What if Bill Clinton had told the truth? Would America’s sexual and political history be different? The thought occurs because of the new TV drama Impeachment (being shown in Britain on BBC2) about the Monica Lewinsky affair.
Somewhat unfairly to both main parties, it is part of the American Crime Story series. Previous subjects have included O.J. Simpson and Andrew Cunanan, who killed Gianni Versace. It’s a bit rich putting Bill Clinton in the same bracket as these murder cases. Nonetheless, the result is intriguing, not just because of the magnificent acting and production — and not only because in the quarter of a century since the world’s most famous blow job a certain axis of society seems to have turned.
Back then Monica Lewinsky was the butt of every joke. In the ancient-modern parlance she was ‘shamed’. Late-night comedians, like everyone else on the planet, did jokes you can still rattle off: ‘Girl in her class voted most likely to suck-seed’ — that sort of thing. A friend was at a post-Oscars party in 2001, the year Bjork came dressed as a swan. Shortly afterwards Monica Lewinsky entered the room. ‘Should have come as a swallow,’ my friend quipped.
Of course, in the light of #MeToo, all that has changed. Now Bill Clinton (played by Clive Owen) is a brooding menace. He literally comes out of the shadows every time they meet. He is the abuser, she the abused. Because that is how all male-female power relations have been reformulated in recent times. It doesn’t hurt that Lewinsky is a producer on the show, allowing herself to come across almost wholly as an innocent little victim. Personally this grates with me — because as well as being an obsessive and a nut, the woman playing Lewinsky looks like that actress from Hairspray who made me grind my teeth and turn off in under five minutes.
But none of this is what is interesting. What is interesting is the question that has only come up once in the show so far: what, as I say, if Bill Clinton had told the truth?
The scene where this is made explicit comes when Clinton has already perjured himself by telling the special prosecutor’s office that he did not have sexual relations with his former intern or anyone else. He then calls in the pollster Dick Morris and asks what would happen if he ’fessed up. Morris lays it out with some secret opinion polling. Here are the approval ratings if you admit to having had an affair (not disastrous). Here are the approval ratings if you admit that, while President of the United States, you committed perjury (the numbers are through the floor). So in the drama, at least, Clinton knows he’s going to have to push on with the lie.
But that same thought keeps occurring: what if he’d just admitted to it earlier? What if the moment the Lewinsky affair started to come out he had just said it was true? People say he couldn’t have done that because of Hillary. Yet if you are married to a man like Bill I would say that you can work out pretty quickly what kind of a guy you’ve got. I’ve only met him once, but I have heard the most surprising women say what they would like to do if they got him in a room alone — and none of it was remotely vengeful. He’s one of those highly sexual people who, when they’re attractive, have people flinging themselves at them. (When they’re not attractive, we just warn our friends that they’re not safe in taxis.)
Imagine if 23 years ago Clinton had said something like this: ‘Look, I’m not especially proud of it, and I’m deeply sorry to have embarrassed my wife. But you know, we’re all human, and about half of us in this country are men. And, well, things happen and although marriage vows are sacred and people should stick to them, not everybody does or can, and that’s just a fact of life. Not the best thing in the world, and not the worst. Now let’s try to sort out healthcare.’
I don’t know what it would have done for him in the polls. Or for relations with Hillary. But for the country?
In France the public and politicians have a famously more grown-up attitude towards human sexual relations. They recognise that adults have sex and that it isn’t a matter of perennial amazement or much of anyone else’s business. In Britain we remain stuck somewhere in the era of adolescence, viewing sex — when it is mentioned — as mainly a subject for humour, like some other embarrassing bodily functions.
But in America? Wow, is America screwed up about sex. In public life perhaps the most sexualised society in the world still views sex through a presbyterian prism in which sex outside marriage is seen as a scandalous, potentially imprisonable matter.
It is one of many things that helps destroy American politics. After the Clinton affair, it turned out that one of Clinton’s biggest Republican pursuers, the Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, had cheated on both his first and second wives. Democrat Al Franken resigned from the Senate three years ago after a photo of him emerged doing a comedy skit pretending to cup a woman’s breasts. Donald Trump somehow got away with pretending to be some God-fearing monogamist. And just this August, the Democrat governor of New York Andrew Cuomo had to go when it transpired that, among other transgressions, he had put a hand on a woman’s cheek at a wedding and asked if he could kiss her. There is so much to blame Cuomo for. His administration’s cover-up of Covid nursing-home deaths is one thing that springs to mind. But a sex scandal in which no sex occurred was what did it for him.
So I wonder what would have happened if Clinton had come clean all those years ago. True, a few more vases might have been airborne in the White House that night. But gosh it could have helped the nation grow up a bit more and fracture a bit less.
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