Men behaving badly

Monicagate, Lewinskygate, Tailgate, Sexgate, and Zippergate. The sexual relationship between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky which took place between 1995 and 1997 and its aftermath is the subject of a podcast series, which has just finished. A sitting president was being investigated by an independent counsel. There were a number of women accusing this president of sexual misconduct. There was a lot of cynical political opportunism and moral posturing. It was premonitory of the increasingly sectarian politics that have afflicted America in the next twenty years.

After dealing with Watergate in the first season, Slate’s podcast Slow Burn, devoted eight episodes to look at the scandal of President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. Alas, neither Lewinsky nor Clinton agreed to be interviewed for the podcast. Nevertheless, it is well worth listening to. Leon Neyfakh, an American journalist, radio host and author, has produced an engrossing story.

The saga ended in Clinton being acquitted by the US Senate of four articles of impeachment involving charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. As Neyfakh tells it, it is an ethically ambiguous case. In the concluding episode he asks if it’s possible to be framed and be guilty at the same time. I haven’t changed in my contempt for the Republicans. Independent counsel Ken Starr’s treatment of Lewinsky was disgraceful. But the Clinton White House threw her to the dogs her to protect his presidency. At the time I felt ambivalent about Clinton. Now he seems more sinister. The final programme features an interview with Juanita Broaddrick. She has alleged that Bill Clinton raped her in 1978. This extremely serious charge was barely investigated, an afterthought in the Starr report; it was not among the articles of impeachment. Curiously, she is now a Trump supporter and on Twitter she has rubbished Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations against Judge Brett Kavanaugh:

How can I, as a victim, not sympathize with Dr. Ford?? Plain and simple. I do not believe her. She has cast a dark shadow on real victims. Democrats have already convicted this honourable man. What about Judge Kavanaugh and his family?”

The series also looks at the role of feminism: how would this scandal have played out in the age of #MeToo? Neyfakh does not want to come across as morally superior to those unenlightened people at the turn of the century. He wants to understand why they reacted in the way they did. There was and is a tension in feminism. This is between a woman’s right to sexual agency and her right to be free from sexual predation. Lewinsky was not a teenager at the time of the relationship; it began when she was 22. Nevertheless, can a 22-year-old intern consent to sex with her 49-year-old boss, or do the power dynamics mean that the relationship is by its very nature coercive?

There was a sense of political expediency here. Is it okay to overlook a president’s personal failings if you agree with his policy agenda? Bill Clinton was seen as a champion of women’s issues. We have a similar opportunism now with Trump. We can say that he is not a paragon of Christian virtues. However, in 21 months Trump has appointed two Supreme Court judges and evangelical Christians seem to have forgotten all their moral qualms. This hypocrisy is epitomised by William J. Bennett. I can remember hearing him at the time with his moral indignation. The author of The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories and The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals is of course a Donald Trump supporter. If outrage died with Bill Clinton, then Trump has nuked it to make sure that it can never be resuscitated

One aspect I found interesting was Clinton’s bizarre legalistic arguments in his denial of sexual relations with Miss Lewinsky. He was not claiming that oral sex didn’t count. He was  apparently employing the idiosyncratic definition of “sexual relations” that Paula Jones’s lawyers had provided to him during his deposition that led to all his problems. Sexual relations involve touching someone in a manner intended to arouse or gratify them. According to this definition of “sexual relations,” Lewinsky had had sexual relations with Clinton, but not vice versa.

The story comes back with the recent hearing involving Judge Brett Kavanaugh. The freshly minted Supreme Court justice has a connection with Bill Clinton. He spent over three years working for Kenneth Starr, including the Clinton investigation. He laid out the line of questioning the special counsel should use with Clinton. He began with three normal questions:

  1. Did you tell Monica Lewinsky that she should deny the nature of the relationship that you and she had?
  2. If Monica Lewinsky says that you agreed to lie about your relationship with her, would she be lying?
  3. Would Monica Lewinsky be lying if she said that you told her after her name appeared on the witness list: “You could always say you were coming to see Betty or that you were bringing me letters”?

Then, however, Kavanaugh began an increasingly graphic series of questions:

  1. If Monica Lewinsky says you inserted a cigar into her vagina while you were in the Oval Office area, would she be lying?
  2. If Monica Lewinsky says that you had phone sex with her on approximately 15 occasions, would she be lying?
  3. If Monica Lewinsky says that on several occasions in the Oval Office area, you used your fingers to stimulate her vagina and bring her to orgasm, would she be lying?
  4. If Monica Lewinsky says that she gave you oral sex on nine occasions in the Oval Office area, would she by lying?
  5. If Monica Lewinsky says that you ejaculated into her mouth on two occasions in the Oval Office area, would she be lying?
  6. If Monica Lewinsky says that on several occasions you had her give oral sex, made her stop, and then ejaculated into the sink in the bathroom off the Oval Office, would she be lying?
  7. If Monica Lewinsky says that you masturbated into a trashcan in your secretary’s office, would she be lying?

I have a couple of observations about the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. I did find Christine Blasey Ford a credible witness, but I think it’s such a long time ago – I don’t see how you could establish Kavanaugh’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt. My other conclusion is that given his performance under scrutiny, this man is not suited for this vital job. He came across as an arrogant, entitled man, who repeatedly misrepresented the truth. How many more justices will Trump get to name? He is currently averaging over one a year.

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