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STARR STRUCK -- The New Sexual McCarthyism

One is tempted to respond to the current fracas involving Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, Kenneth Starr et al by using a battery of short, declarative sentences.

Enough is enough!

Give it a rest, will ya!

I'm outta' here!

October 4, 2020

It is difficult to keep up with the constant media bombardment about this story, which seems to consist mostly of elaborate accounts of who recorded a conversation with whom, and on behalf of what agency, or video footage of yet another pallet of documents "from the office of the Independent Counsel" being delivered to the House Judiciary Committee. If Clinton's periodic dalliances with Lewinksy generated such a treasure trove of documents, one could only speculate as to what a comparable investigation into the life of John Kennedy, or even Franklin D. Roosevelt might have yielded. Indeed, Mr. Starr's investigative files seem to be something akin to the legendary Lost Mines of King Solomon in pouring forth an unending stream of riches for someone.

As the pundits have noted, though, and perhaps crudely, all of this is over a few rounds of groping and oral sex in the Oval Office. It was something that affected the lives of Clinton and his family, Monica Lewinsky and maybe Linda Tripp. Beyond that, l'affair Clinton pales in contrast to the events in the Sudan, the ethnic cleansing of the Balkans, the Asian meltdown or the precariousness on Wall Street. Millions of lives are affected by those events, yet incredibly these issues are distilled to a journalistic footnote, overshadowed by Clinton-Lewinsky. It echoes the silliness and pettiness of, say, the O.J. Simpson trial. It is another cannibalizing feeding frenzy for talking heads, commentators, and the pundits. For Henry Hyde, Gary Bauer, Bill Bennett and even Ross Perot (and you thought we were done with him...), Starrgate has given them all a renewed lease on political life, and another 15 minutes of fame in the public limelight.

Throughout much of Europe and Asia, there is understandable puzzlement as to why Americans are so swept up in the digital hoopla of what to them is a somewhat prosaic, indeed private series of events unworthy of the ink and air time which is devoted to it. When Francois Mitterand was buried amidst the splendid honors of the French Republic, his wife, mistress and son (by the latter) were all in attendance, amicably conversing about their fond memories of that great leader. What's all the fuss?

We Americans, however, seem to be made of a different stuff. Our history is punctuated with periods of anguish and concern over the human body, its processes, functions and drives. Our attitudes about sexuality and the appropriate roles of the different genders seem to fluctuate with the headlines; and we have never seemed able to break free of the powerful religious strictures which have colored our attitudes and altered our legal system. We remain perilously ambiguous about that three letter word, S-E-X. We use it to sell cars, beer and just about everything else, but we insist on transforming the sex act into a taboo, even a crime, when it occurs outside the boundaries of sanctioned heterosexual marriage. We vote for politicians who insist that there is far too much of it in the popular media, but in the marketplace we watch programs, or purchase record, or read books and magazines which exude sexuality. We balk at spending money on enlightened sex education for youngsters, but think nothing of making Viagra one of the best selling drugs in history. We insist on banning Penthouse or Playboy on military bases, but at home, or maybe in a hotel, will sneak a look at the adult channels.

All of which is why the Clinton affair is so compelling, riveting and divisive. It is about S-E-X. And it involves an essentially victimless "crime." No one was killed by a stray Cruise missile, nobody thrown out of work due to currency devaluation and bankruptcy . It would be difficult to find a victim in this case, save those we could invent. The same politicians who insist that we need censorious legislation such as the Communications Decency Act have no qualms about publicizing whatever tidbits Mr. Starr and his investigators have unearthed. Instead of investigating consumer fraud, toxic pollution, corporate crime or other actual "high crimes and misdemeanors," the Office of the Independent Counsel frets over evidentiary minutia such as a semen-stained dress, or the excruciating details of oral-genital contact.

The parallels between the Starr investigation and another ignominious time in our recent past -- the McCarthy era -- are disturbingly stark. Alan Dershowitz has raised the prospect of "sexual McCarthyism," a phrase mildly contested in the latest issue of The Nation by writer Victor Navsky. McCarthy actually arrived on the political scene after the process we identify today as McCarthyism was in high gear; and McCarthyism lived on even after the demagogic Senator from Wisconsin was censured. Instead of J. Edgar Hoover, the House Un-American Activities Committee, Billy Graham and the American Legion scouring the land in a hunt for "communists," today's political fashion of the moment on Capitol Hill involves Mr. Starr, Henry Hyde, Newt Gingrich and others solons, egged on by Christian Coalition, Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council, and the rest of the religious right which has been looking for any excuse to pillory Clinton. Anti-communism (as distinguished from pro-freedom) was a political virtue throughout the 50s and beyond; today, in the wake of Starr's investigatory fishing expedition, chastity and "family values" are saluted as a new standard for political hopefuls. In Texas, Governor Bush has instituted the "Lone Star Leaders" program designed to "help young people make right choices about drugs, and alcohol, tobacco, sex, crime, civic involvement and school. As Thomas Edsall noted in a recent piece in the WASHINGTON POST, "Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.), Family research Council Gary L. Bauer,magazine public Malcolmn S. "Steve" Forbes and former vice president Dan Quayle all back premarital chastity..." Indeed, for public office hopefuls, chastity is now becoming as important a political litmus test inside the Republican party as abortion was four years ago.

