SEX, LIES, AND FIRST LADIES:

A MODEST (WITTGENSTEINIAN) PROPOSAL

Marjorie Perloff

Southwest Review 84, no. 1 (1998): 30-42.


115. When philosophers use a word—“knowledge,” “being,” “object,” “I,” “proposition’, ‘name”—and try to grasp the essence of the thing, one must always ask oneself: is the word ever actually used this way in the language-game which is its original home?
What we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.

122. A main source of our failure to understand is that we do not command a clear view of the use of our words.—Our grammar is lacking in this sort of perspicuity. A perspicuous representation produces just that understanding which consists on ‘seeing connexions’. Hence the importance of finding and inventing intermediate cases.

249. Are we perhaps over-hasty in our assumption that the smile of an unweaned infant is not a pretence?—and on what experience is our assumption based?
(Lying is a language-game that needs to be learned like any other one).

Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (New York: Macmillan, 1958), from which the above numbered propositions are taken, is hardly a political treatise, but I can think of no book more useful in understanding the current debate* about Presidential “privacy” with regard to “sexual” (another mysterious word) behavior. For words like “private” and “public,” in the Wittgensteinian scheme of things, have no essence; their meaning depends on their use in specific contexts. And that means studying those “intermediate cases” Wittgenstein refers to in §122 above. Where, for example, can the President of the United States seek “privacy”? The Private Quarters of the White House would seem to be one assured “private” place, but for the last six months (I write this in early August of 1998), the news has been full of “private” acts ostensibly carried on in public (read the Oval Room or the President’s adjoining study) places. And so our old familiar language games no longer work in assessing what may or may not have been “private” behavior.

If the “failure to understand” is, as Wittgenstein argues so compellingly in his writings, a linguistic problem, it might be useful to look closely at some key sentences put forward by the President’s apologists in the spring and summer of 1998, BC (before Clinton’s testimony to the Grand Jury). For whatever the outcome of the hotly debated Presidential crisis, the mantras currently and regularly chanted by Clinton defenders, from former White House counsel Lanny C. Davis to feminist USC law professor Susan Estrich, deserve to be examined a bit more carefully than they have been. “The limits of my language,” says the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus (§5.6) “are the limits of my world.” I want in this essay to probe the limits of the two central mantras of the Clinton team: (1) “It’s just about sex,” with its corollary (1a) “Everyone lies about sex so it’s OK to do so,” and (2) “The private life of the President is nobody’s business but his own.”

I begin with “It’s just about sex,” a proposition that, the pundits would have it, is simple common sense. Suppose the President did have sex with Monica Lewinsky, so what? Almost every President has had an affair or two; it’s just that in the age of media frenzy, snooping reporters go after what are after all merely “human” peccadilloes with a vengeance. In the past, we repeatedly hear, it was different: after all, JFK and LBJ “got away with it.” So why not the susceptible youngish President, who just wants to get on with his work “for the American people,” whose only real concern is with the “issues” like Social Security, childcare, the tobacco tax, and so on? And, yes, maybe Clinton did lie about sex, but who doesn’t, when caught in a messy situation that might, after all, “hurt his family” if it comes to light? “Gentlemen,” as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. put it in a New York Times Op-Ed piece (August 3) “always lie about their sex lives.” The fuss made about Clinton’s sex life is, according to this view, an indicator of the lingering Puritanism of the U.S. – a Puritanism that makes the U.S. a laughing stock around the world.

But suppose we insert the proposition “It’s just about sex” into a different language game, namely the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas sexual harassment case of1991. Was Clarence Thomas lying when he supposedly said to Anita Hill, “There’s a pubic hair in my coke”? Well, suppose he was lying? Everyone lies when it comes to sex, right? And suppose Anita Hill lied when she insisted that he did make the above statement, that he regularly made dirty jokes and referred to pornographic films he had seen. It would be OK for Hill to lie because “Everyone lies about sex.” What, then, shall we make of those bumper stickers that say, “I believe you, Anita”? What can these mean? Indeed, what would happen to sexual harassment cases in the courts if it were perfectly OK to lie under oath about what A did to B as long as it’s “just about sex”?

