Explaining Clinton: He Feels Our Guilt—And
Plays Off It
By Ron Rosenbaum
New York Observer
Monday, January 25, 1999
(1) In Which Your Correspondent Makes an Unseemly
Approach to Supreme Impeachment Manager Henry Hyde Over Breakfast
Henry Hyde was not in a particularly good mood
that morning at breakfast in the lobby of the Capitol Hill Hyatt
Hotel, and I don’t think my approach made it any better. I know
he wasn’t in a good mood to start because I could overhear him
grumbling to a top aide on the other side of the floral-topped
divider that only partially screened his semi-private breakfast
nook from my table. Chairman Hyde was grumbling about an editorial
in that morning’s Washington Post which was singularly unimpressed
by the repetitive, chaotic and repetitive did I say repetitive?
second-day presentation by his impeachment managers.
"We just can’t do anything right, if you believe
The Post," the spun-silver thatched lawmaker complained after
he gave his waiter his order for the cheddar cheese omelet.
Today, Saturday, Jan. 16, was the final day of
the Hyde team’s presentation of the prosecution’s case against
the President. Today, Mr. Hyde himself was due to deliver the
final summing-up of the case for conviction, and it looked like
he’d need a tour de force to remedy the damage done by the badly
organized and repetitive presentation of the by now maddeningly
familiar facts of the case. (So many were the references to the
presents underneath Betty Currie’s bed that I’d felt I’d spent
the entire day down there with them, underneath Betty Currie’s
bed.) It was a daylong presentation whose only highlight had been
Representative Bill McCollum’s decision to bite the bullet and
bring the words "breasts" and "genitalia" into the grave and weighty
discourse on the Senate floor.
If it hadn’t been a great morning so far for
Henry Hyde, it hadn’t been a good one for me, either. I’d been
frustrated by a malfunction in my in-room movie selection menu
which prevented me from viewing White House Interns, the soft-core
porn feature listed among the "adult" titles on the menu along
with the notorious Pamela Lee home movie (which was in fact listed
as The Notorious Pamela Lee Home Movie) and something called Hot
Secretaries and Back-Door Bosses. I suspected the previous occupant
of the room had put an anti-child lock on the adult selections,
but I wasn’t sure I wanted to call the hotel and claim that in
order to explore the ever-widening cultural ramifications of the
Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, I had an urgent need to watch White
House Interns first thing in the morning. (It’s not about sex,
it’s about lying.)
But I had a more serious matter on my mind. Something
I’d been growing incensed about over the past couple of weeks:
the Council of Conservative Citizens, the CCC, the white-supremacist,
pro-Confederacy, gentrified racist group (doesn’t the CCC sound
like a softer-core variant of the K.K.K.?). The defenders of "white
values" who have in the past attracted the support, the commendation,
the virtual honorary membership of Senate majority leader Trent
Lott of Mississippi and impeachment manager fanatic Representative
Bob Barr of Georgia. Both of whom, when their connection with
the CCC was exposed, had squirmed and slimed, had evaded, prevaricated
and equivocated as much as Bill Clinton did when his unseemly
relationship was exposed. The CCC is the stained dress of the
It’s true their lies about race weren’t given
under oath the way Bill Clinton’s lies about sex were, but, to
my mind, they were covering up a far more immoral, indeed shameful,
relationship than Bill’s with Monica. I’m not defending Bill Clinton
by a relativizing comparison–I think he’s a sleazebag who’s wasted
an entire year of all our lives over his sexual predations, and
who deserves the trouble he’s brought on himself. And I won’t
shed a tear if he’s booted.
But it did feed into a growing feeling–which
I expand upon later on in this account–about the whole ugly, wasteful
yearlong imbroglio: that it really is "not about sex," as the
impeachment managers insist ad nauseam. No, it’s not about sex,
but it is–in a way I’ll expand upon later in this account
So in any case, there I was at breakfast, getting
myself incensed over the CCC and Henry Hyde. Because, across the
page from the Washington Post editorial Henry Hyde was grumbling
about, there was a scathing Op-Ed piece by Post columnist Colbert
King about the CCC and Trent Lott’s and Bob Barr’s relationship
with the rancid racist group. Mr. King brought in Henry Hyde’s
close relationship with Messrs. Lott and Barr and pointed out
that when Congress passed a resolution a couple years ago condemning
the racist, anti-Semitic ravings of Khallid Muhammad, Henry Hyde
was one of those who spoke out on the House floor supporting it.
