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Sex and Politics

Aug
13
2004

In his recent review of My Life, Bill Clinton’s biography, critic Gary Wills makes some perceptive observations about the hetrosexual sex scandal that rocked the presidency. With the spectacle of New Jersey Gov. McGreevey in front of us, Wills’ comments are worth considering in light of the Republican – and some gay Americans – calls for McGreevey to stop confusing his sexual orientation and a plain-vanilla patronage scandal.


As Wills points out, a scandal is a scandal is a scandal. Once you’re in the pool, well, you’re all wet. And the repercussions can be endless, invisible, and crippling. This is a lengthy quote but the entire article, which deftly sums up the last Democratic President, is worth reading.
Actually, the honorable thing for Clinton would have been to resign. I argued for that in a Time magazine article as soon as he revealed that he had lied to the nation. I knew, of course, that he wouldn’t. He had thrown himself off the highest cliff ever, and he had to prove he could catch a last-minute branch and pull himself, improbably, back up. And damned if he didn’t. He ended his time as president with high poll numbers and some new accomplishments, the greatest of the Kid’s comebacks—so great that I have been asked if I still feel he should have resigned. Well, I do. Why? Partly because what Ross Perot said in 1996 was partly true—that Clinton would be “totally occupied for the next two years in staying out of jail.” That meant he would probably go on lying. He tried for as long as possible to “mislead” the nation on Gennifer Flowers. He still claims that Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey made false charges. Perhaps they did, but he became unbelievable about personal behavior after lying about Flowers and Lewinsky. I at first disbelieved the story Paula Jones told because it seemed too bizarre; but the cigar-dildo described by Monica Lewinsky considerably extended the vistas of the bizarre.”
Those were the seen dangers, says Wills. Here are the unseen:
…Clinton, as a Southerner, knew that the party had to expand its base back into sources of support eroded by the New Right. This was a defensible (in fact a shrewd) strategy as Clinton originally shaped it. He could have made it a tactical adjunct to important strategic goals. But after the scandals, all his maneuvering looked desperate—a swerving away from blows, a flurried scrambling to find solid footing. His very success made Democrats think their only path to success was to concede, cajole, and pander. Al Gore began his 2000 campaign unhappy about his association with Clinton but trying to outpander him when he opposed the return of the Cuban boy Elián Gonzalez to his father. There is a kind of rude justice to the fact that the election was stolen from Gore in the state where he truckled to the Cubans.
Clinton bequeathed to his party not a clear call to high goals but an omnidirectional proneness to pusillanimity and collapse. This was signaled at the very outset of the new presidency. The Democrats, still in control of the Senate, facing a president not even strong enough to win the popular vote, a man brought into office by linked chicaneries and chance (Kathleen Harris, Ralph Nader, Antonin Scalia), nonetheless helped to confirm John Ashcroft as attorney general. The senators knew Ashcroft well; they were surely not impressed by his acumen or wisdom.
A whole series of capitulations followed.

Of course, I like Wills argument because it dovetails with my criticism of the Democratic Party as it’s currently run: top down with little regard for the changes taking within its ranks, running from one “interest” group to another, constantly stitching together coalitions of short-term strategice alliances, not coming up with some real ideas or plans.
Without meaning to, Wills outlines the reasons why McGreevey’s right to resign; I don’t buy the argument that he ought to hang around and tough it out. It will, like or not, hurt the Democratic Party at a time when it’s vulnerable. And while I’m normally not one to feel sorry for politicians’ families, this is an exception I’m willing to make.
It’s enough to ask your spouse to weather a patronage scandal (In New Jersey, who’d have thunk? See, McGreevey was an old-fashioned guy at heart) but a patronage scandal (which will certainly expand before it goes away) and a gay sex scandal is too much. As an elected Democrat, McGreevey’s within his rights (barely) to set the timetable for his resignation and, yeah, he’s playing politics. So what? He won his office, fair and square, if not straight and narrow.
So Gay America has a new hero. In fact, given the dramatic and heartfelt speech he gave, should he survive this scandal – and he’s well on his way, he just needs to stay out of jail – San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom better hope McGreevey decides to stay on the East Coast.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 3:34 PM | Permalink

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