And then what about those recent cases where “just about sex” did someone in? Kelly Flinn, for starters: what crime did she commit that warranted court-martial? She lied about sex. Now, in the Air Force, where Flinn was the first woman ever to fly a heavy bomber, the rules about adultery are very strict. Surely we can’t hold the President to the codes of military discipline. But isn’t the President the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces? Or to take a less exalted example, what crime did Dick Morris commit that forced him to resign? He was caught having sex with a prostitute and she claimed to have overheard “sensitive” phone conversations between Morris and the President. Morris was forgiven by his wife and it is doubtful that the call girl in question learned any real White House secrets. Yet not for a moment did the President himself suggest that Morris not resign. It was accepted as a given that of course he had to depart the scene—and immediately. Gentlemen, it seems, always lie about sex, but if they’re caught, the game is up.

The issue, as we see, is complicated. What, in fact, do those well-meaning Clinton defenders mean when they shrug “It’s just about sex”? The real subtext here is that it’s OK for mature men in positions of power, men who are almost always married, to have sex on the side, usually with much younger women. The “everyone lies about it” axiom does not refer to, say, Franklin’s Roosevelt’s very real and long-time love affair with Lucy Mercer or to Eisenhower’s alleged war-time liaison with his driver Kay Summersby. It refers to sex JFK or LBJ-style– a need for fast, furious, and frequent (find your own f word) sex, so as to satisfy those Great Male Needs.

But now, to take another “intermediate case,” suppose the person who lies about sex is not a gentleman but a lady, specifically Hillary Rodham Clinton? Suppose that in recent months, Hilary had thirty-eight rendezvous (call them meetings) with a twenty-two-year old male White House interne, exchanged gifts with him, called him in the wee hours or perhaps from Bosnia, and so on? Would the public regard this as acceptable behavior? Or, for that matter, what if the President had a homosexual liaison? What if Monica were Monte, and this young man, having been dismissed from the White House for inappropriate behavior, reappeared on the scene thirty-eight times for meetings with the President in the Oval Office? What if, young Monte claimed that he was really visiting the President’s middle-aged, devoutly Christian and morally upright female secretary all those times, a secretary who, as it happens, isn’t likely to have been at her desk at 10 PM? Would the media and the newly tolerant American public condone even one such visit?

But of course, as James Carville and Susan Estrich know only too well, the President can, by current standards, be no other than a straight man. Geraldine Ferraro, now a staunch Clinton defender, couldn’t even make the Number 2 spot; indeed, we have yet to have a female Vice-President. As for a gay or lesbian president—or even just a straight President who happens to be single—this seems a long way down the road. What the proposition “It’s just about sex” really means, then, is that the heterosexual male President, in the traditional scheme of things, is allowed to have sex on the side. And since there has never been a U.S. President who is unmarried, the corollary of “It’s just about sex” is that “illicit” (i.e., non-marital) sex is something to be lied about as a matter of course, so as not to “hurt” the First Family, and specifically the First Lady.

But this notion of “protection” assumes that the First Lady would, in fact, be “hurt” by revelations about her husband’s sex life, which is to say, that she herself does not engage in the same sort of activities. For if both parties went their merry way, as Kings and Queens did in the good old monarchical days, who would need to be “protected”? Accordingly, the sentence “Everyone lies about sex” is really a nasty perpetration of the Victorian double standard. Great statesmen stray; their wives, or for that matter, great stateswomen like Madeline Albright are afforded no such privilege. Suppose, for that matter, that Secretary of State Albright took along young studs on her Middle Eastern trips and had them stay with her at various official residences. “Just about sex”?

I am dismayed, then, to see feminists like Estrich and Gloria Steinem defend the President’s activities on the grounds that “he has done so much for women.” True, the President has appointed a larger than usual number of women to high office-—but here sexism really raises its head. Janet Reno, Madeline Albright, Donna Shalala, Ruth Bader Ginsburg: if you are older and relatively unattractive, you may qualify, but try to look like Lanie Guinier and see what happens. (An exception would be Laura d’Andrea Tyson, the Director of the Council of Economic Advisors in Clinton’s first term. But note that Tyson did not stay very long, resigning immediately after the President’s re-election.) Indeed, in the Clinton White House, women are divided into the two classes familiar to us from Shakespeare to Hawthorne to Faulkner, the “two loves” of “comfort and despair.” Hillary is the love of “comfort,” the helpmeet, advisor, friend, the “White Woman” of Occultist lore; Monica, Paula, Jennifer, Kathleen, and the rest: these are Clinton’s Dark Ladies. And so the stereotype feminist theory has tried for decades to negate is back with a vengeance.

