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White House Watch

I love it when they talk dirty on c-span.

Scanning the public service network Monday, one found mostly the usual highbrow fare. There was a segment on "Federal-Tribal Relations" and a "First Amendment Report Card." At night, c-span scheduled something called "Government Leaders." But this cagily titled segment was no Brookings forum. The sponsor: Larry Flynt. The topic: Republican adultery. Parental discretion: advised.

OK, I confess. I was disappointed when I tuned in at eleven o'clock in the evening only to find that the smut broadcast had been canceled, for fear that Flynt might slander somebody. I further confess my displeasure upon learning the next morning from reputable news outlets (the Drudge Report, that the pornographer, other than revisiting Bob Barr's well-known hypocrisy, only teased about sexual revelations to come. Come on, Larry. That's PG stuff.

I am not proud of this craving for the salacious. But I have been spoiled by a daily dose of sex scandal in recent days. The president was rumored (falsely) to have fathered the 13-year-old son of a former Arkansas prostitute. Details of a purported (but old and unproven) sexual assault by Clinton were published. Flynt promised to expose ten adulterous congressmen. Even the Olympic organizers in Salt Lake City, it was rumored, had hired prostitutes for members of the International Olympic Committee. (The rumors proved false.) Clearly, we are all behaving strangely, and no wonder. We, as a nation, have become sex-crazed.

The latest wave began just after New Year's Day, in the first White House briefing of the year. The press was determined to hector the president's spokesman about the Star's investigation of a mother claiming her boy Danny was Clinton's child. A photo of Danny was posted on the Internet. The story, peddled by the right-wing conspirators--the New York Post, Drudge, The Washington Times, and The Weekly Standard--turned out to be false, but that's not the point. It seemed many mainstream reporters--and a few White House staffers--believed it perfectly plausible that such a wild allegation could be true. Love child? Heck, why not? Livestock in the Oval Office study? Wouldn't put it past him. Here's how the skeptical ladies and gentlemen of the press dealt with the question at Joe Lockhart's briefing:

Q: Joe, did you mean to suggest this morning that you would disinvite any reporter who asked about this report of an illegitimate child?
Lockhart: No. I suggested for those of you who come with no independent reporting to repeat the gossip from tabloid, supermarket tabloids are wasting their time by coming to talk to me.
Q: Well, Joe, isn't it legitimate to ask about reports such as that?
Lockhart: Not like that. As all of you know, those reports have been around for years....
Q: But this is a new report. Does the White House have any comment on the report, Joe?
Lockhart: I'm not getting into it....
Q: Joe, I'm not here to defend the Star tabloid, but it seems to me they broke the story of Gennifer Flowers and the Dick Morris sex scandal.... Wouldn't it be more instructive to just deny or acknowledge the facts that are in question here, rather than try to smear that tabloid?
Lockhart: I'm not trying to smear.... I'm just not going to comment.
Q: [In] the picture on the Internet he looks exactly like the president.
Lockhart: That's good. And I'm an alien space baby....
Q: Do we have some of your DNA? 

Fittingly, it was the Starr report that knocked down the Star's report. The prosecutor's publication of Clinton's DNA pattern allowed the tabloid to compare Danny's sequence to Bill's. Sorry, no winner. The decision to publish the president's genetic makeup in the first place was a terrible invasion of privacy, of course, leaving Clinton's DNA there, naked, for all to see. But it raises an even more troubling question: Could evil scientists use the DNA sequence in the Starr report to clone the president? Perhaps they already have, millions of times over. How else are we to explain his unearthly popularity? Americans like Clinton because they are Clinton.

It's not just the press that's sex-crazed these days. The White House is doing strange things, too. Notably, the president's men didn't deny the love child outright. Part of this was tactical. "I wasn't going to give them the headline `white house denies,'" Lockhart told me later. But was Lockhart himself certain the story was false? "It was beside the point," he said. Another White House official, sensibly requesting anonymity, was more direct. "You never know," he said. "Look, it's Arkansas." Burned by believing Clinton denials before, White House officials weren't about to do it again. "The only person who could know if it was true was the president," the official said. "I don't think anybody asked him."

Clinton himself has been hiding from members of the press, dodging them at an environmental announcement this week and skipping the usual press conference when Argentina's president came to town. But, otherwise, most everyone in the West Wing is trying harder than ever to prove its business-as-usual theme. Al Gore was fighting urban sprawl and reinventing government. The White House even grabbed credit for "the longest peacetime economic expansion in history," though this meant acknowledging that it began in March 1991--smack in the middle of George Bush's term.

