Tag Archives: Lewinsky scandal

Roger W. Smith, “Reflections on Public Morality (occasioned by the Lewinsky scandal)”


Note: what follows was written by me as an email to Gilbert T. Sewall, the head of an academic foundation for whom I was doing editorial work, in January 1998, when the Monica Lewinsky scandal had just broken.

— Roger W. Smith



Dear Gil:

Just thought I would send you a missive containing various musings on the day’s news.

I’m starting to feel that the media feeding frenzy is wrong.

I’ve already perused (I should say devoured) all the Clinton stories in this morning’s Times; watched a bit of the Today show; started to read the Wall Street  Journal on the same subject (e.g., an Albert Hunt column which caused me to do some ruminating); and bought the Post, Daily News, and Newsday.

The Post has five or six pages devoted to the latest revelations, with photos and all.

Starved for pictures, the media has taken to running high school yearbook photos of Ms. Lewinsky at various stages (freshman, sophomore, junior, etc.).

Anyway, I’ve been gorging myself on all the Clinton stories (question: do you think the photo of him and Hillary embracing in bathing suits a week or so ago was staged?), but I’m beginning to feel sated, like someone who’s overindulged on junk food.

A few thoughts:

I don’t believe Clinton’s denials in this instance, in the Paula Jones case, or with regard to the Jennifer Flowers revelations. It’s sort of amusing to “deconstruct” Clinton’s remarks and to see how carefully and artfully/legalistically worded they are: I was never in the hotel alone with her (Paula Jones); there is (at present) no sexual relationship; I didn’t do anything improper; I don’t recall (meeting her); and so forth.

I have been disappointed in a lot of Clinton’s public pronouncements lately. I don’t find him particularly credible in a lot of instances, and he also seems to be inclined to speak in a mishmash that verges on the ludicrous: let’s all have a dialogue about race; and he really did mean it when he said (a year and a half or so ago) that the troops would be out of Bosnia within 18 months. He’s always hedging, equivocating, and speaking in platitudes; his politico-speak is egregious.

I heard him on NPR a month or so ago speaking about the Asian economic crisis just after one of Japan’s biggest financial services firms had failed, and he was claiming it was nothing to be concerned about  (just a mere “blip on the screen”) — that the Japanese economy was really healthy — and I felt and thought that he sounded like a real idiot whose remarks had no grounding whatsoever in fact or current realities, that he could care less what the facts were as long as whatever he said sounded good for public consumption and would wash.

Having said all that, I think we as a nation — with respect to our collective consciousness, so to speak — are awash in hypocrisy.

Why do the Gospels speak to us with such power and resonance? Why do sayings like “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” have such staying power? Jesus was a genius to speak as he did in parables. Everything is so pithy and epigrammatic, yet so homely and concrete (grounded in stark, memorable stories).

Anyway, to me the level of public hypocrisy is absolutely amazing.

Everyone is saying, well, if Clinton did in fact do such and such a thing, it’s totally reprehensible and he should be impeached. Now, what, at the worst, have he and his accomplices done? Some of them have done things (it seems) that should, by public standards of morality, be deemed immoral: e.g., crude sexual advances in the Paula Jones case; adultery (Jennifer Flowers and the current case); an affair with a women some 20 or more years his junior; lying; orchestrating (allegedly) a “cover up” in which the “partner in crime” (co-adulterer/ess) is urged to deny his or her involvement as well.

So what?

Have not we all – as per Walt Whitman in his wonderful poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” — “Blabb’d, blush’d, resented, lied, stole, grudg’d, / Had guile, anger, lust, hot wishes I dared not speak”?

Let’s sick the snoops on all of us — I would especially like to see this happen to the Sam Donaldsons and George Wills of the world — and see what they turn up. What is called for are Starr Chamber type proceedings; no denials or lies whatsoever will be accepted.

Have you ever been to a psychiatrist? Purchased or read obscene material?  Viewed pornography? Had an affair in which you behaved less than admirably? Have you in any way, at any time, ever patronized the commercial sex industry?

You say the infractions were minor and are past history. Sorry. We are going to dredge them all up now and muck around in your murky past to see what we can find. It’s a question of CHARACTER. Yours.

You say you are a moral person whose life on a whole has been conducted and governed by appropriate rules of conduct? We have Mr. or Ms. so and so here who became intimately acquainted with you some 20 years ago when you were somewhat looser in your moral standards, or at least less considerate of others’ feelings, and this individual is prepared to testify that you acted in a loutish way and caused him or her considerable pain and distress. They have old scores to settle and (for a price) are willing to tell all.

You say this is all irrelevant because your mental faculties and judgment are unimpaired; you have dealt with and put behind you the issues of the past; that, to the extent you’ve made errors, you acknowledge them and won’t let them happen again (or at least will try not to, and you probably won’t, because you’re older, less passionate and headstrong, and more mature now). Sorry, that doesn’t count, because your past is reflected in the trust we can put on you now. It’s the credibility/character thing.

Why must our public servants be totally blameless, flawless individuals, without the slightest blemish or taint, and what does this have to do with their ability to exercise power or govern? What if all corporate execs were put under the same spotlight (though the politically correct crowd would probably like it if they were)?

What does the fact that she may or may not have had an illegal nanny have to do with whether or not Zoë Baird is qualified to be attorney general?

Truly, this age will be looked back on, through the lens or prism of history, as one of stark raving collective madness.

I must admit that the Vernon Jordan link of arranging a job at MacAndrews & Forbes (Revlon) for Ms. Lewinsky and of getting the same firm to give consulting work to Webster Hubbell does look fishy. But this Tripp woman who taped her own conversations with Ms. Lewinsky sounds like a vindictive bitch. It’s good old John DeLorean style entrapment. (I’m glad he was acquitted, because I didn’t think it was fair the ways the feds set him up.)

It’s a pretty sleazy business, isn’t it? The front page of today’s Newsday reads “The Relationship Was Not Sexual” (in quotes). That’s the tactic now: print the charge, then make the denial the story.

Honestly, I think the accusers (media) are worse than the accused (Clinton). I’m convinced he’s a womanizer, a prevaricator (to put it kindly), and a sexual “opportunist” (and probably male chauvinist pig, to boot), but I honestly don’t believe that whatever he has done is that criminal or bad and is grounds for impeachment.

I repeat, if all our own private sins and peccadilloes — be they sexual, or other embarrassing private things we would rather not come out, like psychological impairments, or problems with private relationships and/or erratic or strange behavior patterns, likes/dislikes, prejudices, and other secret thoughts we wouldn’t care to admit to (least of all publicly) — came out in the open, it would be real horror show and feeding frenzy for anyone who cared to notice. I am convinced that this is true of practically everyone and of all the media types who so sanctimoniously intone about the seriousness of these allegations, and I’d like to see them forced to undergo public scrutiny and to twist and turn in the wind.

But you know, there’s something funny, when you’re smacking your lips (this, I admit, includes me) and tut-tutting, and sort of secretly enjoying, the latest revelations about Clinton’s misdeeds, or Hugh Grant’s, or Prince Charles’s, or any other public figure, there’s a tendency to forget one’s own troubles and one’s own vulnerability to exposure (should anyone have the means or desire to do so), and therein probably lie the charm and attraction of such feeding frenzies. How enjoyable it is to laugh at others’ misfortunes, and what sadistic pleasure we take in seeing the high and mighty caught in a trap and entangled in their own lies.

— Roger W. Smith, email to Gilbert T. Sewall, January 1998