Now let us try out yet another context on the sentence “Everyone lies about sex so it’s OK to do so.” Just about everyone I know has committed a traffic violation at some time. I’ve certainly gotten my share of parking tickets and even a speeding ticket or two. Everyone, it seems, parks illegally or speeds now and then and hopes to get away with it. Most of us, at one time or another, have told parking-enforcement officers that we didn’t know it was illegal to park in this or that spot or that the meter must have expired just a minute ago. Does this attitude toward traffic law enforcement mean that it’s OK to violate traffic laws? Now suppose the President, on a Sunday in the country, takes the wheel from his driver and speeds off at 100mph, narrowly avoiding a collision with a car coming the other way? Is it OK because “everyone does it”? Suppose he gets speeding tickets thirty-eight times? Grounds for impeachment? Hardly. Unless of course the thirty-eighth time he actually hits the other car and someone is killed. This would be the Teddy Kennedy—Mary Jo Kopechne scenario, a scenario that did prevent Kennedy from seeking the Presidency. “Everyone does it” is thus a very gray area.

Clinton defenders will reply that, yes, there are traffic laws but thank God, in our enlightened society there are no laws against committing adultery. “We don’t,” as Susan Estrich put it on NBC’s “@Issue” the other day, “throw people in jail for having sex.” True enough and thank goodness! But note the irony that, although traffic violations are illegal whereas sexual “violations” are not, in practice, the President (or any other citizen) will be more readily forgiven for the illegal traffic violation than for sexual misconduct. Why is this the case, if the President has done nothing illegal? No doubt because we know instinctively that the legal and the ethical are not always equivalent. And that hence, whether or not President Clinton has done anything “illegal” (and hence impeachable), he has consistently engaged in behavior that is unethical. It is in this light that the proposition “It’s just about sex” begins to make one a little bit queasy. For when, say, Clinton’s former Press Secretary Deedee Myers shrugs her shoulders and says “Well, everyone lies about sex so it’s OK,” she is really saying “Well, yes, Clinton is an unethical person and that’s OK.” Propositions only take on meaning within a particular language game played by particular people. And it is what Wittgenstein calls the “intermediate cases” that clarify the language game we are playing.

In this context, let us turn to the second White House mantra I cited above: “The President’s private life is nobody’s business but his own.” What difference does it make, according to this proposition, what the President does during his off-hours, whom he spends his time with, or where he is? We the people should only be concerned with his public persona, his policies and actions on such issues as the economy, education, and foreign affairs.

But how does this work in practice? If the President’s private life is really “none of our business,” we would have no knowledge of and hence interest in the First Lady (surely not literally a factor in his “public” professional performance), the First Daughter, or even the First Cat and Dog, Socks and Buddy. Far from presenting us with a “twofer,” far from making his wife the Health Czar, far from providing governmental monies to have Hillary Clinton, make a good will tour to Africa, the President would insist on the privacy of his relationship with his wife. We would have no photographs of the “happy couple” holding hands, smiling into each others’ eyes, or dancing on the beach in their bathing suits, and there would be no talk of Hillary’s latest hairdo or description of what she wore on a particular occasion. Indeed, the latter would be strictly out of bounds because the ball gowns of the First Lady, far from being preserved at the Smithsonian, would be none of our business.

Indeed, one reason the Clinton debate has been so loud and fierce is that for the first time we have an “activist” First Lady, with a bona fide career of her own. Or do we? What happens when a highly talented and successful lawyer like Hillary Rodham gives up her career (which now seems to have been largely designed to make money to support her husband’s campaign) and settles into what can only be the permanent second place of First Lady? How then to achieve privacy for the White House principals? Specifically, how is the President to have “privacy” when his wife is out there, making pronouncements about Israel or China?

My own Modest Proposal is that it is time we get rid of the entire institution of First Ladies. The Constitution makes no provision for Presidential spouses so my proposal requires no amendment. True, the institution of First Ladies goes back to Martha Washington, but so what? In an age of purported equality between the sexes, First Ladydom is surely obsolete. If the President’s private life is strictly his own business, then we need no female presence smiling at his side, no First Lady who deals with the more “human” issues like childcare or the preservation of historic monuments, no First Lady who presides over Easter Egg Rolls or the trimming of the White House Christmas Tree. Indeed, the current conundrum about the Public versus the Private has much less to do with our supposed prudery, our fear of sex, than with the remarkable hypocrisy of official life at the turn of the twenty-first century. On the one hand, we expect our leaders (male) to be married, to have families, and to attend church on Sunday as Clinton has done even in this time of travail. The First Family, in other words, must embody those famous Family Values. On the other hand, the public is cynically told by the White House personnel that “everyone [meaning every man] is human,” i.e., cheats on his wife. One has the image of Chelsea studying upstairs in the private quarters after a good long day at Sidwell Friends while downstairs Clinton is having a little session with another young girl who is all of five years older than his daughter, and twenty-five years younger than his wife.

