be self-evident that that’s what it is. . . Let me remind you, sir, I read this carefully." (p. 5 of 146; emphasis mine)

So, let me get this straight—Republican lawmakers, months before a new century, would have us believe that this configuration of legal maneuver is sufficiently weighty to impeach a President who lied about sexual encounters that he sort of didn’t have and certainly didn’t reciprocate? And that the lying about a rather something is comparable to what is articulated in section 4 of Article 11 of the U .S. Constitution: "The President, Vice President and all Civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors"?3 As foolish as he now seems and as raffish and repulsive as his behavior has been and as much as I am horrified by males who really do believe that sexual expression is degrading, after all, and act it out on their unfortunate partners, over and over again, I doubt very much that you can reach the status of the impeachable from here. We would be reminded that impeachment proponents, for all their disclaimers, to the contrary notwithstanding, are focussed on this pitiful non-spectacle about which lie did not occur before January, 1998, when the object of investigation, so old by now that one barely recalls what in the world it was and couldn’t care less, had been invigilated by two Offices of Independent Counsel since January, 1994.4 There is a candidate for impeachment in this matter, but it is not the President, I fear, whatever one might think of him and his ways. Actually, a clear path to a presidential impeachment would be quite a lot simpler and sleek than the pile up of toxic waste now strewn across the body politic. I feel like the Raging Cajun, James Carville—we’ve been had; more precisely, we’ve been expletive deleted to the tune of 40 million bucks, they say, and severe damage to the public trust and the entire concept of civil rights.

The bill of particulars that I would submit includes all of the following items and all of the ones that I will think of once this writing is beyond revision:

1) I know well that the United States Supreme Court sits high and looks low, but opening up the Executive Office to any private citizen who might want to take a wrecking ball to it during the course of a Presidency runs off this bitter earth, to my mind. What in the world were the justices thinking about when they granted the Jones party the green light back in the spring of 1997? (I do not believe, by the way, that concern about women’s rights and the protection of women against sexual harrassment had the least thing to do with motivating the Jones partisans, including Jones herself; sexual harrassment laws provided a convenient legal mechanism for a bunch of venal clowns who have made a mockery of justice to women. With Paula Jones treated like an infant, by the transparent likes of Susan Carpenter McMillan, for example, and responding in kind, I have been made ashamed that the high moral ground of equal justice to women has been pissed on. Leaders of feminist organizations were quite right to have been suspicious and to have avoided knee-jerking in support of this case, which has nothing at all in common, I should think, with the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas episode.)

2) Has anybody seen the American Civil Liberties Union here lately? How many times is Webster Hubbell going to be kicked around before somebody cries out about what seems to me a terrible injustice? How could Americans—all of us—have watched Susan McDougal hauled around in chains, no less, in worse condition than a Jeffrey Dahmer, say, and not been outraged by it? I believe that she was pressured to make stuff up about the Clintons, and isn’t that wrong? Has anybody seen the American Civil Liberties Union lately?

3) The entire procedure by which Kenneth Starr came to power is as clear to me as a genuinely blue day over the Pacific along California Route 1 in the vicinity of Big Sur in the springtime, from details surrounding the firing of Robert Fiske, right through Attorney General Janet Reno’s induced paralysis; for anyone to say or believe that Reno’s Justice could dismiss Mr. Priss is wholly disingenuous, inasmuch as her, or the President’s, doing so would release a fire-storm roughly the equivalent of war in the Persian Gulf. My sense that the nation has been helpless, really, against the flagrant abuse of prosecutorial power, which, even at this writing, has not ceased, is overwhelming . I’ve even wondered what Germany must have looked and felt like before the arrival of Hitler and the Nazis. We would have to admit that Starr’s unrelenting brutal exercise of power is taking place in a social and political context jaundiced by ideological extremism, propagandistic violence, and a public discourse so degraded by greed and the celebration of mediocrity that we wouldn’t know the truth if it smacked us in the face, and indeed it has: If the President of the United States can be treated the way Bill Clinton has been, from " jump," then what about you and me?

As a black woman, with a long American history up my collective sleeve, my Geiger counter starts to rock steady as soon as I even approach difficult terrain, and if I am not mistaken, the nation has reached it—the drumbeat of impeachment and of malice rolls on, despite three elections now, as hate crimes escalate and Republican spokesmen have the temerity to complain that the black vote came out this fall! Prosperity is a blessing, and we, here, in the U.S. have had a good run of it. But is the cost too great, if it means the thorough commodification of every element of our lives, from the most intimate, to the most public? Somewhere in the fallout that surrounds us, it is the economy—stupid, but only partially in the way that Carville meant it back in ’91. The hidden other part has to do with that "bottom line" which dictates the behavior of the national media, from print journalism, to poll-driven television news and its corrupt practices, to a poisoned public sphere that ratifies the stupid and idolizes all instant celebrity; it is this unchecked mentality in a climate that represses the counter intelligence that allows the players in all the "gates" to thrive. It will be our crucial business in the new millennium to look very carefully at what our rich gardens have grown.

1. Broadcast on Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network (C-Span) on Monday, November 9, these hearings took testimony from a variety of sources that included, among others, Father Robert Drinan and Professors Susan Low Bloch, Matthew Holden, Gary McDowell, Arthur Schlesinger, Cass Sunstein, Laurence Tribe, Jonathan Turley, and William Van Alstyne. The set ran the entire day.)

2. The Independent Counsel’s Report to the United States House of Representatives. September 12, 1998. The Referral; p. 4 of 11. Although I subsequently purchased a bound copy of the Report, I obtained from my local bookstore, the good Bookery, a mimeographed copy of it soon after its release. All references to the Referral items come from this source, pagination hereafter noted in the text.

3. Gerald Gunther, ed. Constitutional Law. University Casebook Series. (Mineola, NY: The Foundation Press, Inc., 1985); Appendix A: The Constitution of the United States of America, A-6.

4. James Carville, . . .And the Horse He Rode In On: The People v. Kenneth Starr (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998). This rip-roaring critique of the Office of Independent Counsel is not only a fun-read, but a serious engagement (although some of the reviewers have called it a "quicky," and it is) that lays out the paper trail on Mr. Priss and what looks like a good deal of evidence amassed in support of Carville’s theory about where the man is "coming from."

Hortense Spillers lives in Ithaca, NY and teaches courses in literature at Cornell University.

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