Yet Henry Hyde had been silent about the racist Aryan Nations
group, which two of his closest allies in the impeachment battle
had been tainted by.
And so I decided I had to interrupt Henry Hyde’s
breakfast. I’m not good at confrontations, particularly political
ones; I hate to seem self-righteous when I’m far from anyone’s
exemplar. But with Henry Hyde just a few feet away, I felt I had
to say something. I think what I wanted to say was, "Why don’t
you denounce your buddy Bob Barr for his ties to those racist
morons?" But I’m trying to be more of a people-person at this
point in my life, to make things win-win, if you know what I mean.
So I took a more positive, constructive approach to dealing with
the racist morons.
I went up to Chairman Hyde and said, "Congressman,
you’ve done a great job nailing Bill Clinton on the facts, but
don’t you think you should support a resolution denouncing that
Council of Conservative Citizens?"
In other words, instead of trying to score some
points, I’d see if Henry Hyde’s better nature would respond. Chairman
Hyde looked up from his cheddar cheese omelet at the unshaven
intruder into his breakfast space, looking like he wished he had
the House sergeant-at-arms at hand.
Before I get to his response, let me back up
a bit and retrace my path to Henry Hyde’s breakfast table.
(2) In Which Your Correspondent Takes His Long-Coveted
Seat in the Senate Chamber and Finds, in an Assemblage of Lightweights,
Preeners and Posers, the Only Hero in the Room
Well, it was extremely exciting being right there
in the Senate chamber for the "most important trial in the history
of Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence"–as an apparently over-caffeinated
Arlen Specter characterized the proceedings. Extremely exciting
being there in the glittering chamber where history was being
made in front of my eyes.
Extremely exciting for a good 10 minutes, anyway.
Then it became extremely Anglo-Saxon. As a recovering Event-junkie,
I had been looking forward to a moment like this for nearly three
decades, ever since I went down to Washington in 1974 to cover
the impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon, hoping they’d
climax in the unimaginable drama of a Senate trial. Even though
that year had moments of ultra-adrenalized, Event-junkie satisfaction
(standing in the East Room of the White House not 20 yards from
Richard Nixon when he made his brokenhearted farewell speech before
a copter bore him away to exile), I felt slightly cheated by history
of that ultimate courtroom climax in the Senate chamber.
Of course, the difference between being there
in person for the Clinton impeachment trial and watching it on
TV was a matter of degree. Because of Senate rules, what you saw
on TV was, for the most part, only the face of the speaker at
the podium; what you saw in the Senate chamber was, well, senators:
the entire array of a hundred solons sitting like oversized schoolchildren
at their undersized little school desks, trying to pay attention
through marathon repetitive recountings of how the presents ended
up under Betty Currie’s bed. All in all, not an impressive group.
Fifty-five Republicans who could say with a straight face that
it wasn’t about sex, it was about lying; 45 Democrats who could
say with a straight face it wasn’t about lying, it was about sex;
and all 100 denying there was anything partisan about their positions.
But I don’t want to sound like a knee-jerk cynic
because the last time I was sitting here, in the Senate gallery,
I witnessed a genuine–regrettably overlooked–profile in courage:
Senator Bob Kerrey standing up, virtually alone, to oppose a craven,
hysterical and hypocritical bill proposed by Senate liberals (led
by the unctuous opportunist Joe Biden) to enact a ban on flag-burning
into law. Legislation that sought to overturn a narrow Supreme
Court decision which recognized that, however repugnant, flag-burning
is constitutionally protected dissent, and the flag’s not a graven
image more sacred than the First Amendment.
The Democrats supporting the Biden bill were
supreme hypocrites who didn’t believe in it for a minute but thought
it might give them cover on the record so they could then take
a stand against an even more noxious and demagogic constitutional
amendment to ban flag-burning.
But Bob Kerrey didn’t need political cover for
his act of courage and dissent. He just stood up and did it. Stood
up on one artificial and one flesh-and-bone foot, having lost
a lower leg in the Navy Seal operation which won him the Congressional
medal of honor for bravery under fire. Stood up and told the Joe
Bidens and the other temporizers and equivocators with the First
Amendment that when he took a hit, he wasn’t taking it for a piece
of cloth, he was fighting for his buddies, for his friends and
his family, and for the kind of country that is not threatened
by dissent, not "frightened by flag-burning."