Perhaps it’s time for a remake of the popular Masterpiece Theatre series Upstairs and Downstairs with this scenario. Unless, that is, my proposal to end First-Ladydom might go into effect. For imagine a President without the encumbrance of a First Lady (or, in the future, First Gentleman)! No one would know anything about the President’s wife, where said wife keeps herself, or what she does professionally and socially. Hillary might still be at the Rose Law Firm, which would be a good thing, for there she could protect herself and the man she loves from intrusive Whitewater snoopers. Chelsea’s whereabouts would be only vaguely known by the public. Thus the President would have ample time to “conduct the business of the American people.” He could devote himself to problems of Social Security and hold daily press conferences without fear of hecklers endlessly shouting “What about Monica?” He would have more time to visit trouble spots like Bosnia and, while there, would not be disturbed by panicky phone calls from Monica and/or Hillary. What’s more, his evenings, when not taken up by official dinners and civic functions, would be entirely his own. He could have “just sex” with anyone he liked, male or female, upstairs or downstairs and in the Lincoln Bedroom, and no one could (or would) remark on it. For since the American people are—so we hear– sick and tired of the Lewinsky scandal, DNA testing for semen on blue silk cocktail dresses, and “he said, she said” innuendo, they would breathe sighs of relief as their President held forth on the trade deficit or the tobacco cartel and then disappeared, for the evening or weekend, into his Private Life.

That Private Life, moreover, includes the President’s medical life. Remember when the press treated us to pictures of Lyndon Johnson’s gallbladder scar and told us it was four inches long? When every detail of Clinton’s broken leg (by the way, how did that really happen?), his new exercycle, his swimming or jogging regime, was reported? No more medical information! For what is more private than the relationship between a President and his personal physician? And why should the hospital bed have a different status from the marriage bed or, for that matter, from the couch in the President’s study? Surely the doctor-patient relationship should be covered by Executive Privilege!

It is gratifying to contemplate how much money my Modest Proposal would save the taxpayer. White House operatives have been busy complaining about the $40 million of our tax money. Kenneth Starr has presumably spent on the Investigation. Suppose we deduct the costs of Hillary’s personal staff, her press secretary and publicists, her Security, her wardrobe, make-up, and hairdressing costs (those endless touch-ups and frostings), and especially her travels abroad, often accompanied by Chelsea. Add to this, Security for Chelsea at Stanford and the endless photo-shoots designed to present the First Family as appealingly as possible, and you would make up the $40K pretty quickly.
But as we consider these issues and try to picture the President as a simple and straightforward Professional “doing the country’s business,” we may suddenly have an epiphany. For isn’t what I have described exactly what does in fact happen in those very European and Asian nations supposedly laughing at our “obsession with sex” and our residual Puritanism? Isn’t it just possible that they can’t understand our political madness because their own Presidential wives and children are invisible, their Presidential Dogs inaudible? That the golf scores of the French or Spanish or Japanese Presidents and Prime Ministers (by the way, do these men play golf?) are not reported in the papers day after day? Aren’t our foreign friends incredulous because they are wholly unused to reading articles in their newspapers about what the President eats for lunch or what the First Lady’s favorite Christmas Tree decorations look like?

If my Modest Proposal goes into effect, the Presidential case for privacy will model itself more closely on these foreign models. But, alas, it is not likely to happen, at least not in the foreseeable future. For the time being, at any rate, we have a White House in which the First Lady has turned a tidy profit on a sententious book about the fate of children (on whose status she is hardly a professional expert) just because she is the First Lady. It Takes a Village: is this book a product of the President’s public or private life? Or, to take a more vexed issue: what and where is the President’s “privacy” when his wife is, as Hillary Clinton was, put in charge of one of the country’s most sensitive public issues, the reform of the health care system? Or again, how does the President’s “private life” impact on Hillary’s public statement (April 6, 1998) that there should be an independent Palestinian state? No sooner had Mrs. Clinton expressed this opinion than Press Secretary Mike McCurry was at pains to tell reporters that hers was “just a private judgement.” Indeed, this particular First Lady has constantly tested the private/public divide with results that, I predict, will be judged, down the road, to have been disastrous.

