Days of Whines and Poses
By Stephen Hunter
It's Day 37 in a scandal that's rapidly become the Great American Whine Tasting.
Here's a naive domestic without any breeding but I think you'll be amused by its pretentions:
"My little girl gets no coverage at all. She can't go outside. She can't pay her bills . . . and there's me. Out in the middle of nowhere, I'm supposed to fight this battle. I don't have the means for this sort of cost" -- this vintage sample comes from William Ginsburg, lawyer to Monica Lewinsky.
And who can resist the amazing bouquet of special prosecutor Kenneth Starr's premier grand cru: "Our office in recent weeks has been subjected to an avalanche of lies. The First Amendment is interested in the truth. Misinformation and distorted information have come to us about . . ."
One rich yet piquant taste was reported by Newsweek, in the form of Lewinsky's alleged e-mail complaint to her friend Linda Tripp that "Big Creep didn't even try to call me on V-Day," referring to Valentine's Day. (Was that the most expensive short-distance call never made?)
Here's one you'll enjoy, with its grainy counter-texture, under the label of David E. Kendall, the president's lawyer:
"The leaking of the past few weeks is intolerably unfair. These leaks . . . often appear to be a cynical attempt to pressure and manipulate witnesses, deceive the public and smear persons involved in this investigation."
These examples, plucked non-prejudiciously from the news files, suggest a larger point. The American language of crisis has been transformed into an untrammeled blast of angst from the id, an adenoidal burst of gassy self-pity. It's a whine-o-rama, a whine-a-thon, a Dionysian whine-fest.
This is a scandal that until the last jury is in will be rooted not in hard fact but in the nuance of mood, the subtleties of suffering that Paula Jones's attorney, Donovan Campbell Jr., said she suffered when she did not receive flowers on Secretaries' Day while still working in Arkansas for then-Gov. Clinton. (Was that the most expensive unsent bouquet in history, or what?)
Years later, citing an event in an Arkansas hotel room, she sues him for sexual discrimination. His response is not a manly "My fault, here's a check" or even a "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," but a counter-whine in the form of a long, careful, hedged and lawyered disavowal.
Meanwhile, Tripp was upset because the president's lawyer had said she was not to be believed. So she taped a Lewinsky whine, she said, and turned it over to prosecutors who leaked it to Newsweek who declined to run it. Someone at Newsweek whined to Matt Drudge who leaked it to the Internet where it blossomed, almost overnight, into the Next Big Thing.
My favorite moment: the president's neo-macho John Wayne thing when he looks into the camera, scrunches up his eyes and says, "I did not have a relationship with that woman . . . Miss Lewinsky."
But then -- you can see it on tape -- he swallows! Here's a guy secret: We guys want to whine just as much as gals, but we don't think we should. When we fight our natural whining instinct, we swallow. He wanted to whine. He wanted to bellow "I didn't do it, it's no fair, it's not my fault, go away, stop picking on me." But he knew the Duke wouldn't so he couldn't.
The first lady whines piteously that it's all a vast right-wing conspiracy, perhaps unconsciously echoing Joe McCarthy's "immense" Commie conspiracy of the '50s.
This guy Ginsburg. He is to whining what Jackson Pollock was to paint splatters. He is an equal opportunity whiner, an affirmative action whiner. He will whine for anybody anywhere anyhow. Mrs. Lewis, Monica's mom? Now there's some of your world-class chicken-soup-mom whining. Her whines scale the chords until they liquefy into actual tears that run down that sculpted Beverly Hills face. White House aide and onetime journalist Sidney Blumenthal? This guy sends his lawyers to beat up on Tim Russert for allowing Matt Drudge on "Meet the Press."
Wrote lawyer William McDaniel: "You introduced Mr. Drudge as offering expert insight and analysis . . . as though you believed him to be a reputable journalist."
That's something new, that is: paying guys uncountable dollars an hour to whine about journalistic reputations for you by proxy. I like that.