One man in the Clinton administration remarked that the White House staff, with its impressive industriousness and unstinting loyalty, behaves very much like the dysfunctional family of an alcoholic father. Each time Dad falls off the wagon, Mom and the kids do their jobs even harder to compensate. To check this theory out, I called Al-Anon headquarters in Virginia Beach, where a director named Phyllis (no last names at Al-Anon) described an alcoholic man's family: "The family has incredible loyalty to this man, who has incredible potential. If you'd just cook better, clean better, take better care of the kids, he wouldn't drink as much." But this doesn't work out so well for the family. "You jeopardize your own health because you're trying to fix something that's not in your power to fix." Begala, beware.

Still, there are a few healthy signs of recovery at the codependent White House. For the first time, I heard somebody acknowledge the flaw in the business-as-usual argument. "There's no such thing as business as usual in this White House," Lockhart said. "The full-time investigations have created a circus atmosphere, and we live in it." At the moment, the circus act is about Senate trial witnesses, and the White House doesn't want them, of course. But it doesn't want to appear not to want them too much. "I'm worried people will misinterpret our aversion to witnesses as a worry that things will turn against us if this drags out," says one of Clinton's top advisers.

In truth, that probably won't happen. How many times in Whitewater did people think Clinton was just one witness away from an indictment? The real danger is the lost opportunity. Clinton doesn't have much time left to regain a small place in history, and that's the real threat to the White House (and the country) from an extended trial. Even if the House Republicans get to call witnesses, the White House at the moment doesn't plan to call its own. "Mike Espy won acquittal without calling a single witness," says a Clinton strategist. "All he did was ask fair questions of the prosecution's witnesses."

That seems reasonable, but perhaps my judgment, too, has been impaired by sex scandal. Hardly a day goes by without a new rumor about a Republican leader's sexploits: this one with a Mexican prostitute, that one with a congressional page. One Democratic partisan called me with details of a Republican leader's purported adulterous affair. The information, including the woman's name and the name of a person who could verify the charge, seemed solid enough. And the politician's moralizing about adultery, I rationalized, made the story fair game. Yet it was dirty business. So I did the morally upstanding thing: I passed off the information to TNR's interns (who declined to investigate). Shamed, I dropped the story once and for all, although something in me still hopes Larry Flynt will do the job. I won't write such trash, but I wouldn't mind reading it.

If the press and the White House have become sex-crazed of late, the original sex-scandal addicts have become even more bizarre. Ken Starr, who earlier proved his levelheadedness by sending subpoenas to a bookstore and Monica's mother, has now indicted Julie Hiatt Steele, a woman who challenged Kathleen Willey's charges against the president. Apparently, he's upset that this peripheral character committed the capital crime of lying to Larry King. Then there's the inimitable Barr, who has taken the unusual prosecution strategy of insulting the jurors (by mocking senatorial attention spans). One Clinton adviser now calls the impeachment managers "twelve angry men and one madman." 

An even sadder example of sex-induced craziness is the sexual assault charge against Clinton that the House GOP has been peddling. It surfaced in raw files submitted by Starr, alleging that a "Jane Doe number five" signed an affidavit denying the Clinton assault allegation but then denied the denial. Though journalists knew her name privately, a Wall Street Journal editorial last week, hiding behind an old NBC report, finally outed the woman who suffered the alleged assault 20 years ago. In a flourish Joe McCarthy would have admired, David Schippers, the House Judiciary Republicans' lawyer, alluded to her claim at the end of the impeachment debate. Late in the hearings, he hinted at further, unspecified evidence that would justify impeachment--a disgraceful performance from a man who once cloaked himself in legal fairness.

Like Henry Hyde, Schippers started out as a picture of impartiality, telling TNR that he used Thomas More as a model. Invoking a passage from A Man for All Seasons, Schippers spoke of the distinction between man's law and God's law, suggesting that he, like More, would work strictly within the law, leaving morality to God. But Schippers's shenanigans, of dubious legal standing, betray a get-Clinton-at-any-cost sentiment. In the end, he came out more like Roper, the English politician with whom More argued. A New York banker, T. Michael Johnson, sent me the rest of the passage from which Schippers had quoted:

More: What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I'd cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was laid down, and the Devil turned round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat?... Do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?

No, Mr. Schippers, there is no Thomas More in this fight, not a saint among us. We're all consumed by sex. And we'll all feel guilty about it in the morning.