Consider, to take the most egregious example, Clinton’s appointment of Hillary’s two best friends and law partners, Vincent Foster and Webster Hubbell, to positions of high power in Washington. As Hubbell’s recently published autobiography Friends in High Places: Our Journey from Little Rock to Washington, D.C (New York: William R. Morrow, 1998) makes clear (I am relying on an excellent review by Lars-Erik Nelson in the New York Review of Books, 13 August 1998, pp. 14-16), he and Clinton were not especially close; Clinton was merely Hubbell’s golfing and Christmas Shopping buddy, whereas Hillary was his closest friend and confidante, just as she was Foster’s. Yet once in Washington, the appointment of these “private” friends proved to be highly problematic. Foster, as Hubbell tells it, was disappointed that the new First Lady was not as warm as she once was, and that, as White House Counsel, he was now her subordinate rather than her equal partner. As for Hubbell, who was made, on the basis of his friendship with Hillary, Associate Attorney General (the #2 job at the Justice Department), high office did nothing for him but put him in the spotlight, so that his credit card crimes against his own clients (Hubbell had defrauded clients of large sums of money for many years) were exposed. Hubbell was jailed, whereas Foster, himself fearing FBI investigations into Rose Law Firm activities, lapsed into depression leading to his suicide. The fates of these two “private” friends and law partners of the First Lady have cast a long shadow over the Clinton administration. Indeed, it was the circumstances of Foster’s suicide that led to Whitewater and Travelgate. Yet neither Foster nor Hubbell were in any way necessary for the conducting of “the American people’s business” on the part of the President. So much for the public / private distinction.

Perhaps Hillary and Bill are themselves symptoms of a particular moment in history: the moment when First Ladydom and all that goes with it has revealed itself to be finally and irrevocably bankrupt, beyond repair. The customs of the Presidency no longer accord with life as it is lived in the America “outside the Beltway”: in this regard, the White House spin may well be true. Still, the dilemma the Clintons face is very much of their own making. “Are we perhaps over-hasty,” asks Wittgenstein, “in our assumption that the smile of an unweaned infant is not a pretence?” Or, to turn his proposition around, “in our assumption that the now habitual smile on the beleaguered President’s face is a pretence”? Of course not. What is so disturbing about the Clinton Investigation—and I write as someone who voted for him both in ’92 and, somewhat less enthusiastically, in ‘96– is not the injustice of bringing down the Presidency for a case of “just about sex” but the wholesale hypocrisy of current Presidential discourse. Clinton, I submit, is not necessarily more sex-driven than earlier Presidents, but he is (and so are the First Lady and the President’s Men) more hypocritical. These are people who literally talk out of both sides of their mouths. And sadly, it is, in Wittgensteinian parlance, the limits of the Clintons’ language that may well turn out to be the limits of their White House lives.

*This essay was written in early August 1998, before President Clinton’s infamous August 17 address to the nation and well before the publication of the equally infamous Starr Report. Once Clinton confessed that there had indeed been an “inappropriate relationship” between himself and Monica Lewinsky, the defense that “It’s just about sex and everyone lies about it,” which I discuss below, briefly gave way to the angry reversal of “It was disgraceful for the President to have sex with a young White House interne in the Oval Office and then to lie to us about it!”. But since this high-minded response could only bring the house down and lead to possible impeachment—something most Americans, myself included, do not want—it was not long before a new mantra jammed the airways and print media: “OK, so Clinton’s behavior was “gross,” “horrible,” “disgusting” (choose your own adjective), but Prosecutor Starr was even worse for exposing it. And besides, Clinton’s sex life is no one’s business but his own.

A nagging question remains. If the “witchhunt” or “Sex-McCarthyism” motif vindicates Clinton, why did he take such extraordinary pains to cover his tracks for seven months? Why the constant invocations of Executive Privilege and the dozens of midnight phone calls to Betty Currie, Vernon Jordan, and Bruce Lindsey? Why did Hillary tell Matt Lowder that, if the accusation were true, “that would be a very serious offense, but none of these things happened!”?

Perhaps because, unlike John F. Kennedy (the President who, according to common wisdom, “got away with it”), the Clinton’s are themselves inherently Puritan. Why, after all, didn’t Clinton just apologize to Paula Jones to begin with? Perhaps because he couldn’t (and still can’t) get himself to admit that he had a sexy stranger brought to his hotel room and within minutes was pulling down his trousers and asking her to “kiss it.” That would not, by the way, have been an admission of a sexual liaison, but an admission of what we used to call, in the bad old days, perversion. Kids, as Frank O’Hara tells us in “Ave Maria,” were warned to stay away from men who in the balconies of movie theatres along Times Square who were given to such exposure.

In this context, the mantra “It’s just about sex and everyone lies about sex” takes on some curious new resonances.