It was a terrific speech and it carried the day,
halted the cowardly rush for cover and preserved for a little
while the strength of a basic freedom. I’d gotten Senator Kerrey’s
office to fax me a copy of it, and reading it over it convinced
me once again what I’ve believed ever since 1992: that the Democratic
Party made a terrible wrong turn in New Hampshire when they left
Bob Kerrey out in the snow and made Bill Clinton "the comeback
kid" on the strength of Bill and Hillary’s phony 60 Minutes dog-and-pony
performance and the high-tech lies spread by the Munchkin Machiavellis
in the much-ballyhooed Clinton "war room." Lies about his relationship
with Gennifer Flowers that should have been a warning. (If anything
about Bill Clinton ought to be impeached, it ought to be that
smug, meretricious suck-up "documentary" called The War Room which
made heroes out of the smarmy enablers who, in the final days
of that crucial New Hampshire primary, gave credence to Mr. Clinton’s
lies while he raced home to Arkansas to sign the death warrant
for a brain-damaged black man on death row–all for political cover,
of course.) Bob Kerrey was the road not taken in the snowy New
Mr. Kerrey’s speech on the flag-burning ban was
remarkable for its candid admission that he’d changed his mind
on the issue and that what changed his mind was his revulsion
at Chief Justice William Rehnquist–now presiding in racing-striped
idiocy over the Senate trial. Revulsion at Chief Justice Rehnquist’s
flag-burning case opinion, which, Mr. Kerrey said, "appears to
stand … on a sentimental nationalism which seems to impose a functional
litmus test of loyalty before expression is permitted."
The candor and the courage, the willingness to
call a jerk a jerk, however Supreme, made me think once again
that the Democratic Party would be insane and self-destructive
in the year 2000 if it passed Bob Kerrey by in favor of a passionless
cold-fish stiff like Al Gore or Bill Bradley. Indeed, maybe the
only good thing to come out of the whole Clinton impeachment crisis
is that it might taint Al Gore enough to give an outsider like
Mr. Kerrey a chance. Looking over the Senate floor, he seemed
the only Democrat in the room who was both a hero and a human
(3) My Con Artist, "Your Closest Black Friend"–and
an Answer for Safire
Speaking of flags, a different kind of flag issue
made itself manifest for me earlier on the first day of the Senate
trial, deep in the basement tunnels beneath the Capitol building.
It was this flag issue, in fact, that was the deep source of the
anger that impelled me to ruin Henry Hyde’s breakfast. I was taking
the Senate subway that runs from the basement of the Capitol building
to the basement of the Dirkson Office Building to get photo ID
for the press gallery when I happened to take note of the array
of 50 state flags lined up along the wall of the tube.
To take note in particular of first one, then
a second state flag dominated by a large inset of the Confederate
flag’s stars and bars. The first one was Georgia, the second Mississippi,
the home states, respectively, of those two favorites of the white-supremacist
CCC: Bob Barr and Trent Lott. Coincidence? I think not. The repulsive
sentimentalization of the Confederate flag is the fig leaf for
the naked racism of white-supremacist outfits like the CCC. To
me, it’s a disgusting display, an affront to anyone who opposes
Aryan Nations-type groups, because, let’s face it, the Confederacy
was nothing if not an Aryan Nation. One that thrived on a kind
of slow-motion spiritual genocide, on murderous oppression, rape
and terror. The people spearheading the impeachment of Bill Clinton
for lying about his sexual exploitation of women proudly fly a
flag celebrating a regime that legitimized the rape and the buying
and selling of breeding rights to slave women. And they call that
regime "chivalrous." None of this excuses Bill Clinton’s sleazy
conduct, but it ought at least prompt some self-examination on
the part of the Bob Barrs and Trent Lotts now trying frantically
to distance themselves from the CCC. How can you not distance
yourself as well from your state flags, which celebrate a regime
of racist murder and rape? I’m not saying ban the flags, but don’t
canonize them in the hallway of the Senate. They’re flags that
celebrate a regime different in degree but not in kind from the
So, as you can see, I was in a fabulous mood
when I returned to the Senate chamber with my shiny new press
gallery ID and was–after about an hour’s wait for the first shift–ushered
to one of the coveted seats in the chamber. I listened to Representative
James Rogan talking self-righteously about "truthfulness." Still,
I couldn’t fault his arguments: I know I’d be cheering them on
if it had been Richard Nixon in the dock, charged with perjury
and obstructing justice, even on so negligible a matter as consensual
oral sex. (I don’t buy the argument I hear from some of my cynical
liberal friends that the analogy doesn’t hold because "Nixon never
got a blow job in his life.") Why, then, do I feel, if not sympathetic
toward Mr. Clinton, then hostile to his prosecutors? Here I would
like to explore with you my theory on this question. My evolving
hypothesis that the entire Clinton impeachment crisis, at least
the internal dynamics of it, is more about race than sex. And
that therein can be found the answer to the crucial novelist’s
question William Safire had raised in a recent column–"Why the
Loyalty?"; why haven’t Mr. Clinton’s associates turned on him,
resigned, or ratted him out (except for Dick Morris, of course)?
