Sex, Lies and Starr's Unsatisfying Report
By Joel Achenbach
The discerning reader should be aware that the Starr report is a challenging piece of literature. It does not fit precisely into any of the familiar genres. It is certainly not a romance in the traditional sense. At moments it can be read as farce, other times as tragedy. But probably the genre into which the report fits best would be "pornography."
Quite frankly this is smut, an incredibly offensive and numbingly repetitive tale of sex and its consequences. The main characters, "The President" and "Ms. Lewinsky," are repulsive. But so, gradually, is the narrator himself. There are portions early in his work that are compelling. But his story is punishingly long, humorless, shot through with prosecutorial zeal. It is not enough to show that The President lied about sex. It must be shown again and again, literally piling on, page after page.
There has been some commentary bandied about that this is not a story "about sex," but if that is so, then the same can be said of "Valley of the Dolls."
To an astonishing degree, the material, for all its sexual exertions, is not at all titillating. The sex is pathetic. One senses that the two principals are engaged not only in the most scandalous sexual relationship in history but also the least satisfying.
The parties to the affair somehow never actually manage to get completely undressed. They have fleeting semi-sex in a hallway with the door slightly ajar so that they can hear if someone approaches. They have something called "phone sex." They have a "Christmas kiss," but he has his eyes wide open, scanning for witnesses. Ms. Lewinsky begins to suspect that The President is using her, a thought that seems to have been slow in arriving. The President, meanwhile, has a tendency to talk to congressmen on the phone while enjoying sexual gratification, a sly commentary on the modern fanaticism for "multi-tasking."
Nothing goes right for this pair. They are forced apart. They argue. They tell lies. They get exposed. He denies their love. She is hurt. Eventually an Independent Counsel writes a 453-page report with 2,600 pages of appendixes to prove that they did, in fact, have this stupid relationship.
One longs for the comparative pith of Tolstoy.
The reader gasps in reading certain details. If The President is telling the truth in his sworn testimony that during his encounters he did not attempt to please his partner then his monstrous selfishness is surely the impeachable offense that the Independent Counsel tries so feverishly to discover.
There are other moments when the reader is unsure how to react. Do we laugh when an aide tells Ms. Lewinsky that she is getting a lot of "face time" with The President?
A few telling moments reward the reader's patience. When the liaison is exposed, The President confers with a political consultant, "Dick Morris," who conducts an instant poll on how the country will react. The poll shows the nation will forgive adultery but not perjury. "Well, we just have to win, then," The President says. For a moment the text becomes genuine literature, if not quite at the level of Robert Penn Warren.
But then there is a bizarre, implausible event involving a cigar. It is simply too incredible to be taken seriously. Dickens is known for phenomenal plot twists, but not even he would stretch the reader's credulity so!
Roughly around the 47th mention of the cigar the report actually uses the shorthand "the cigar incident" it has become a bore. The reader thinks, tell me something I don't know. That is coupled with a feeling of extreme guilt and shame, a sense of invasiveness. The reader realizes that this is not exactly "Profiles in Courage."
The perverse reader may actually begin to root for the despicable President as he seeks to elude the clutches of the prosecuting team. The Starr report declares:
"The chance that the semen is not the President's is one in 7.87 trillion."
And the reader thinks: Good, at least it's not an absolute certainty.
As his prospects become more desperate, The President says he feels like a character in a novel, and then seizes on the perfect example: the doomed protagonist in Arthur Koestler's "Darkness at Noon." He tells an aide, "I feel like somebody who is surrounded by an oppressive force that is creating a lie about me and I can't get the truth out." The oppressive force, the reader sadly suspects, is his own personality.
A note about the writing style. The tone is so lawyerly it almost reads like an indictment. The clever reader may wonder: Could this really be a subtle satire of an absurdly legalistic society?
A typical passage, in the Introduction to the Grounds for Impeachment section, reads:
"10. President Clinton endeavored to obstruct justice during the grand jury investigation by refusing to testify for seven months and lying to senior White House aides with knowledge that they would relay the President's false statements to the grand jury and did thereby deceive, obstruct, and impede the grand jury."
One wishes for something more vernacular, perhaps as Dan Jenkins or Pete Dexter might have rendered it:
"Bubba tole his people: Cover my butt."
Argumentative, parsing, persnickety, the Starr report spends a brutal amount of its energy discussing what is and what is not sex.
"The President refused to say whether he had oral sex. Instead, the President said (i) that the undefined terms 'sexual affair,' 'sexual relationship,' and 'sexual relations' necessarily require sexual intercourse, (ii) that he had not engaged in intercourse with Ms. Lewinsky, and (iii) that he therefore had not committed perjury in denying a sexual relationship, sexual affair, or sexual relations."
And so on. Droning and tedious. The report violates the standard narrative arc, showing minimal interest in foreshadowing or in the development of character and conflict.
Some readers may find that the tale suffers from a fatal obviousness. The story involves a powerful man who has an affair. He seeks to keep it a secret. The reader expects a plot twist at this point. Perhaps the man will do something unusual, like remain true to his secret love and resign his office, as did the King of England with Wallis Simpson.
But no, instead he tries to weasel and squirm his way out of it. A stock character acts in a predictable fashion. No one evolves. No one has a spiritual transformation. No one dies. This is a story? This is a yarn for the ages?
Perhaps the sequel will be more edifying.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company