By Michael Miner

Bill’s Foreign Relations

Bill Clinton’s troubles are nearly as big a story in London and Dublin, where I just spent several days, as they are here. “The lying fornicator must go,” decided Rupert Murdoch’s ratty Sun, in the course of an 11-page report, “A President disgraced,” that began with a gothic front page:




In Murdoch’s tonier Times, columnist William Rees-Mogg called Clinton a “charismatic sociopath,” though he was charitable enough to acknowledge that the president “is not wholly a madman.” Several editorials and op-ed columns in London’s serious press declared that Clinton must step down.

The Dublin press was no less preoccupied, but in Ireland Clinton happens to be a national hero. He’d visited the country just the week before, and he’d been warmly received. Perhaps that’s why the most forlornly eloquent commentary on Clinton’s troubles that I’ve read anywhere was written by Fintan O’Toole of the Irish Times. “Behind every good scandal there is an unspoken promise: this necessary pain will make things better,” he began. “Behind Watergate, or Iran-Contra in the United States, behind the paedophile scandals in the Irish church or the slow, methodical exposure of [former prime minister] Charles Haughey’s misdemeanours, is the belief that it will all be worth it in the end because the destruction of the guilty individual will ultimately improve the institution.”

In America today O’Toole found no such belief. “Monicagate is a moral drama played out at a time when the very idea of public morality has ceased to be credible,” he wrote. “The only certainty is that when the whole sorry affair is over the American political system will not be better but worse, creepier, more hypocritical, even more grotesquely dominated by image and personality than it is now.”

Clinton has disgraced himself, O’Toole acknowledged. But who in this affair, he wondered, has not? Normally a scandal finds its heroes, its dauntless reporter and “heroic whistle-blower,” its sympathetic victim and “steely, incorruptible investigator.” But who have we here? he wondered. For a whistle-blower, Linda Tripp; for a victim, a young woman who promptly put herself on display in a preposterous Vanity Fair photo spread; for an investigator, Kenneth Starr, the “Smutfinder General” whose methods, O’Toole told his Irish readers, “have at times bordered on the maniacal” and whose associates encompass “the most virulent members of the Christian Fundamentalist wing of the Republican Party.”

And for a reporter? O’Toole wrote that David Brock, whose 1993 article on Clinton’s sex life in the American Spectator set the wheels in motion, confessed last April in Esquire, “I wasn’t hot for this story in the interest of good government or serious journalism. I wanted to pop [Clinton] right between the eyes.”

Though O’Toole wrote contemptuously of Clinton, he wrote of him from a perspective all but unimaginable in America. To the Irish, Clinton is a serious man whose fall would jeopardize vital national interests; therefore Ireland is troubled by Clinton’s fate in a way America is not. Ireland is an island stricken for decades by intractable sectarian warfare. But at the moment relief and hope are in the air, and Clinton is getting the credit–for stepping between the Irish and British to cut the Gordian knot. Earlier this year an Irish Times correspondent in Washington reviewed the peace process, described Clinton’s role in it as “vital,” and reported: “The St. Patrick’s Day reception at the White House this year gave President Clinton an unprecedented opportunity to meet all the political leaders in the peace process as the negotiations reached the crucial phase. He made good use of it to impress on the politicians that this was ‘the chance of a lifetime for peace in Ireland’ and that ‘no one will be the loser if agreement is reached.’ He promised them the party to end all parties next year if they pulled it off.”

I have heard a leading editor and various academics conversing on late-night television, a wry young Trinity College historian leading a tour of Dublin, and the cabbie driving me to the airport all laud Clinton and wonder what the future would hold without him. America is living outside of history at the moment, but Ireland is enmeshed in its own. Here we think of Clinton in terms of the mess he’s in, which makes his disgrace less the tragedy that Ireland sees and more an entertainment. If instead of a party to end all parties next year he finds himself walking alone in the rain along the Liffey, he’ll be stopped by many a new friend offering a pat on the back and a thoughtful word on the wages of sin.

Serious Issue

“I’ve been giving the Starr report a close read,” said the editor in chief. “Looks to me like the squalid tale of a middle-aged man in a fishbowl making a pathetic bid to split the difference between marital fidelity and a harmless fling.”

“Maybe Baptist presidents need a sign over their desk that says Pull the Trigger, Stupid, and Get Back to Work,” offered Murphy, the sports editor.

“When I read how he refused to ejaculate, I had to wonder,” said the chief. “Maybe he really didn’t inhale! Clinton’s problem with sin might be that he doesn’t know how to enjoy it.”

“So few of us do,” sighed Dinsmore, the business editor.

“Anyway, I’ve given some thought to the Sunday package,” said the chief. “It’s time for journalism to step up to the plate. Journalists know just as much as John Q. Public about infidelity, prick teasers, and oral sex, so why does journalism know so much less? Institutionally, we sound like we just found out what cats do in the barn.”

He reached into his briefcase and brought out a Bible. His editors shifted uneasily in their chairs. Ever since winning that ethics award the chief had acted a little balmy. But this was the first time he’d brought the Good Book to a news conference.

“I started thinking about the Book of Job.” He turned to the page he’d marked with a Post-It. “I assume you heathens know this book finds God and Satan testing the soul of Job.”

“Job put up more of a battle than the president,” offered the managing editor.

“You could say the same about Starr,” Murphy added.

“True enough,” said the chief. “But here’s what catches my eye. It says here that when God and Satan decide to see what Job’s made of, they slaughter his servants and slaughter his sons and daughters. Which is rough on Job, of course. But from where I sit, it’s a lot rougher on his kids and his servants.”

