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Why Weigh Moral Against Political?

By Francine Prose
Sunday, March 22, 1998; Page C01

opinion
Just when we felt entitled to a brief respite from the wearying speculations about the variety, and implications, of Bill Clinton's sexual preoccupations, just when we thought it might be safe to open our daily newspaper without reading yet another demoralizing description of the presidential private parts, "60 Minutes" brings us Kathleen Willey's trusting and trustworthy face, painfully composing itself around the details of a story that was clearly upsetting to tell, and immensely disturbing to hear.

By now, one might think, the potential for shock would have been diminished by the preparatory tremors of the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit, and surely by those intense few weeks when our solid foundation was rocked by each new sordid, enthralling chapter of l'affaire Lewinsky. One senses that many Americans, if only briefly, have taken this revelation more seriously than the faintly ribald prospect of hasty amour in the Oval Office between our nation's highest elected official and a young woman naive enough to confide in her wired friend. Our most visible feminists -- reticent in their comments on the action thus far -- have at last raised the specters of sexual harassment, and predation.

At the time of the Lewinsky disclosures, it was striking that so many women refused to be suitably offended by the notion of our president indulging in sexual acts with a White House intern not much older than his daughter. At what seemed to be the apex of the scandal, I moderated a panel sponsored by the New York Observer: Ten Manhattan women -- writers, an editor, a fashion designer, the owner of a French restaurant and a former professional dominatrix -- met to discuss the topic that most of America was discussing. The tone of the event was one of giddy, raunchy hilarity (one writer, Patricia Marx, observed that Hillary "changed her hairstyle one million times, and the one way she didn't try was the one way that works") as the panelists agreed that they preferred a president with an active sex life to a sour, puritanical martinet; that only the demented told the truth about sex; that Linda Tripp's betrayal of her young friend Monica seemed far more vile than Bill's cheating on Hillary; and that our government has no business policing anyone's private life. The most circumspect, and least sympathetic to Clinton, was the ex-dominatrix, who used the word "reckless" -- the adjective that Willey would later employ -- in voicing her suspicions that, during his alleged relations with Lewinsky, the president might have neglected to practice safe sex.

It felt oddly liberating to acknowledge certain under-acknowledged facts of life: that power itself has an erotic component; that sexual attraction often involves huge inequities in age and status; that few of us are blameless enough to judge others' intimate conduct; that women -- even young women -- are capable adults and not hapless victims whom society must shelter from wicked male marauders; and, finally, that it may be time to stop taking sex so seriously, as an automatic occasion for moralizing and disapproval.

Yet no one seems to be having much fun concerning the unfortunate Willey. What I'm hearing, from nearly every quarter, is that she is more "credible" than the president's other accusers, though her plausibility is somewhat difficult to assess, since her initial presentation in the media was so remarkably different. On "60 Minutes," Ed Bradley's reverential solicitude was quite unlike the press's barely concealed smirking at Jones, or our limited view of Lewinsky, flinging herself at the president or being hustled into cars. Unlike Jones, who despite the polish of successive makeovers retains some rough working-class edges, and unlike the bouncy, nubile Lewinsky, Willey is resolutely middle-class, a respectable middle-aged widow -- still pretty but not flashy -- dignified, sensible and genteel. Whether we are conscious of it or not, she confirms every popular prejudice and expectation about how a virtuous woman should look, behave and respond.

What matters, ultimately, is that Willey has told a very different story. Her alleged encounter with the president is considerably less appealing than Lewinsky's tale of stolen moments in the Oval Office and the meaningful exchanges of cheap souvenirs. It is also more dismaying than Jones's report of a verbal proposition (and a flurry of exhibitionism) directed at a woman who was not -- at least not at the start of the interview -- in psychic pain. The one thing everyone agrees upon was that, at the time of her meeting with Clinton, Willey was intensely distraught. And this factor turns her story, if true, into one of real heartlessness, cruelty and betrayal -- worse than any inappropriate, desultory pass made among the filing cabinets on an ordinary working day. Some of us are appalled by the idea of the gallant knight taking advantage of the damsel's distress -- though, in fact, medieval literature is rife with such incidents, suggesting that our forbears were either less civilized or more honest about the baser chemistries of male-female relations.

