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Guys
Guy talk: At a Starbucks in McLean, Phil Stone, Spero Aspiotis and Peter O'Meara, from left, discuss the scandal's effect on the notion of men as the unfair sex.
(Patrick D. Witty for The Washington Post)


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Full Coverage

At High Schools, Affair Surprises Few (Washington Post, Sept. 18)

Reaction From Women: Tolerance (Washington Post, Sept. 14)

Americans' Moral Worries Test Reluctance to Judge (Washington Post, Sept. 11)


Men's Bad Rep:
Just a Bad Rap?

By Roxanne Roberts
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 28, 1998; Page A1

Phil Stone, a 55-year-old software consultant from Great Falls, is no defender of the president. But when his teenage daughter started calling for Bill Clinton's scalp, Stone found himself trying to explain what it means to be a man in 1998.

"She wants him out," the father says of his 13-year-old. "From her perspective, he took advantage of a female. She just keeps saying, 'Lynch the guy.' "

Stone isn't so sure it was all the president's fault. "I think Monica came on to him," he says. But the lesson he wants his daughter to learn is more nuanced: "I'm trying to teach her forgiveness, that both of them were wrong."

In the wake of Kenneth W. Starr's report and the release of Clinton's videotaped testimony, men find themselves in a storm that indiscriminately sweeps boyfriends, husbands and fathers into its path, buffeted by glib generalizations and snap judgments. "Come on, haven't we all had sex with an employee young enough to be our daughter and lied about it under oath?" cracked David Letterman.

As the scandal drags on, discussions of Clinton's exploits have become a referendum on men and morals in general. However men may personally judge the president's behavior, they find themselves dreading even more graphic disclosures – who knows what the Lewinsky-Tripp conversations might reveal? – and defending their gender against the notion that "All men do it."

"Most people know a healthy percentage of men engage in this kind of behavior," says Frank Mankiewicz, a longtime Democratic consultant. His children, both grown, are equally cynical: "Their view is, 'That's what politicians do. That's what men do.' "

"We used to joke about it, but I don't joke about it anymore," says Don Fletcher, a retired American Airlines pilot from Easton, Md. "It's an embarrassment. Men are men, the same as they always were: Men make excuses for other men, the old buddy system. But I'm not willing to make excuses for Clinton because he crossed the line. He makes all of us look bad."

The Clinton imbroglio has reduced men to a series of stereotypes, many men complain. The first and most often cited is that they are weak creatures, especially when it comes to sex. In the heat of the moment, they won't – can't – resist a willing, sexy playmate.

"The assumption is that most men are like that and would take advantage of an opportunity like that," Stone says. "In a way, I agree with that."

For every woman who secretly wonders if she would have behaved like Monica S. Lewinsky at 21, there is a man who puts himself in the president's shoes. "My feeling is that he lived most guys' fantasy," says Stan Bromley, manager of Washington's Four Seasons hotel. "And now, he's experiencing most guys' worst nightmare."

Men find themselves explaining their sexuality at dinner parties, trying to convince their teenage daughters or Saturday night dates that not all men are sexual predators.

All men, says the 54-year-old Bromley, fantasize about things most of them never do. "Most guys are in sexual Disneyland," he says. "We live our lives vicariously through our fantasies. Some men translate those fantasies into realities and therefore they're playing high-stakes poker."

To many men, Clinton's story is this decade's "Fatal Attraction" – a cautionary tale on the wages of sin. There are enough familiar pieces – married man, eager employee, plenty of opportunity-that they can easily imagine how a seemingly meaningless sexual gamble spun wildly out of control.

But Clinton was no ordinary married man, and Lewinsky no simple plaything. "Mr. Clinton forgot he was president," Bromley says. "I feel sorry for him as a man because he got caught."

The president's actions feed the image of men as creatures governed by testosterone, some men complain. They find themselves having to defend their personal honor because of the president's behavior, and they don't like it. Most men are not adulterers – only about 21 percent of married men admit to being unfaithful, according to a survey by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

"I hear a lot of men who are very angry because they don't want to be lumped in with him, don't want to be thought of as a boor and liar," says Bill Bennett, author of "The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals."