“That would have made a pretty good sidebar,” said the ME. “Job blessed with new issue. Old issue still dead.”

“Then you see what I’m getting at,” said the chief.

Actually, no one did.

“I used to know a Monica Lewinsky,” he went on. “We had some fine times, some truly unforgettable times, before I decided to head for the hills. And when I did, I probably wasn’t as nice as I might have been. But I’ve kept track of her, and I can tell you, she’s raising a couple of kids outside Pittsburgh. For all I know, she’s happy–which I can assure you she wouldn’t be if every paper in America had published a hundred thousand words about our capers. I assume the purpose of the Starr report is to humiliate the president. It matters not who else is humiliated. Monica, like the children of Job, is inconsequential.”

Everyone sat there thinking, Yeah? And so?

“I’ve asked Philpot to develop these parallels for the Sunday paper.”

Let the religious writer gather whatever wool the chief decrees, thought the minions. Great undiscovered tracts of newsprint composed the Sunday paper. In one of those uncharted regions Philpot reigned.

“I see his essay as the cornerstone of our Sunday package,” said the chief.

“You mean, section one?” said the ME.

“Of course. And I’ve made a list of stories I want to go with it.”

“Paper’s tight,” said Gollirab, the news editor. “We’ve already got a first-rate think piece by O’Malley. He says censure Clinton, censure Starr, and declare a day of national drunkenness. Then not another word. And Mack Mollusk writes about a Samoan he met in a bar. Seems his uncle lost his job as tribal chief in a major scandal. The elders kept sending him their daughters to mentor, and none ever came home pregnant.”

“We get a picture?” the ME wondered.

“No chance. Our Samoan was in too big a rush to get back to the village. All Mollusk has is a first name written on a napkin. Exquisitely written column though. Amazing quotes.”

“I think we ought to go in a different direction,” said the chief. “And I want those of us around this table to do the writing. We’re respected executives and men of the world–and you, Ms. Gollirab, are far more than just our token female. We understand human nature. It’s our duty to step up and explain it.”

No one liked the sound of this.

“You’re after real-life context?” said the ME.

“Precisely,” said the chief. “Dinsmore, you’re a man we need to hear from. You live with your wife. You work with your wife. You never look at another woman. As we stone the adulterers, I want your reflections on the challenge of monogamy.”

Dinsmore pursed his lips. “There isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell I’d tell the truth about the challenge of monogamy,” he replied, not daring to look in Ms. Gollirab’s direction. “Keeping monogamy fresh requires desperate measures. Even one word about the hot dog buns and guacamole and I’d be hooted out of town.”

“Think about it,” said the chief. “We have a duty to our readers. As for you, Murphy, I’ve noticed you for years hitting on every copygirl in the newsroom. It’s pathetic but age appropriate. An honest piece on the subject might earn you laurels.”

“I remember when this was a serious newspaper,” said Murphy.

“It may soon be again,” said the chief.

“I’ll quit first,” said Murphy.

“Ms. Gollirab, can you fetch us a piece on the emotional processes by which a vivacious but callow young woman finds herself bewitched by a powerful and sensitive older man?”

“It would be quite a stretch,” said Gollirab.

“What about oral sex?” said the ME. He’d never dreamed a time would present itself to ask the question.

“In your dreams,” said Gollirab.

The chief sat there smoldering. He’d imagined a daring, valiant Sunday edition that would cut through the cant to bring practical wisdom to bear on the national hysteria. His troops were deserting him.

“And you could certainly write something,” he told the ME.

“Like what?”

“Everyone knows what you had on the side in Washington. You could reflect on living a lie while you did the best work of your career.”

The ME tried to look like a man thoughtfully considering a proposal. “I still don’t know how much my wife knew,” he responded gravely. “It never comes up. I’d rather not stir those waters.”

Eventually it was decided. The paper would lead with a bold, passionate front-page editorial demanding a presidential apology to the American media. For nearly a year now, the paper would say, you have distracted us from our constitutionally hallowed mission. You have made it impossible for us to write about anything that counts. If you’d done the honorable thing last January and come clean as soon as Matt Drudge exposed you, we would not be reviling you now. Not that we’ll forgive you, but at least tell us you’re sorry.

The rest of the paper would be devoted to Sosa and McGwire.

News Bites

Everyone can find something in the Starr report to be appalled by. Ariana Huffington spotted her “most chilling passage” in Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal’s grand jury testimony. “I feel like a character in a novel,” Blumenthal said the president had told him. “I feel like somebody who is surrounded by an oppressive force that is creating a lie about me and I can’t get the truth out. I feel like the character in the novel Darkness at Noon.” Clinton not only lied to Blumenthal about Monica Lewinsky, Huffington marveled, but he compared himself to the protagonist of a great anti-Stalinist novel.

The passage that jolted me was this: “Ms. Lewinsky had no apparent motive to lie to her friends, family members, and counselors. Ms. Lewinsky especially had no reason to lie to Dr. Kassorla and Ms. Estep, to whom she related the facts in the course of a professional relationship.”

In other words, she couldn’t have guessed that whatever she told her therapists in confidence would wind up in the hands of a special prosecutor.

The morning after Clinton’s grand jury tape and 3,183 pages of documents were made public, the number of CTA passengers in my crowded rush-hour car reading a newspaper: two.

And how many newspapers will nominate their coverage of the Bill-Monica scandal for a Pulitzer Prize? o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): various headlines.