But Willey's account is only partly about her mental state, and partly about the physical aspects of the alleged failed seduction. What is it we find loathsome, exactly? The protracted hug? The kiss? For most of us, the buck stops, so to speak, at the president's reputedly placing his hand on her breast and guiding hers onto his genitals. Most of us -- male and female -- would probably agree that such actions cross the line between invitation and aggression.

I imagine that a group of women convened to discuss the Willey case would be less freewheeling than our panel for the Observer. How lightly we had considered the topic of whether we thought we could keep an affair with the president secret, and speculated about the course of Lewinsky's romantic future. At some point during the afternoon, writer Katie Roiphe -- by no means the only panelist to express an uncritical admiration for Clinton -- said, "This virile president is suddenly fulfilling this forbidden fantasy of this old-fashioned, taboo aggressive male. I think women are finding that appealing." What's changed -- what seems notably less appealing -- is that Willey has reminded us of the potentially damaging effects, the regrettable human cost of all that unleashed, old-fashioned, taboo male aggression.

Whether we believe her or not, whether or not we suspect that her search for a lucrative book contract compromises her credibility, Willey has made us conscious that even the most tolerant and least judgmental of us do draw lines and make distinctions between the permissible and the unforgivable, the wayward and the sleazy. Few Americans want to believe that a man we rely on for his intelligence and common sense is capable of so reckless, reprehensible and repulsive an act -- and may be willing to perjure himself to conceal his misdeeds.

Willey's story obliges us to consider how pragmatic we've become; the president's consistent job-approval ratings reflect our tendency to vote with one eye on our wallets. And it makes us aware of our edginess about the available political alternatives -- an awareness fueled by fresh memories of presidencies that seem worse, to many of us, than Clinton's. It is uncomfortable to have to keep weighing the moral against the political -- to have to keep asking ourselves if causing embarrassment and dismay to a handful of women might not be a lesser evil than, for example, cutting social programs to the bone.

Meanwhile, what seems, and has seemed from the start, profoundly disingenuous is our outrage and repugnance at the suggestion that a president might be lying. Certainly the last half-century has confirmed our jaded suspicions that an honest politician is a rarity, even an oxymoron. As an adaptable nation, we've learned to accept the idea that our government might conceal details about our involvement in the affairs of other nations, our tacit or direct support of repressive regimes, death squads, assassins, narcotics rings and so forth. That's old news, or boring news; such "small" white lies pale beside the possibility that our leader might not be coming clean about his sexual adventures.

Never during the Clinton years (or, for that matter, during the Reagan and Bush years) has the president's morality been subjected to such exhaustive scrutiny, though there have been other occasions -- the Iran-contra crisis, Clinton's reversal on issues such as gays in the military, welfare and health care, our tragically inept and costly response to the crisis in Bosnia -- when we might have delved more deeply into our leadership's moral wisdom and fiber.

A friend, the mother of a small child, tells me she's more upset by the prospect of dismantling a successful program such as Head Start than by the vision of our president making a clumsy, unwelcome pass. She, too, finds it peculiar that our ethical standards are so clear and sharp in regard to irresponsible sexual behavior, and so fuzzy and elastic in matters of life and death. It is as if the only morality that counts is sexual morality. What do we care about a few Bosnian deaths, or about our nation's poor, or about our children's health and education, or about the fates of welfare mothers? The questions that truly engage us -- that grab and hold our attention with the most energy, force and insistence -- are the truly burning ones, the ones most demanding of answers: Did he, or didn't he, buy Monica Lewinsky a T-shirt from Martha's Vineyard? Did he, or didn't he, put his hand on Kathleen Willey's breast?

Francine Prose's most recent book, a collection of novellas titled "Guided Tours of Hell," was recently published in paperback by Owl/Holt.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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