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Sex, lies, videotape and lots of hypocrisy

Frequently when people don’t know what to say, they say it all the louder. Frustrated and stupefied, we pile our words on, afraid to risk the silence.

We seem in one of those headlong episodes right now. Though not the only ones, we Americans seem uncommonly prone to paroxysms of grief (for a dead Princess Diana, for example), of adulation (for a Sammy Sosa or Mark McGwire), of outrage (against a philandering, lying president or a too-zealous special prosecutor).

Surrounded by circumstances and waylaid by emotions we can’t put into words, we grope for metaphors and precedents and excuses and exceptions. We stretch to score points, gain advantage, get elected, get even.

Time for timeout.

It’s as if Aristotle had Bill Clinton in mind when he wrote his famous definition of the tragic hero: “a man who is highly renowned and prosperous, but one who is not preeminently virtuous and just, whose misfortune, however, is brought upon him not by vice and depravity but by some error of judgment or frailty.”

Calling Clinton a hero of any stripe is likely to increase the cacophony again. Yet he was only a few falls away from some vague greatness. Highly intelligent, a weaver of words, personable, he said what most people wanted to hear about a kinder, gentler world for those who most needed it, such as children, women, various outcasts. He came along at the luckiest time a president could choose, when the United States was preeminent among the nations, the world was free from major war, the engines of commerce were humming along nicely and nearly everyone had money for a new car. All he had to do was preside over this privileged situation -- he had little to do but be great: Things were so good, people could scarcely be displeased with him about anything.

But he found a way to fall. Several ways. Monica Lewinsky and her predecessors. Liking Clinton, we didn’t want to believe he fell. With a little help from independent counsel Kenneth Starr, we’re beginning to believe it and now we’re mad as hell.

And how our hero fell. Not only the old-fashioned carnal way but with hairsplitting legal verbal gibberish that would be comic were it not tragic.

Starr looks so clean by comparison. A preacher’s son in shining armor singing hymns as he jogs each morning. But virtue is often hard to love; the more it shines, the harder to love. We are cynical enough now to be suspicious of everyone, and although we may not always be right, the law of averages is in our favor. So we sniff and suspect.

What kind of hymn-singing preacher’s son would publish the Starr report, a document that, irrespective of its accuracy, wallows so inelegantly in Clinton’s calamity? Is this an expression of Starr’s Christianity? Would justice have been tarnished if there were a sentence in there, an afterthought even, about mercy or forgiveness? But forget Christianity: History will inevitably conclude that in the events of recent weeks, not only in the content of the report but in the rush to publish it, some threshold of decency was crossed and some raw wounds inflicted on the national psyche, especially that of the children.

And behind Starr -- on the TV, where all this reality is played out -- is an endless parade of the glib and fumbling, the right and left, the good and bad talking heads, who all have an opinion on what to do about Clinton, yesterday’s hero. All worrying about the pornography of it but forging ahead because they are shining people with agendas and solutions. All arguing whether it’s sex or perjury or obstruction of justice. It’s futile to pick a few names from the fervently chattering throng.

No one handles the truth more loosely than failed hero Clinton -- except for the others.

And isn’t it odd that so many people love sex so much yet hate it so much?

But the noise about sex has been so loud that we can scarcely hear the hypocrisy. One doesn’t have to condone Clinton’s sex exploits to say they pale compared to the savage hurt we do each other in public life and no one raises an indignant voice to complain. As we worry whether Clinton is impeachable or not, a small percentage of our population is getting obscenely rich at the expense of thousands or millions of poor people at home or abroad -- the pornography of greed.

Watch the politicians on television. Observe their false sincerity. Watch them say they want to be bipartisan. Watch them say how serious obstruction of justice is. Did someone say justice? In the middle of the brouhaha the Republicans quietly killed finance reform one more time, and you could search far afield before finding mention of this in the media.

They are senators and congresspersons because they were bought by the very rich -- there are few exceptions to this. It’s odd how tinny such an accusation sounds, how generalized, not specific and lurid and gripping like Clinton’s sins. The people in public life, of church and state, have never stigmatized injustice the way they stigmatized sins of the flesh. This must somehow say a lot about us and our society.

But if we the people put the same Starr microscope, the same $50 million to work examining government corruption, business ripoffs, discrimination against women, gays, others, heaven knows what we might find.

It’s a good time for the nation to go on retreat, preferably a silent one.

National Catholic Reporter, September 25, 1998