new lies / old lies / whose lies

Friday, September 25, 1998

Magic Beans

The President's contrition act makes for nice sound bites - but will he walk the walk?

"...everyone tells tiny lies.
What's important really is the size!"

- The baker's wife, in Sondheim's Into the Woods

What determines the size of a lie? If "little white lies" are those that concern matters of small consequence, are told to just a few people, or are excusable because they are intended to achieve some more important goal, like sparing someone's feelings, then bigger lies presumably are those that cover more important issues, are told to more people, or fall short in the "greater good" department. There's another factor, too: plausibility. There's something particularly sizable about a lie asserted in the face of overwhelming evidence of its falsity. "You are such a liar!" is the typical schoolyard response.

By any standard, Bill Clinton is working on a place in the record book with these Lewinsky whoppers: "I didn't" (with finger waggle), then "I did" (contrite, hangdog look), and finally, "But I really didn't" (defiant, upthrust chin). For sheer transparency, this stuff exceeds anything I can remember, including Nixon's, "the President of the United States is not a crook", and Clinton's own rookie-year, "I didn't inhale," (though I still think that one shouldn't qualify, since it was almost certainly a true statement).

Forget all those, though. Now we have the spectacle of the Leader of the Free World maintaining, even after admitting to the relationship with "that woman, Miss Lewinsky," that he did not have "sexual relations" with her, and hence didn't commit perjury in the Paula Jones deposition.

I was driving home from work the day Clinton addressed the devout at the White House's annual prayer breakfast, and caught him working the repentance angle on NPR: "I have sinned... I have asked all for their forgiveness... I have repented." He did a good job selling it; even with his recent history, it was hard for me not to believe he actually meant it. Then he dropped the other shoe: "I will instruct my lawyers to mount a vigorous defense using all available, appropriate arguments."

Whew. For a minute there - and for the first time during all this craziness - I had caught myself thinking that he might actually end up resigning over this. Because if Bill really believes that stuff about repentance, he will face greater and greater internal pressure to truly come clean, and admit to perjury, after which he might very well decide that his only option is to step down.

The "vigorous defense" comment restored my faith in his willingness to play his cards to the bitter end. But the more I've thought about it in the days since then, the more suspicious I've become that he might actually do the unthinkable, and fold his hand. That is, make a simple, unqualified statement: "I lied under oath" - and accept the consquences.

As an act of personal and political bravery, it would definitely earn him a place in history. I tend to doubt that he has it in him.

But I could be wrong.


Standing in the way of that kind of admission, of course, is his hope that he can ride this tiger the way he has ridden all previous ones: holding tight to its ears and spinning his spin and working his way, step by tortuous step, back from the brink.

After all, as the baker's wife sang of the beans traded to Jack for Milky White, "Maybe they're really magic. Who knows?"

A key part of Clinton's strategy has been to paint his opponents as smut-peddlers, dirty old men with their minds in the gutter who have nothing better to do than parade the details of the President's private life before the public. Polls show that this particular dog hunts, at least a little; people are pissed at Ken Starr and Congress for subjecting them to this. But regardless, the Republicans have called Bill's bluff, releasing the trash for all to see, and now the President has little choice but to show his own hand: a busted-flush claim that although he was indeed fellated by Monica on numerous occasions and soiled her dress at least once, he never actually touched her.


Yes, that's the claim. She touched him. She had sexual relations with him, but he did not have sexual relations with her.

One last time, just so we can put this particular howler to bed (or rather, lean it up against the bathroom door and go down on it): Clinton testified under oath, "I have never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky," with "sexual relations" having been defined as follows:

For the purposes of this deposition, a person engages in "sexual relations" when the person knowingly engages in or causes . . . contact with the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, or buttocks of any person with an intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person. . . . "Contact" means intentional touching, either directly or through clothing.

So, despite her detailed testimony to the contrary, he's claiming that he never touched her proferred breasts or any other listed part of her. He may have grabbed her big hair in order to form a more effective Presidential Seal, but that's okay, apparently, because her head isn't a listed body part.

A necessary part of this defense is the President's claim that it was reasonable for him to interpret "any person" to actually mean "any other person", according to which it's okay for Monica's head to contact his own privates, as long as no part of him comes into intentional contact with her privates.