Why have the Democratic senators in this chamber put their historical
reputation on the line to endorse his equivocations about his
sleazebag behavior? Why have so many of his associates, personal
and political, friends and family stuck with him despite the ruin
he has brought so many of them?
The answer has to do with race and con artistry.
It’s a belief I’d been feeling my way toward in the wake of a
startling encounter in the street a few weeks before I went down
to Washington: an encounter in which I ran into the guy I like
to think of as "my con artist." "My" con artist, because somehow
when you’ve been had by a true artist, there’s a kind of bond;
you’ve both collaborated in a work of con art. In any case, I
think of my con artist as the inventor of the most brilliant,
idiosyncratic New York City street con ever devised. A con game
that is both fiendishly ingenious–it would have to be to con cynical
New Yorkers who trust no one and think they’ve seen through everyone.
Brilliant because it embodies a deeply shrewd insight into New
Yorkers’ liberal guilt about race.
Here’s how it worked on me (I’ve since read an
account somewhere that suggests I’m far from alone in my victimhood):
I’m walking down 48th Street minding my own business
when a tall, thin, light-skinned black guy passes me by–and says
something I only hear over my shoulder. But something that makes
me stop and turn around. To find him grinning with friendly but
hesitant recognition. "You don’t remember me?" he says, looking
a little crestfallen, making me feel I’ve insulted him by failing
to know his name.
"Come on," he says a bit plaintively, making
me worry he thought I was snubbing him because of his race. "O.K.,
who’s your closest black friend?" he asked. I gave him a name
(I’m not saying it was from a long list). Let’s call the person
"Exactly," he said. "I met you at A.’s. Remember
that thing at his place that time? I’m his cousin Ray."
I’ve always had a problem, I think it’s congenital,
connecting names to faces I know. But here I didn’t think I even
knew the face. But hell, "That thing, at his place, that time."
It was vague enough to admit the possibility that I might have
met "Cousin Ray" at A.’s place.
Then he ratcheted things up in a really fiendish
way when I asked, "How’s A. doing? I thought he was out of the
"No. He’s back. He was talking about you the
other day. You know he’s got cancer."
Suddenly, I felt doubly awful. Not just for A.’s
diagnosis, but for not having been in close enough touch with
"my closest black friend" to know.
With a chiaroscuro of worry and guilt swirling
within me, I was then in a peculiarly vulnerable state when "Cousin
Ray" confided in me a small problem he was having: He’d been taking
classes at Hunter College, he said, commuting there from his job
in Queens in a car A. had handed down to him, and he’d run out
of gas a little while ago over on First Avenue. He’d walked to
a gas station to buy a can of gas, but they’d wanted a deposit
on the gas can of $28, and he just had a couple bucks on him.
There was a subtle but unmistakable implication that racial distrust,
if not racism, was at work in the demand for the gas can deposit.
I don’t think he even had to ask. I handed him
a 20 and a 10. Nothing too good for the cousin of my closest black
friend. He made me write out my address so he could return the
loan in person tomorrow, thanked me profusely and told me A. would
really like to hear from me, what with his illness and all.
Needless to say, he never dropped off the money,
and A. didn’t have cancer–nor a cousin named Ray. But what a brilliant
con, worth every penny of the 28 bucks to witness a pure piece
of satiric performance art even if the target was me. Every great
con game embodies an insight into human psychology, and this one
was no exception. On one level, I suspected I was being conned,
but he knew I’d come across with the $28 because it would make
a guilty liberal’s relationship to his "closest black friend"
momentarily more real. But Cousin Ray gave me another insight
into the appeal of the con artist–and into the whole Clinton loyalty
question–when I ran into him again on Madison Avenue just a couple
weeks ago. And he started to run the very same con on me:
Once again, the over-the-shoulder remark, the
hesitantly friendly grin, the plaintive "You don’t remember me?"
when suddenly I did remember him.