The great absurdity here, and one which social libertarians rightfully and delightfully enjoy pointing out, is that the Republican Party -- explicit standard bearer of "getting government off our backs" -- may worry about the influence of the Environmental Protection Agency, or see OSHA as a restriction on private business, but has no qualms about enlisting the apparatus of statecraft in surveiling, banning or endorsing behaviors which are truly private. Should it the concern of the State in what consenting adults (including Mr. Clinton and Ms. Lewinsky) do behind closed doors? For that matter, was it any business of the government's during the fifties who happened to believe in certain ideas, or chose to speak out on behalf of those principles -- wrong or as unpopular as they might have been -- in a peaceful and legal fashion?

I therefore say to you, and to Mr. Starr, and to the Grand Jury, that the matters he is asking about are none of his damn business. And if these questions were put to any of you, average citizens, you should say the same.
One of the most detestable features of McCarthy wasn't the fact that the government conducted such a probe -- one might even argue this sort of thing is to be expected once we move beyond the rudimentary Jeffersonian republic -- but how few people, at least in the beginning, stood fast and refused to cooperate. Many served as "friendly witnesses" before HUAC and the McCarthy probe. Names were given, reputations ruined, civil liberties chilled, and in the end, not one agent of the Soviet Intelligence apparatus was apprehended. As Navsky points out, McCarthy and his stable of investigators, which included the oily and questionable Roy Cohn, already had been provided with a list of identified members of the Communist Party by the FBI. The ritual of intimidating witnesses to "name names" was so much window dressing for McCarthy's political career one fortunately terminated by his own excesses and greed for power.

Contrary to what the public moralists are declaring, Bill Clinton should not have told Kenneth Starr, or the American people, "the truth" about his affair. Instead of testifying in front of the Grand Jury, Clinton should have shut up. And instead of groveling in his public mea culpa on nationwide television, perhaps Clinton should have put aside the biblical phrases about repentance and atonement, and sent a different message. In case someone invents a time machine and seeks to set things right, I'll draft his speech.
Good evening, my fellow Americans.

Today, I was called before the Grand Jury and Special Counsel Kenneth Starr to give testimony concerning my alleged relationship with a young woman, Monica Lewinsky.

I told Mr. Starr, his associates, and the members of that Grand Jury, that I would not cooperate and that, indeed, the focus of their investigation was improper, inappropriate and none of their business.

I wish to state that fact to you, again this evening. As President, I, along with every other elected officials, am accountable for what I do in terms of matters of public policy. I was elected to uphold the constitution, which in its preamble mentions the responsibility to "establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defense, and promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity." Part of that task also involves upholding an important, and perhaps our most important national principal -- the right to individual privacy, to be free and immune from the snooping eyes of the government.

I say to you tonight that NO AMERICAN should ever be subject to the sorts of questioning that I was today by Mr. Starr and his Grand Jury. No American should be compelled to give testimony, under threat of legal sanction, about such intimate and personal details of their private lives. No American should be intimidated, bullied and threatened to reveal facts about his or her behavior which contributed to no crime, hurt no one and are, frankly, none of the business of government and its various agents. And it should be demanded of no American that he or she "tell the truth" about matters which are not the business of government, or anyone else, in the first place.

If the President of the United States can be forced to open the most sacrosanct and private areas of life to the scrutiny of government, then so can the average citizen. If the President of the United States can have his or her privacy invaded to such an astonishing degree, without evidence of compelling reasons of statecraft, then so can the average citizen. If Mr. Starr, or any other government prosecutor can ask any question about any area of life, backed with the formidable sanction of the state, of the President, then these same agents may and will ask those same questions of the average citizen.

I therefore say to you, and to Mr. Starr, and to the Grand Jury, that the matters he is asking about are none of his damn business. And if these questions were put to any of you, average citizens, you should say the same.
Alas, it's doubtful that Mr. Clinton, or any elected official has the guts and the philosophical integrity, to assume such an outspoken posture on behalf of individual rights and personal privacy. Instead, Mr. Clinton wallowed in a gesture of self-denigration and atonement (a word that seems to be in everyone's lexicon these days) and called in a team of religious "counselors" to advise him and salvage both his marriage and his administration. Religious groups have had carte blanch in providing us with their take on this "moral crisis" in the White House, and just a mile or so away on Capitol Hill, elected representatives are beating their collective breasts in a fury of indignation, hoping that they can impeach, or at least censure Clinton before some hustling reporter uncover dirty deeds in their own backgrounds. The President says that he is trying to "heal," and "put things right." What he should be saying is that whatever he might have done with Monica Lewinsky, the more important principal at stake here is that it is none of the damn business of Ken Starr and his sexual McCarthyites.
So, what about those phrases, snippets that I'd like to hurl in the direction of the Special Counsel, or any other official -- private or public -- who sticks his or her nose where it doesn't belong? What do we say to those who insist that our private lives must be the concern of church or state? I'd say that whatever your personal tastes, what Bill and Monica and Hillary and the rest of us choose to do, or not do, behind closed doors is their business. Your business is yours, mine is mine. So please listen, Kenneth, Bill, you folks on the Judiciary Committee and in the news rooms... when it comes to certain things that we do, that don't involve our jobs or the business of running the country... Ain't nobody's business but my own.

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