At High Schools, Affair Surprises Few
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 18, 1998; Page A01
There was Adam Bell, age 17, hurtling through cyberspace the other night when suddenly his Net Nanny grounded him. Smut-blocking software installed by his mother to protect him from the dark side of the Internet had just flagged a sexual term, effectively stomping into the site he was exploring and yanking him out.
As it turned out, the menace was not a sexual predator or child stalker. It was the Starr report. "It hit 'oral sex' and it shut me down," said Bell. "Obviously, I didn't get very far. I mean, oral sex -- that's the report."
If parents have succeeded in shielding grade schoolers from the seamier details of the Starr report, all the Net Nannies in cyberspace are no match for the nation's teenagers. Getting the information was a no-brainer, particularly for a teen as resourceful as Bell, a Suitland High senior who is taking courses at Prince George's Community College. With details bombarding him from newspapers, television, radio and friends, he said, he now knows more than he ever would have read on the Net -- yes, down to the phone sex and the lurid descriptions.
So, was Net Nanny right? Was this too graphic, too raunchy, too morally disturbing for a 1990s teenager?
The question caused Bell to burst out laughing right in the middle of the Prince George's Community College parking lot. "Hells, NO!" he said, shaking his head at adults who lament the effect of presidential adultery and dishonesty on the nation's youth.
Other teenage eyes rolled in world-weary fashion in response to the same question. Not that they approve: Overwhelmingly, they called President Clinton's conduct wrong and expressed complicated feelings about how and whether he should be punished. But most found the massive national attention focused on his sexual practices to be -- well -- childish. It would be nice, they said, to have a president who is a model of how things should be; but it's hardly shocking that he's a model of how things often are.
"He's a male!" said four members of an all-girl van pool, almost in unison, as they idled outside Largo High School. "Both my parents have had affairs," said an 11th-grade boy sitting under a tree with friends the other day at Bethesda's Walter Johnson High School, trading cigarettes and talk of Monica Lewinsky.
And then there was Stanley Isaacs, 17, a senior at Wilson High in the District, who obviously was watching Clinton closely before the Starr report. Over an after-school snack with friends at Fresh Fields in Tenleytown, he said perhaps Clinton should have listened to his former surgeon general, Joycelyn Elders, rather than discarding her amid a furor over her remarks advocating solitary masturbation.
"She got fired for telling students no one ever got pregnant from masturbating," Isaacs said. "She could have added no presidents ever got impeached from masturbating."
If many students seemed wise beyond their years to marital difficulties, it is no coincidence. This is a generation that has lived the divorce revolution; nationally, one in three children under 18 is growing up with only one parent. In 1980, the figure was one in six.
They also know far more about sex than did their parents at this age -- if not from firsthand experience, then from popular culture. Rock music stations resound with cigar jokes. The teenage smash movie hit of the summer was "There's Something About Mary," which features a semen gag in its raunchiest bit.
Even as some regaled each other with Clinton jokes, many were well aware of the debate over censure or impeachment and made distinctions between infidelity and what they considered higher crimes of alleged perjury and obstruction of justice -- terms they volunteered.
The teenagers' views also mirrored a dichotomy in polls between black and white adult attitudes toward Clinton since the Starr report. While white students expressed a variety of feelings about Clinton's fitness, black students spoke passionately without exception of their support for him, insisting his failings were private.
'She Kept the Dress!'
A question addressed to a single black teenager in a group waiting for a bus near Wilson High drew an animated crowd of his peers jostling to be heard. Leave the president alone, they said. It's personal. He apologized, so forgive him. He's been a good president.
They agreed with each other that the whole scandal smacked of a plot -- not by a "vast, right-wing conspiracy," as first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton once said, but by a poor little rich girl craving attention. "She kept the dress!" said Niketea Martin, 14, a ninth-grader from Riggs Park, citing what for her was evidence of Lewinsky's devious planning. Teenagers at Largo High School in Prince George's made almost exactly the same remark.
"Yes, it's a shock because he's president and this is our first encounter with something so appalling with our president, but we'll get over it," said Dana McDaniel, a Largo High senior, who insisted Clinton's conduct was a private matter. "The first time is always the toughest. It was very appalling too, when Mayor Marion Barry turned out to be a drug user. But we're mature about these things."
