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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

The chattering class should just let go

By Molly Ivins

TIME magazine

As my personal contribution to the public weal, I refused to write about Monica Lewinsky, Kenneth Starr or any of the rest of it for more than six months this year. Believe it or not, I had no trouble filling a political column three times a week for that entire period without the aid of Ms. Lewinsky. There were mountains of interesting things to write about, of rather direct concern to large numbers of people. (A special favorite: the phone company has decided to start charging customers $3 a month for not using long distance. You must admit, it's a concept.)

While I was stuck on such pedestrian topics as the effort to bring back flammable pajamas for children (there's another concept), my brethren in the media turned in a performance that has made us more unpopular with the American public than Linda Tripp. Nice going, team.

But now TIME, in its majestic wisdom, has decided the world needs to hear from me on this burning issue. O.K.: you're all out of your tiny minds.

"You," in this case being the national news media, the Washington political establishment, inside-the-Beltway players and whoever else is obsessed with this mess. Speaking on behalf of outside-the-Beltway persons: We didn't need to know about the President's sex life, we didn't want to know about the President's sex life, and the President's sex life is none of our damn business. Thank you very much.

But you shoved his sex life in our faces last January, and rubbed our noses in it for eight months more, so by now we're more disgusted with you than with Bill Clinton.

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of hearing the talking heads of Washington Week in Review address the, to them, unfathomable topic of why there is a "disconnect" between Washington and folk in the boonies.

I have been using the word we promiscuously here. One of the more urp-making habits of media mavens is presuming to speak for the American people, as in "The American people won't stand for this!" Far as I'm concerned, the American people are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves, but I do address, with some confidence, the broad consensus of We in the Boonies over the past eight months: We were more informed than we wanted to be about Mr. Clinton's transgressions. In fact, we are so well informed, we were about to collectively puke, and we sure as hell don't want to hear any more details.

So now we have Mr. Starr's report (Mr. Starr, now there's a whole other concept) giving a grateful populace such detail about the President's sexual encounters with Ms. Lewinsky that we hardly know how to thank him. How nice. I'm certainly glad that's been established beyond a reasonable doubt.

Now the chattering classes and the political establishment have worked themselves into another fit of high school hysteria and are demanding that the President be impeached. Oh. My. God. Think about it. It would be the most bizarre horror show in history. As Alex Cockburn, in a frenzy of anticipation (some people do appreciate black comedy), put it, "How I yearn for it! To watch Newt Gingrich...pacing the battlements of moral rectitude will be as heady a tonic as was the French Revolution to young Wordsworth. Bliss it is in this dawn to be alive! It could be as great a carnival of hypocrisy as this nation has ever seen."

Do we want a President who lied under oath? No.

But the lies--and the alleged obstruction and the alleged witness tampering--still stem from the President's sex life, which is none of our business, thank you. He had an affair, and he lied to cover it up. From this we can cull any number of moral lessons, starting with tangled webs.

So, what are our options? "Fize" is a fine old Texas word meaning "If I were..." as in "Fize yew, I wouldn't do that." And fize a Republican, I would shut up. Because you're pushing Bill Clinton to two choices, neither of which is going to do you any good. Either he resigns, and you get Boring Al Gore, Mr. Straight, or you actually conduct an impeachment trial. And if you honestly think a grotesque hypocrisy festival like that will help Republicans, you have lost your vertical hold. You're on the verge now of setting off the mother of all backlashes.

For those who don't have a partisan dog in this fight, it comes down to what's good for the country. A drawn-out impeachment process is our worst option: another six months of Monica, have mercy; I don't care if it harelips the Governor. Yeah, we could demand that Clinton resign, but that leaves us with the precedent. Setting aside the number of perfectly good Presidents we would have lost in the past had some sort of sexual hanky-panky been the standard for judging who was fit to lead us, what do we think we are doing here?

Near as I can tell, the great majority of the American people have already figured this out. Yes, it would be highly desirable if the President were someone of magnificent political skills (a la L.B.J., who was a miserable human being) and a great moral leader. But so far, we've found only one Lincoln. Jimmy Carter was unquestionably the most moral President of my lifetime, but he wasn't much of a President. The greatest moral leader of my lifetime was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose private life does not bear close examination. We in the Boonies understand this; we are not stupid. It's only the chattering classes who are still sitting around pretending these not very deep subtleties are beyond our grasp.

One of my favorite ploys in the ongoing sanctimonyfest is hearing from people who grasp their brows in dire concern over whether the President is now too damaged to carry on--this from people who have been doing their dead-level best to kneecap the man for years. I find Clinton effective as a political leader but remarkably circuitous: he almost never tackles anything straight on. While the press was hopelessly mired in Monica, it missed two classic Clinton plays earlier this year, one in the Middle East and another on school funding--both areas of considerably more importance to the nation than what was once the man's private life.

One of the few things I like about Bill Clinton is that he has very good manners. If his momma were still alive, I would congratulate her. Our public scolds, a breed of which we have no shortage, keep claiming that the nation is somehow going to be infected or corrupted by Mr. Clinton's low moral standards. If indeed we are all influenced by a President's personal character, which I rather doubt, we should check ourselves to find out if George Bush's daffy streak rubbed off on us, or Ronald Reagan's tendency to believe the untrue. Might not we just as well hope that President Clinton's good manners might rub off on our chattering classes?

Molly Ivins is a best-selling author and a widely syndicated political columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram


Cover Date: September 21, 1998

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