And finally, Ken Starr. Excuse me, but surely it's written somewhere that Republicans aren't allowed to whine. They get to belong to country clubs, play that game where you carry those things around in that bag, marry trophy wives, drink martinis and yell real loud at their kids. Now, should they be allowed to whine? I think not. A liberal, his soul soggy with compassion, his heart connected to all the beating hearts of the mean cruel world, his anvil of woe crushing his noble, holy shoulders: Now he can whine a little, I guess, but only for a second, before it transmogrifies into something even lower than a whine: a snivel.
How things have changed. Here's what they've changed from.
A German armored division surrounds a battered unit of American paratroopers in a small snowy town in Belgium, in December of 1944. When surrender is demanded by a young courier from the master race, whose bosses have a timetable to keep, the American general looks him flat in the eye and says, "Nuts."
Here's how the Battle of the Bulge would replay now. Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe of the 101st Airborne would stand in front of a hundred microphones and say to the entire German command: "You know, this just isn't fair. You guys have so many more men and tanks and stuff, and, darn it, it's cold out. We've been eating K-rations since December 1. Plus, I'm real low on carbine ammo, you are subjecting us to an avalanche of discomfort and inconvenience. But, may I say, I also find this personally hurtful that you wish to disappoint my lifelong ambitions and my wife and children back at home by defeating me. I am trying my hardest, but given the way I was raised, and the overwhelming managerial style of my inconsiderate superiors, I am reaching a point of intense personal discomfort and, frankly, my emotions have been rubbed raw."
Bill Clinton fought his generation's war in the trenches of Oxford University, so maybe he was never around people who cared much about the Battle of the Bulge. But he must have witnessed that point in John Ford's great 1956 movie "The Searchers" when that crown prince of difficult, dangerous but largely silent men, John Wayne, turns to Jeffrey Hunter, his acolyte, and says simply, "Let's go, blankethead." By "go" he means go off on an epic five-year hunt through the American West of the late 1860s, for a kidnapped child and a sense of self-worth. Oh, and incidentally, he's just seen the only family he ever had massacred.
Real or fictional, these whine-free moments sum up what was once an American style of rhetoric expressing certain attributes that were considered both manly and necessary: coolness, incisiveness, professionalism.
Hemingway essentially invented it, drawing it from the understatement of British officers he'd met after World War I. The hard-boiled novelists picked it up from him, Hollywood screenwriters picked it up from them, Jack Webb stylized it on "Dragnet" and for a long, long time, the pattern was set. One didn't complain, one simply did what was necessary.
Anyhow: Now everybody whines that they have to do anything, necessary or not.
Well, it comes from a number of sea changes that have rocked the American psyche. It begins with demographics, that huge burp of children that began arriving after the end of World War II, a generation known as the baby boomers, so many of whom have been featured players in the ongoing drama centering on speculations about the president's sex life.
We boomers were special. We were way too special to fight a war in Vietnam, so we whined our way out of that one so loudly that they finally dumped the draft just to shut us the hell up. We whined our way to our own culture, our own music, our own expectations. We rejected the non-whining generation that spawned us, because, for one reason, they didn't whine, they just looked at us with disappointment in their eyes or got real mad and tried to beat us up. Who did they think they were? Okay, they won World War II. Big deal!
The key baby boomer truth: It's not what you do, it's how you feel about it. We invented a therapeutic culture that treated unhappiness like a pathology and tried to banish it with either drugs or lack of impulse control. Happiness was our generational entitlement. We made a cult out of our feelings. Those among us -- Oprah, Jerry Springer, Phil Donahue -- who could make us go public with those feelings, tap into the whine line like Dracula going for an easy jugular, we made them millionaires.
What is a whine, after all, but a public announcement that our feelings have been hurt, which is more important than any fact of the matter? It's like complaining that the pitcher is throwing too many hard inside strikes. The people in this scandal, every man jack of them, made a conscious decision to play in the fastest, hardest game of all, where people get mangled every day.
Can't they suffer their little tragedies, their crushing defeats, with a few dignified words if any words are required at all? Can't they get that horrible, self-dramatizing tone out of their voices? Am I whining now too? If so, just remember: It's not my fault. And one other request: Shut up, please. I'm trying to get some work done over here.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company