Examples Old and New
At least some of the early-onset cynicism appears to grow from coming of age under a president whose flaws are derided by everyone from the Republican Congress to Jay Leno.
Chad Marigan, 17, a recent vocational school graduate who was hanging out at the Crofton Library, easily moved from talking about the Starr report to "the whole thing of how 'I didn't inhale,' " when candidate Clinton famously hedged his prior marijuana use. Marigan, now with two gemstones in his left ear and a growing-out blond buzz cut, was only 11 when Clinton made the remark but said he was old enough to know hairsplitting when he heard it.
For almost as long as many of these teenagers can remember, Clinton has been under investigation for one thing or another, they said, and so have plenty of other politicians. A loud argument among the boys sitting outside Walter Johnson High over whether Clinton cheated on the country as well as his wife was broken up when Wesley Arnold, 15, yelled, "C'mon! It's like trying to hold politicians to their word. Get real."
"Not politicians -- him!" said Greg Loman, 16, prompting his friends to begin a recitation of all the public figures who had had affairs. Former presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy made their list. So did France's Francois Mitterrand. They then moved on to their own family members who had been unfaithful.
For all their skepticism of Clinton's character, these teenagers were equally cynical about the criticism of his behavior emanating from members of Congress. In the last month, they have heard news reports about three members of Congress who have had extramarital affairs.
Failings by people in high position are hardly modern, asserted Elizabeth Hankins, 16, a junior at Vienna's Madison High School, who said her English teacher compared Clinton to the tragic hero Aristotle described.
"The tragic hero is always a famous, well-respected person, like President Clinton," said Hankins, who emphasized that she had not read the Starr report because she did not want to read the sexual details. "And then the hero falls, usually because of excessive hubris, excessive pride. After they fall, they lose respect, they die -- stuff like that."
"I do think he's fallen," she said after band practice the other day, "because a lot of people have lost respect for him."
Whereupon Caitlin Hilber, also 16 and a junior, sprang to Clinton's defense, quoting her father as saying that some members of Congress have also had extramarital affairs. "So it's hypocritical for them to impeach him," she said.
Taking It Personally
For all their seeming sophistication about moral contradictions, they are taking this scandal as teenagers take many things -- personally. And as they picked their way through news reports, their parents' opinions and their own gut feelings, they seemed to be shaping their generation's world views.
"When he said he wasn't lying, it was January 17, four days before my birthday," said Toby Biswas, 16, of Walter Johnson High. "But you know, I actually believed him! When it came out he was lying, I was angry, like he lied to me!"
Over supper at Manchu Wok at Wheaton Plaza, Vicky Goldsman and Erin Munsey, 10th-graders at Wheaton High and best friends, said they were offended by Clinton's behavior, but deliberately hadn't read the report. "I don't think I want to read it," said Goldsman, grimacing. It was clear that something besides the fact of the infidelity was bothering them. Finally they spat it out.
"He's like 50 or 60 or something!" said Goldsman.
"That's why it's not very appealing," said Munsey. "Yuck! He's old!"
At Annapolis Area Christian School, a group of students was talking with clear-eyed conviction about what they saw as Clinton's moral failures long before Lewinsky. Christy DeHenzel, 14, an evangelical Protestant who has attended the school since kindergarten, said she has had long talks with her parents about the erosion of morals in American society. She cited the prevalence of abortion and the rise of gay rights -- both issues on which she vehemently disagrees with Clinton. She said she is not surprised that such a politician betrayed his wife.
Resignation would not be punishment enough for Clinton's sins, she and her friends said: He must be impeached. But when asked why, DeHenzel shifted perspectives, likening the situation to a child who hits her brother. "You say you're sorry to your mom," she said. "But you still need to be punished."
By contrast, at Prince George's Community College, a group of black students was angrily complaining that the scandal threatened a president who had made life better, who had raised the minimum wages they are paid at their after-school jobs. They even said they owe him the jobs because of the booming economy.
But still Andre Russell, 18, confessed that he can't help regarding the whole Lewinsky story as entertainment -- a trashy drama with the highest stakes of all.
"The news is like a movie now. I'm watching it more than I ever did," Russell said. "I don't think any of this should be public, but I guess it's like 'The Truman Show.' You want to know how it's going to end."
Staff writers Amy Argetsinger, Jacqueline L. Salmon and Fern Shen contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company