By Joel Achenbach
Everyone knew what she meant. House rules prevented her from making comparisons between President Clinton's behavior and that of any member of Congress. The rules provided protective cover to Bob Livingston, the incoming House speaker, who is the latest person to join the increasingly large and distinguished Congressional Adulterers Caucus.
Livingston (R-La.) confessed Thursday night to his stunned colleagues that he has "on occasion strayed from my marriage." But he was defiant. He didn't have sex with any staffers, he said, and he was never asked questions about the affairs under oath -- implying that any lies did not meet the definition of perjury. He sought counseling, he said, and his family forgave him. The "indiscretions" were merely a "small and painful part of the past in an otherwise wonderful marriage."
In a moment when he might well have been forced to resign, he instead received a rousing ovation, and the rhetorical course of the Republicans was set. They had a real-life example of what they'd been saying for weeks and months.
It's not about sex at all, was their message. It's about lying under oath. Bob Livingston would therefore go into the House chamber yesterday morning as an embarrassed, unacknowledged exhibit in the Republican prosecution: a case study in what it's not about.
The Livingston fiasco intensified the challenge for the Republicans, which was to tweeze the sex out of the case, point by point, hair by hair, and leave the core accusation of perjury.
Henry Hyde, the Illinois Republican who led the Judiciary Committee's inquiry, didn't waste time addressing the sex issue.
"It's not a question of sex. Sexual misconduct and adultery are private acts and are none of Congress's business. It's not even a question of lying about sex. The matter before the House is a question of lying under oath. This is a public act, not a private act."
The Democrats tried to obliterate the distinction.
"Lying about sex under oath is still lying about sex," said Julia Carson of Indiana.
For something the impeachment is not officially about, sex has shown an amazing ability to reenter the conversation. Sex is the weed that no one can eradicate. In the three months before the Livingston revelation, Hyde, Helen Chenoweth and Dan Burton -- conservative Republicans all -- had to admit to infidelities. Clinton was the big target, and they were collateral damage.
Watching the events from central Virginia, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, founder of the now-defunct Moral Majority, took sharp aim at both Clinton and Livingston. He said Livingston should have confessed to the adultery before he accepted the job as speaker.
"When you wait until you're caught to tell your story, I think it greatly damages your credibility," Falwell said. Members of Congress, as well as other leaders, should be "decent and moral human beings," he said. If it takes intrusive media attention to create that environment, more power to the media, he said.
"Young men and young ladies who are thinking about going into politics now are also going to be thinking of moral fidelity, integrity and a lifestyle that will not hurt them later in life," Falwell said.
Hugh Hefner, meanwhile, had a different view. From the Playboy Mansion West in Los Angeles, Hefner said that the Livingston case exposes the hypocrisy that underlies the impeachment process.
"We pretend one thing, we do another. We pretend that we're not sexual beings," Hefner said yesterday. "It's as if the public wants the people in public life to be somehow less than human. . . . Our greatest leaders in the 20th century, from Roosevelt to Kennedy to Martin Luther King, and on down the list, were guilty of this supposed sin."
But what about the lies? Hefner says that's the bad part. But the questions about adultery should never have been asked, he said. And besides, "sex is the one subject that we do universally lie about."
Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the historian, told the House Judiciary Committee something similar a few weeks ago. "Gentlemen always lie about their sex lives," he said. And an even pithier version of the philosophy could be heard earlier this year from musician George Clinton of the funk band Parliament/Funkadelic:
"Lying go with sex."
Sex has always spiced the conversation in Washington, but it has typically been a sideshow, as opposed to this full-frontal extravaganza. The sex stories of years past were fabulous for party chatter, but didn't slow down the government. Maybe someone's career would go in the tank -- Wilbur Mills, Gary Hart, Bob Packwood -- but the somber goodbyes would be mixed with muffled laughter, and everyone would go back to work.
For a long time the press, operating as something of a boys' club, ignored the adulterous behavior of presidents. Wesley Hagood's book "Presidential Sex" gives the distinct impression that infidelity and the presidency are historically mated, sometimes in cramped spaces, such as a coat closet where Warren G. Harding, not a puny man, consummated his passion with a young woman named Nan Britton.
John F. Kennedy, running for president in 1960, spent some time campaigning in a closet in New Orleans with a stripper named Blaze Starr. The Secret Service gave Kennedy the code name "Lancer." Lyndon B. Johnson reportedly was jealous of Kennedy's reputation as a womanizer. "I had more women by accident than Kennedy had on purpose," he supposedly said, pounding his fist on a desk.
The rules on sexual reportage changed precipitously in 1987 when Hart, a handsome, smart senator with a strong chance of being the next president, was caught by the Miami Herald spending the weekend with a lithe blonde named Donna Rice. The governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, shortly thereafter decided to put off his own candidacy for president.
But eventually he ran, and as one of his journalistic enemies, R. Emmett Tyrrell, said, "His sex life and the ravenous nature of his sex life was part of the drama of Bill Clinton in Washington."
One day an intern showed up in the Oval Office and flashed her thong underwear. Three years later the world could read hundreds of pages of documents, compiled by government investigators and prosecutors, about the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, down to the kinkiest details. The Starr report broke even the new rules that had replaced the old rules, with lines like, "On all nine of those occasions, the President fondled and kissed her bare breasts."
The once clear line between public and private behavior has become a big sloppy lipstick smear.
"Monica Lewinsky is not Watergate! Let he who is without sin in this chamber cast the first vote!" Democrat Robert Menendez of New Jersey shouted yesterday.
Robert Wexler of Florida, another Democrat, said, "What have we become when we enter a new era of sexual McCarthyism, when the boundaries of people's private lives are no longer respected? Have we no sense of decency?"
He was talking about Clinton, but could have been talking about Bob Livingston. The Livingston story was driven by Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt, who offered a bounty for anyone with information about adultery by members of Congress.
Flynt hadn't published a word about Livingston, and yet Livingston confessed. Did he panic? Did he flinch in the heat of the moment? The Republican brain trust wanted Livingston to wait, and assess the situation, but he went ahead with his announcement. In an era when no one knows for sure what the rules are, sometimes a person has to go on instinct.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company