Spero Aspiotis is furious to find himself compared to the president. The 61-year-old computer executive from Arlington has worked hard to raise his two sons, now 30 and 28. "I feel it's my obligation to lead by example," he says.

Aspiotis spoke to his younger son recently. "He says, 'What's the big deal?,' " which prompted the father to initiate a discussion about betrayal, lying, lack of self-control, and sex as an expression of romantic love.

But Clinton makes all men look terrible, Aspiotis admits, and he's offended to be tarred with the same brush. "To think that, just because I'm a man, I'm going to act like that animal, is just disgusting."

Morality aside, there's the image problem. Rather than condone or condemn, some men are simply embarrassed by Clinton's apparent lack of sexual discrimination, generosity or sophistication. Not every sexual encounter is the ultimate expression of romance and passion, they say, but any man who refers to himself as "deponent" does little for men's reputation as thoughtful or sensitive creatures.

This makes your average Saturday night date a bit more difficult, says Scott Griffin, a 25-year-old financier. "At first they joke about the cigar. When they get serious, they think it's appalling."

In the end, Griffin trusts that Clinton's actions will have little lasting effect on his own reputation. "As a man," Griffin says, "if you conduct yourself with integrity and respect for whoever you're out with, it will usually rise above what he's done."

Men are split between those who are reluctant to cast the first stone against the president – even if they agree that his actions were foolish and wrong – and those who squarely state that Clinton should have just said no.

The first group, generally men in their fifties and sixties, can empathize with Clinton's story. He may be president of the United States, but, these men say, in his own mind he was just another guy getting older. When good but vulnerable men find themselves staring at middle age, they say, middle age sometimes stares back in the body of an attractive female.

But no matter their age, no man should fool around at work, some say. "In my job, young hot things have been coming up to me for years," says Fletcher, the retired pilot. "You don't dip your pen in company ink."

When men talk about the Clinton mess, there's plenty of blame to parcel out: Hillary Rodham Clinton, either for a perceived lack of passion or for her tolerance of her husband's multiple affairs; Lewinsky, for her aggressive pursuit; independent counsel Starr, for his aggressive pursuit; even Lewinsky's father, for his failure to act like a man when he first heard about the affair with Clinton.

"Suppose he had said, 'If this man has done this with my daughter, I will throttle him,' " says Bennett. "He would have been speaking for millions of fathers. We would have had a real, live, responsible father."

But most of the blame falls squarely in the president's lap: He should have acted, well, presidential. Millions of men do.

"I teach my kids accountability and responsibility, whatever you do," says Peter O'Meara, who owns his own Internet company in McLean. The 55-year-old father told his three teens he thinks Clinton has poor judgment, is self-indulgent and, frankly, needs help. "I don't have any compassion for this guy," he says.

Other fathers, such as insurance broker Roger Ney of McLean, try to pull the focus off Clinton and onto the larger issues.

Ney has been married 19 years and has four kids. Most of his discussions have been with his two eldest, 17 and 15 years old. "My oldest boys have focused less on the morality and more on the legal issues," he says. "I tell them that what Clinton did was very wrong. You don't treat women that way – especially your wife. I talk about commitment, right and wrong, and the issues of marriage itself."

His sons listened intently, but have never asked their father any personal questions about his sex life. "I'm not sure if they were afraid to ask or it didn't occur to them," Ney says.

It's a tricky subject, even in close families. John Kovatch, a 31-year-old Alexandria software executive, has nothing but contempt for Clinton's behavior. "I'm confident of my sexuality and my fidelity," he says. "It's part of my moral code."

His parents have been married for 40 years. In a conversation with his father, he spoke of his disdain for Clinton or anyone who breaks his marital vows.

"If he ever did this to my mother, I would never forgive him," Kovatch said he told his father. "I would think it was a disgrace to me and my family. He said, 'I think you're right. It would be an embarrassment to the family.' "

It's one thing to embarrass a family. It's another to embarrass the whole country.

"I'm sure going to remember this," says hotel manager Bromley, only half-teasing. "If I'm ever lucky enough to be tempted, I'm going to pretend I'm president."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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