Starr Struck

Boy, do the supreme court justices feel silly right now. From the comfort of their sealed chambers, they ruled unanimously last summer that the Paula Jones case would not be much of a distraction, that a sitting president could spare a few hours of his precious time to testify in a civil suit. Now, of course, the president will spend every hour of the next few weeks, including the ones he should be sleeping, distracted by the Paula Jones case. Historical contingencies like Middle East peace have been reduced to mere blips on his conscience.

But the justices can hardly be blamed for failing to recognize the distinctly nineties moment we have come to: this carnal nexus where the excesses of sexual-harassment law meet the excesses of the independent-counsel law meet the excesses of this particular president’s libido. Ken Starr, the independent prosecutor, was hired to look into Whitewater, remember? So what was he doing strapping a microphone on Linda Tripp, that obsessive White House aide, and prompting her to get her much younger “friend” to talk about sex? (Starr’s vague defense is that he is proving Clinton’s pattern of granting jobs for favors, that just as Clinton directed business Web Hubbell’s way, he also directed jobs Monica Lewinsky’s way. But the continuum between stock deals and sexual harassment is not so obvious.)

Starr’s argument sets the stage for Paula Jones’s lawyers to apply his logic to the already overheated sexual-harassment laws. The discovery phase of a harassment suit allows for pretty deep fishing; Jones’s lawyers can look for anything that might prove a “pattern and practice” of using a government office for sexual favors. But Jones’s lawyers have added a new twist. Generally, they would have to prove Clinton created a hostile work environment for Jones, or somehow retaliated against her. But their contention now is that he merely had to decline to help her out. In other words, he got jobs for the women who slept with him and ignored the rest.

The implications of opening up this new frontier are disastrous. Under this new interpretation, everyone in an office except the one lucky enough to get groped is potentially a victim. Any man who found out his boss was sleeping with a co-worker could sue. Mom-and-pop stores would be in big trouble. You can almost imagine Starr and Jones’s lawyers smirking in glee at their cleverness, completely blind to the monster they’ve unleashed.

It’s hard to feel bad for Clinton, though. The justices can be forgiven for their blinkered optimism, but Clinton has no excuse. He should know that the political culture has changed, that the American press will no longer wink and smirk when the president sleeps around. His talk-show sniffling over Gennifer Flowers worked because he promised he’d patched up his marriage, and Americans love nothing more than a sinner transformed. (Clinton even managed to turn it into a campaign slogan: “This campaign is not about my past; it’s about America’s future.”) But not again. Not with an intern your daughter’s age. And for God’s sake, not in the White House.

In his interviews on Wednesday, Clinton was snaky, transparently smooth. I know several people who said they didn’t believe the whole thing until they saw him on TV. “There is not an improper sexual relationship,” he repeated with slight variations, until you began to think your TV was on the fritz. That statement alone is rich fodder for deconstructionists. The question is whether there was a sexual relationship. And what’s an improper sexual relationship anyway? Clinton himself has defined a proper one as consensual, between adults. Technically, then, he’s not lying. His relationship with Monica Lewinsky was quite proper.

Read the interview with Jim Lehrer closely enough, and you can see the president pointing out the exit signs. The most serious issue is whether the president asked Lewinsky to lie under oath and deny they had had an affair. Or rather, whether he got Vernon Jordan, his best friend and devoted fix-it man, to do it for him. “He is in no way involved in trying to get anybody to say anything at my request italics added,” the president says. “I did not do that.” In other words, Jordan did it on his own initiative. Here, Clinton gently takes Jordan’s hand and leads him over to the corner with Webster Hubbell and Susan McDougal and the rest of his old buddies. Thankfully, adding a bit of comic relief to the otherwise grim exchanges, Clinton rounds out the interview with some priceless Freudian moments: “What I’m trying to do is contain my natural impulses and get back to work,” he says petulantly.

The final outrage is Clinton’s inexplicable attachment to his lawyer, Bob Bennett. In a way, this latest fiasco is all Bennett’s fault. When Bennett found out Tripp was the source for an earlier bimbo eruption, he publicly called her a liar. So to prove to him she was telling the truth, Tripp reached for a tape recorder.

Over the next few weeks, the world will be treated to seamy details from the Tripp tapes. Those who have heard them say they are very graphic, and somewhat kinky. But the president’s sexual peccadilloes are not really the point. What will finally start to grate on people is his callous stupidity, his selfish recklessness. This president likes to drag people down with him. It’s only a matter of days before Vernon Jordan is cooked. And what about Hillary? The present circumstances have made her risky trade-off of fame for personal unhappiness seem that much more creepy. And poor Monica Lewinsky. Unofficial White House sources are already starting to leak that she was a flirt and a little “unstable.”

Then there’s the rest of the country. Here we are at the high point of the Clinton presidency, suddenly rich and fatted, poised for the flood of good news. The magic list of shiny new initiatives is all set to be unveiled at next week’s State of the Union. And he risks it all for … a blow job.

TV lounge lizards are already talking impeachment. It’s far too soon for that. Even if Lewinsky says Clinton told her to lie, he can always say that she misunderstood him, or that it was all Vernon Jordan’s idea. But as Clinton should know by now, Congress is crawling with people obsessed by the fantasy of impeaching him. These folks are, right now, breaking out the champagne. Fortunately, though, the truly obsessed are a fringe crowd. The rest will probably come to their senses enough to realize that Monica Lewinsky is not Watergate. Nixon committed a crime, then asked his staff to lie about it. That’s different from indulging in guilty, but legal, pleasures.

So Clinton figures to wriggle out of this one, too. Aside from a few Vince Foster addicts, Americans will be squeamish about following Starr’s investigative forays into Clinton’s bedroom. Nixon corrupted an entire political system. Clinton merely corrupted himself. If it came to an impeachment vote, most congressmen would likely conclude that the president’s sex life is his own business. Most Americans, even if they feel personally betrayed, would probably agree. A sympathetic few might even feel his pain.

Starr Struck