"Yeah, I gave you 28 bucks," I said. At which
point he walked off rapidly and disappeared into the holiday-shopping
A revealing encounter: Looking back, it’s interesting
that I didn’t say "You owe me $28"; it was "I gave you $28." I
didn’t particularly feel ripped off, or I didn’t feel only ripped
off; I felt enlightened as well. I’d gotten my money’s worth.
I’d learned something. I felt, I think, a certain good-humored
gratitude to "Cousin Ray" for teaching me something.
Feeling gratitude toward a skillful con artist
who takes you is not unique. It’s there in Janet Malcolm’s utterly
fascinating new book, The Crime of Sheila McGough, the focus of
which is a seductive Clinton-like con artist, a Southern-accented
securities fraud specialist named Bob Bailes who ruins the life
of his lawyer, Sheila McGough–gets her sent to jail–steals from
scores of other people, but leaves them, if not laughing, then
vaguely bemused, grateful, appreciative of his Southern charm
and his art. Great con artists will cheat you, but they’ll make
sure they entertain you as well, leave you feeling you got what
you belatedly learned you paid for.
And here, I think, in this conjunction of con
artistry and racial guilt, is the answer to Mr. Safire’s "Why
the Loyalty?" question. Bill Clinton is a con artist; liberals
(but not only liberals: judging from the polls, the rest of America
as well) forgive him because he’s a lovable con artist, but more
importantly because beneath the con, we sense that his heart’s
in the right place on race. And that even if it isn’t, even if
that’s a con, too–even if he just says rather than does the right
thing–he makes us feel better. He’s a Southerner who could have
gone the way of Trent Lott and Bob Barr and their Confederate
confederates. But Bill Clinton went the other way, did the right
thing on race. In his Willie Stark-like mixture of appetite, fraud
and genuine human feeling, his apparent decency about race is
what makes us want to forgive his sins and defend him from his
enemies, many of whom are Southerners who, you sense, hate him
because of his racial liberalism. "Black folks know," said Emile
Milne, Representative Charles Rangel’s press secretary, "that
Bill Clinton’s got problems with these people [the Barrs and the
Lotts] mainly because of the company he keeps." Because he really
does have close black friends. I think Toni Morrison may be a
bit hyperbolic in saying Bill Clinton is "Our First Black President,"
but for many white liberals, Bill Clinton is "our closest black
(4) In Which the Supreme Impeachment Chairman
Makes a Surprising Pledge to Your Correspondent
Let’s return now to that moment over breakfast
when I confronted Henry Hyde about the noxious CCC. I’d felt bad
about interrupting his breakfast on this climactic day of his
case, but in the end I was glad I did it. Because to my great
surprise–with a little nudge Henry Hyde seemed willing
to do the right thing.
"Don’t you think there should be a resolution
condemning them?" I asked Chairman Hyde.
"You mean that racist group?" he asked me, looking
like he wanted to get back to his omelet.
"Yes," I said, "that one."
"The trouble is, there are so many of these outfits
"But this one has enlisted"
"Yeah," he said, hastily heading off any explicit
Bob Barr reference, "I’d support a resolution like that."
Henry Hyde supporting the condemnation of the
Council of Conservative Citizens! I think that’s admirable. I
think that’s news. I think we should hold him to that pledge.
I think somebody on the Democratic side in the House or Senate,
Representative Jerrold Nadler, maybe, or Senator Chuck Schumer,
should take Henry Hyde at his word, as recorded here, hold him
to his pledge and ask him to sign on as a co-sponsor of a joint
Congressional resolution condemning the CCC.
"A low, dishonest decade." That’s what W.H. Auden
called the 30’s, but the past year has felt like a low, dishonest
decade compressed into just 12 months. The next few weeks promise
to get lower down and dirtier, a decade’s worth of bipartisan
hypocrisy and dishonesty compressed into a matter of days, and
nobody’s going to come out of it looking good. A resolution condemning,
censuring the white supremacists of the CCC won’t end racism.
But it will make a statement. A statement that everyone in the
benighted city of Washington should be able to come together on.
A statement condemning those who romanticize human bondage and
the rape and murder the system of slavery legitimized. It might
be the only constructive thing to come out of the entire wasted
year we’ve spent under Betty Currie’s bed. To be continued...
© Copyright 1999 The New York Observer