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President Gantry Addresses The Flock

By Roger Rosenblatt

TIME magazine

(TIME, August 31) -- In less than a week he has taken the public's emotions on a ride from a noble and heartbreaking ceremony for those killed in the African embassy bombings to "I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong." So it has always gone with Clinton. He is the spiritual leader of the people, driven by compassion and graced with charm and a common touch unknown in the presidency for decades. And he is also the lusty, leering bad ole boy who sweats and groans on the national church floor after services, and who soils other people's clothing.

He is Elmer Gantry in the flesh and in the heart, and his heart is many chambered. The hero of Sinclair Lewis' great novel about oversize human frailty, made into an even better movie that starred Burt Lancaster and his aggressive teeth, was, like Clinton, a born embracer: "He had a voice made for promises." Discovering his calling as a revivalist preacher, Gantry rose to prominence on the words, "Love is the morning and the evening star." That was his sermon, which did double duty as his seduction line for women. Eventually his wandering eye brought him down; his once adoring congregation hurled eggs and spat in his face. The nonapologetic address he gave his public--"Brothers and sisters: Goodbye!"--was short and sweet.

He was a tragic figure because his energy and charm were destined to be played out in an arena where conflicting behavior was condemned as hypocrisy. Clinton's is a tragic figure because he is not condemned by the congregation and so must live with hypocrisy in his soul, and in its purest form, as self-deception.

Yet both characters truly believe that love is the morning and the evening star. They are no less themselves as preachers than as sinners. Gantry rails against demon booze from the pulpit, and downs a quart with the boys in the backroom. Clinton proselytizes for the V chip.

How tenderly, exquisitely, brazenly both men lie! In the movie, Jean Simmons, who plays the Aimee Semple McPherson character, Sister Falconer, confronts Gantry: "Can't you ever tell the truth?" Of course, he can't. Or, to put it more generously, he understands that the truth contains lies and that both are confused in love. "God is love" reads the banner in the revival tent. And love covers everything--sex and salvation. Gantry describes his gift for preaching to a reporter: "Words and ideas come pourin' out like riled-up strangers. I feel so powerful and full of love, I'm about to explode. I do explode. And then I just about love everybody!" The reporter adds: "Especially the girls."

The deep power that both Clinton and Gantry have over people comes not from intelligence or a fancy education, but from love laced with vulgarity. Accused of being crude by Falconer's business manager, Gantry responds: "You're too good for the people. I am the people." Fade out to what every honest person has been thinking these past seven months, about not reaching for the first stone. The point that Lewis made with Gantry was that the preacher was also a man. Draped in the refuse of his flock's fury, Gantry asks, "What were they so mad about anyhow?" Someone answers, "The mob don't like their gods to be human."

In the case of President Gantry, though, the mob does not seem to mind. A cross section of citizens on NBC after the speech gave their approval of Clinton's performance. "He came clean," said one. "Enough already!" One thing achieved by this easy transaction--as author Suzanne Garment has observed--is that the public slips off the hook. No moral standards need apply. Who then minds?

The President lies to the court, the people, his friends, supporters and family; he hangs his wife out to dry; he disgraces his office, and then he offers the explanation that he did not tell the truth originally to save himself from embarrassment. Not even Gantry has such nerve. At the end of the movie, when he says, "I'm sorry for everything," we believe him because he does not mean only that he was sorry he was caught.

Gantry is a sympathetic figure, Clinton less so, and less appealing. But one feels sympathy for Clinton too because the morning and evening stars are out of his reach. People sense the sincerity of his love, but also its promiscuity and selfishness. He just about loves everybody, and that leads from temptation to redemption and back again, forever. Sunday night he prayed with Jesse Jackson, from Psalm 51: "Have mercy on me, O God...and cleanse me from my sins." At the end of the novel, Gantry takes note of a new choir girl with pretty ankles, just before he tells the congregation, "We shall yet make these United States a moral nation."

Emerging from Clinton's testimony, his lawyer David Kendall added to the blather about "closure" and "getting this all behind us." It might not be such a good idea to get this all behind us until we understand what is in front of us. The President is Elmer Gantry, but we have always known that. Now the country-congregation has to decide something about itself. The question of impeachment aside, do we condemn or not condemn? Is it possible to admire an ankle and be pastor to a moral nation too? Clinton's problem may be, as he says, private, but he tosses it back to us.

In a burst of exasperation, Falconer, sounding like much of America these days, says to Gantry: "Tell me a good strong lie that I'll believe. And then kiss me!" Then they go to bed.

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: August 31, 1998

"I Misled People"
Leading By Leaving
Blowing His Stack
Justice Should Come Before Closure
The View From Congress
Lies, Tight Spots
How We Really Feel About Fidelity
Is This What We Expect?
Can We Get On to Something Serious?
Finally, the Telltale Lie
That's Where He Lost Me
The Notebook: Clinton Loses Touch
Lies My Presidents Told Me
President Gantry Addresses The Flock


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