Clinton Accused Special Report
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The Romance Out of Sex

By Roxanne Roberts
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 14, 1998; Page D01

The consensus is in: This is a bad sex scandal.

As President Clinton prepares to testify to the grand jury in the Monica Lewinsky investigation, a collective prayer is being whispered all over America: Please, God, let this all be over soon. Morality aside, this sex scandal – and it is a sex scandal, despite all the rhetoric about obstruction of justice and suborning perjury – is nothing but an unseemly embarrassment to the presidency, to women and to sex itself.

What kind of man allegedly calculates his trysts to conform to a legal definition of technical fidelity? What kind of woman keeps a stained dress as a souvenir, then gives it to her mother? The more we hear, the more tawdry it all seems: "Leaves of Grass" to phone sex to gross-out in eight months of leaks and whispers about whispers and leaks. Yuck.

A good sex scandal is romantic, titillating or – at the very least – sexy. Washington may be a conservative town, but it is not unaccustomed to the notion that a politician might carry on a discreet or not-so-discreet extramarital romance. Usually, it's the subject of delicious and naughty repartee.

Not this time. The public is disgusted, the media embarrassed and sophisticated adults are at a loss for polite discourse, says one woman who is active on Washington's dinner party circuit.

"There are a lot of euphemisms being used," she says. "The men look at the women and try to decide if they really want to use this or that word. It seems to me that everybody feels very squeamish. I can't quite decide if the president and Monica had too much sex or not enough, but it's just not a conversation I want to have at dinner."

In a town that loves to gossip, why is this sex scandal so very unattractive?

"It's because it's so graphic," says Frank Mankiewicz, a longtime Democratic consultant. "People don't like to talk about sex, they just like to do it. This thing is here every day, we're forced to consider it from every angle. I think that's what people are rejecting."

Perhaps more than any other factor, the explicit nature of these allegations has turned people off. It is possible to hear way, waay too much about a person than you ever wanted to know, and the rumors about Bill Clinton's sex life contain details most adults won't even discuss with their lovers, much less want to read about over morning coffee.

"To me, it's bothersome because sex is such a private thing, no matter who's doing it," says Art Schultz, a public relations executive. "No one is supposed to know when you do it, how you do it, and who you do it with."

But when the sitting president of the United States testifies in a civil deposition, then faces possible obstruction of justice charges, and then has to testify to a grand jury, the details tend to leak out.

In this case, the details are so graphic that people blush just reading them. The phrase "distinguishing characteristics" seems almost quaint when compared with the definition of "sexual relations" presented by Paula Jones's lawyers to the president in January. Suffice to say it leaves little to the imagination and it's not the least bit sexy. And the details emerging from the Lewinsky investigation are even worse.

"The allegations are so sordid because they're so clinical," says Mankiewicz. "The dress? Oh, my God. Is oral sex really sex? Jesus, do we really want to thrash that one out?"

No, no, a thousand times no.

A Place in History

None of this would matter nearly so much, or seem so disappointing, if we weren't talking about the president.

"Most people say the presidency lost its mystique long before the 1990s," says historian Michael Beschloss. "In a way, this proves it has some mystique left, that the presidency has a unique place in people's emotions."

Presidential historians point out that Clinton is in the unusual position of facing ongoing sexual allegations while still in office.

Plenty of presidents, of course, had their own version of a sex scandal. George Washington, James Buchanan, James Garfield, Warren Harding, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson have all been linked to other women, but the information usually came out after each died. "We weren't confronted with their behavior during their lifetimes, certainly not during their presidency," says Wesley Hagood, author of "Presidential Sex." While Andrew Jackson and Grover Cleveland faced sexual allegations during their campaigns, the only other president to face this level of scrutiny while in office was Thomas Jefferson, who survived rumors of a love affair with his slave Sally Hemmings.

Most fared more like Harding, a compulsive adulterer all his adult life. The White House press corps knew about his affairs but never reported them, and the public never knew, says Carl Sferrazza Anthony, author of "Florence Harding: The First Lady, the Jazz Age, and the Death of America's Most Scandalous President."

But this is the information age, and Pandora's box is wide open. "Basically, it's an entire sea change in the American culture," Anthony says. "It's no longer pushing the envelope, it's opening the envelope and printing any allegation, gossip or hearsay and then spinning it. What happens is that people become sickened, not only by the allegations but by the fact they've been exposed to them."

A poll released yesterday by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press says that 72 percent of Americans think Clinton probably had sex with Lewinsky, although the president insists he has not. Lewinsky hasn't fared much better. She has transcended mere celebrity to become an icon, of sorts. Not Helen of Troy, but perhaps the Christine Keeler of her generation – the young woman of Britain's Profumo scandal on whom friends and foes projected their fantasies, their politics and their fears.

The face that launched a million late-night jokes looks no different from those of thousands of other bright young things who come to Washington. Both her age and status make people uncomfortable. She was just 21 when the relationship allegedly began, young enough to be Clinton's daughter. And she was a low-level employee under his control.

But she's hardly a romantic figure. At the very least, she's indiscreet to a fault. Lewinsky was the one who bragged that she was having an affair, and those who have heard portions of the Linda Tripp tapes say the language is so explicit and vulgar that they were stunned.

And the Dress. Some women keep cards or dried flowers. Lewinsky kept the unlaundered navy blue dress – now being tested for evidence – which means that the the word "semen" is now part of the national lexicon. Yuck again.

Sex or Shame?

Early in the scandal, Clinton gave us that finger-pointing denial: "I did not have sexual relations with that woman."

This was not a good sign. A good sex scandal makes a romantic secretly envy the lovers because there's an element of affection, maybe passion, perhaps even a love affair. FDR and Lucy Mercer, for example, or Gary Hart lusting after the nubile Donna Rice. Wilbur Mills and Fanne Foxe at least looked like they were having fun. Maybe it's not "An American President," but we want something more grown-up, something out of Bronte or Hardy instead of a scene from John Waters.

This scandal is more like a lap dance. Even your average lusty guy changes the subject. There is nothing romantic, nothing even hot and sweaty about this one.

"Disgusting? Oh, yeah," says Bill Kristol, editor of Weekly Standard. "Clinton has probably benefited from that in an odd way, because the American people don't want to hear about it. . . . I think that at the end of the day, Americans will be grossed out and more put off by this than an old-fashioned affair – which has a certain dignity, after all – or macho girl-chasing conquests."

Every day brings a new, more sordid rumor. What may or may not have happened in the Oval Office has turned into a tawdry game of sexual Clue: Monica. In the study. With the blue dress.

Let it be noted that almost every adult has an embarrassing sexual moment in his or her past, one really regretable episode that, if taken out of context and made public, would cause him to flee to a desert island or just die. Most of these happen in our youth, although the names Dick Morris, Marv Albert and Frank Gifford leap to mind. The only thing worse than an Embarrassing Moment when you are 18 is one when you are 50. And president of the United States. And already facing charges of improper sexual conduct.

This is a bad sex scandal because we like to think the guy in the Oval Office is classier than that. Or at least smarter.

Oh, for the days when the definition of sex didn't require lawyers (at least prior to the divorce), and sex scandals were still sexy, not yucky.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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