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Something About Bill

The talking heads are collectively outraged, but somebody needs to let them in on this dirty little secret: Bill Clinton's sex life is deeply (and appallingly) normal.

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The roundtable I've been eager to watch on Larry King is about the popularity of oral sex. There have been a few doleful commentaries about oral sex as an AIDS-related phenomenon, but we all know that isn't the story. The story is about how an exotic and specialized practice (I remember that stunning moment of clarity and amazement when, 1970 or so, someone clued me in on the line from the song "Windy": "Who's bending down to give me a rainbow?") became the most banal of norms. I'd like to hear Norman Mailer, Madonna, Newt Gingrich and the Farrelly brothers on this.

Obviously, the president's interest in oral sex puts him squarely at the center of American culture. It's the chattering media, the editorial writers and commentators and interviewers, those professional voices of outrage and reason, who seem a bit out of it. The real media, of course -- movies, sitcoms, men's and women's magazines, greeting cards, rap, shock jocks, daytime talk shows, chat rooms, porno tapes -- long ago made blow jobs as American as apple pie.

Judging by my daily media diet, it's certainly my impression that oral sex is the national sex act -- even the new missionary position.

Therein, I suspect, lies the crux of our bifurcated feelings about the president's sex life, and the reason polls find such tolerance (or at least ambivalence) in what we assumed to be our puritan and prudish nation. On the one hand, we live in a media environment based on the premise that pretty much every aspect of our sexual behavior, attitudes, interests, knowledge, proclivities, and practices is up for reconsideration and debate -- is there any situation, complication, and variation we haven't entertained? On the other hand, we carry on the national discussion -- or our representative video heads carry on the national discussion -- mimicking a sensibility that seems to lag a generation or two behind the times. This may not be hypocrisy as much as misalignment -- our public language hasn't caught up with our pop-culture experience.

The story of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky and Kenneth Starr -- told with a particularly salacious grimness by Cokie Roberts and Sam Donaldson -- is a story about the media's role in American life. Not just because the media have so eagerly (and sanctimoniously) propagated this tale, but because the dependence of the media business on sexually oriented content has grown so steadily these past 30 years that it has created the very climate in which Starr could issue such a report -- the same matter-of-fact climate that will, end of the day, allow us to forgive Bill Clinton.

This is not a point about exploitation. It's a point about the need of the mass media to identify a common experience that can be expressed both visually and in narrative form (seriously!). It's a commonplace that to succeed, to capture that all-important market share, a new medium needs to push the envelope on sexually explicit content. Cable, video, and the Internet got going with hard-core. "The flames of hedonism, the flames of narcissism, the flames of self-centered morality," as the rabidly anti-Clinton Georgia Republican representative Bob Barr characterized the permissive society, sell.

That we allow them to be sold may be the most important cultural accomplishment of our time.

There is a lesson about democracy here. Because of the sensitivity of the electronic media to the popular will, we achieved a kind of license that politicians would never have granted. Of course, there's a devil's bargain: Our sex lives are a media creation. Among the reasons for the popularity of oral sex (in addition to the fact that it's quick, effective, safer, and less personal) is that it provides a better camera angle.

The oft-made point about Bill Clinton, that he's the first president not separated from us by age, class, or behavior -- that he was born from popular culture -- means that we shouldn't be so surprised that he has the same kind of sex as everyone else (depressed, perhaps; surprised, no). And we are not.

We know Bill Clinton -- that's his appeal. That's what's annoying about him, too. Life imitates media, and we have watched in countless movies and television shows (both sitcom and movie-of-the-week version) guys with outsize sexual needs -- as prevalent a theme in our entertainments as heroism was in Nordic tales. There is no variation on the oversexed character that we haven't seen. We know his nature. We know it like our own -- most likely it is our own. Not pretty. (Backseat. High school. Just the age-old rhetoric of conniving a lay.) But certainly nothing new. And Monica -- the vamping, the hissy fits, the demands, the threats. We know girls like this and the guys who go for girls like this. We've seen this movie. This movie has become life.

The comparison of Clinton to Kennedy has always been a stretch. The comparison of Clinton's sex life to Kennedy's is even more unhelpful. Kennedy did what no one, save the very criminal and sybaritic, do. He was way beyond conventional norms -- so far out there that his behavior was impossible to report. Clinton's conventionality, on the other hand, is in many respects reassuring. He's tempted . . . alas, who wouldn't be? . . . but guilty . . . bargaining with himself . . . it's okay if he doesn't come . . . and here he is getting blown while he's on the phone . . . like in the movies. . . .

Oh yes, the phone, another development that has floated below the level of the chattering media, the millions of phone-sex episodes among consenting adults occurring every day. Is it sex or is it conversation? At any rate, it's most certainly outside the judge's definition.

While phone sex and oral sex are very modern, it's important to remember (in all fairness) that Bill Clinton is really a child of the fifties. The media then were very keen on suggesting ways to approximate sex without having to call it sex. That was the purpose of heavy petting -- everybody (at least everybody over 40) knows that heavy petting isn't sex. With a little critical interpretation, you can see that's what Bill was saying: He didn't go all the way! Third base is not a home run.

Okay, now the cigar. Is the cigar the smoking gun? As we search through the details -- skim for the good parts in the Starr Report -- is this where Clinton goes too far? Which begs the question: Is there a too far? One of the significant cultural aspects of the Internet is that, given its narrowcast properties, it's been able to open up the discussion of fetishistic sex. Even if you don't regularly engage in wearing diapers or giving enemas or getting yourself tied up, the Internet has introduced us to the practices of our neighbors who do. Do we object? If anything, we breathe a sigh of relief: There but for the grace of God. . . . I haven't read this book by the president's lawyer's brother, The Death of Outrage, and can't imagine anyone who would, but I've seen this Bennett on numerous television shows and I feel for him. He's got a hard road.

But back to the cigar. Sex is funny. It's become pretty much the subtext of all humor -- certainly mass-market humor. Seinfeld was not mostly about nothing; it was mostly about sex. Sitting in a meeting recently with movie writers and producers, I was trying to argue that a story about a wrecked business might make a good comedy. After an uncomfortable pause, one of the writers tried to explain to me the nature of what's funny in the movies: Business is serious, he said; semen on your ear is funny.

If I have any advice for the president, it's that he should develop the kind of haplessness and ruefulness (but quiet dignity) that Ben Stiller displays in There's Something About Mary.

Late on Sunday evening after the publication of the Starr Report, my wife came in carrying by her fingertips the special section the Times had prepared. "I found this," she said, in our 14-year-old daughter's bedroom.

"Did you read this?" I carefully asked my daughter -- considering all those reruns of Three's Company I'd tried (and failed) to protect her from.

But her enthusiasm got the best of me: "I read the whole thing. It was so cool -- you're so inside! It was pretty funny, too. I think I would still be an intern. Why not?"

What's more, I thought, she's finally reading the newspaper.

Starr believed he could shock the American people. The Republicans on the Judiciary Committee stayed up late burning CDs in an effort to get the widest possible media distribution of the Starr Report so that they could do their part in shocking the populace. A fool's errand.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com


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