And bear in mind: He never heard the Jones-case definition of "sexual relations" until well after his affair with Lewinsky was over. It apparently was just very good luck that he behaved with her in this odd manner, such that he could subsequently deny sexual relations without (quite) committing perjury.

Now, anyone who actually believes the President's story is excused from the rest of the discussion. You may leave the Web page now. See ya! Don't let the HTTP_REFERER variable hit you on the way out!


Still here? Good.

There was one aspect of the recent events that struck me, and lots of other net users, as noteworthy, but which the mainstream media have largely ignored. I'm speaking, of course, of the amazing hypocrisy shown by the 284 members of the House who voted for the Communications Decency Act in 1995, making it a felony to place indecent material on the Internet where minors could see it, and then performed that precise act themselves, voting to put Ken Starr's report on the net with all its detailed sexual content intact, making no effort to keep tender eyes from reading said sexual content.

Yes, I know the Supreme Court threw out the CDA as unconstitutional. I'm not saying the congressfolk who revealed themselves as hypocrites on this point should be sent to prison or pay a fine or anything like that. I would love, though, to make them explain what on earth they were thinking when they cast whichever of the two votes they now acknowledge to have been wrong (since both cannot possibly have been right).

I realize that that's not going to happen anytime soon. And I know exactly what they were thinking, anyway. In the case of the CDA, the politicians wanted to look like they were doing something about online porn, and since the net's users were (and are) an invisible and politically impotent minority, they had no problem with voting away our free-speech rights. With the Starr report, though, they realized that this Internet thing could help them out of a jam, letting them get a quick read on public opinion so they wouldn't face the terror of having to react to the report before knowing which way the political winds were blowing.

It all comes down to cowardice. In each vote, the large majority of elected officials did the thing that minimized their own political risk, regardless of the underlying damage it did in terms of denying freedom of speech or exposing kids to indecency.

Yeah; I know. Politicians of any stripe are, for the most part, cowardly, unprincipled scum. This is news?


"It is wisdom to recognize necessity, when all other courses have been weighed, though as folly it may appear to those who cling to false hope."

- J.R.R. Tolkien's Gandalf, addressing
the Council of Elrond in The Fellowship of the Ring

Which brings us back to the President, and the amazing bifurcation he has undergone in recent weeks ("Look! I'm a repentant sinner who has acknowledged wrong, apologized to all concerned, and is striving to do better! But wait! I'm also a righteous, unfairly accused, innocent victim of a political vendetta who admits no legal wrong whatsoever! Now how much would you pay?").

These beans of the President's are not magical enough to actually change reality, and so are unlikely to convince anyone but the most ardent supporter that he didn't commit perjury. But they might be magical enough to ward off impeachment. As we have been reminded numerous times in the last few weeks, impeachment is more a political process than a legal one. The Constitution leaves lots of room for creative interpretation of just when and how it will be applied. On some level Bill must be hoping that he will awaken to a newly grown beanstalk of public outrage at Ken Starr and the Republicans, a beanstalk that will let him climb, if not back into public favor, at least out of reach of the two-thirds Senate vote needed for an impeachment conviction.

Hence we get the Amazing Two Presidents in One. His instinct for self-preservation is too strong for him to completely abandon the Richard Kimble routine, such that he and his lawyers continue to assert his innocence, no matter how hollow it sounds. Meanwhile, though, he's playing on our heartstrings for all he's worth, trying to convince us to forgive and forget, or at least return enough Democrats to Congress after the midterm elections to embolden his supporters and cow his opponents, so he can hang onto office for two more years.

It reminds me of the scene in The Two Towers when Saruman, imprisoned in Orthanc above the ruins of Isengard, attempts to talk his way out of trouble, playing first one angle and then another, but hampered, and ultimately doomed, by the fact that his audience can see the whole act, including the parts not intended for them.

It's sad to see Clinton in this Catch-22. If these beans don't sprout, his situation is just going to get worse. The one thing that might redeem him with the public, or at least that part of it that thinks like I do, would be for him to just stop all the tap-dancing and admit what we already know: that he lied in the Jones deposition. But admitting that might well give his opponents everything they need to drive him from office. It would be an act of desperation, like sending the Ring to Mordor, or (to mix my cultural touchstones), like Mr. Spock hitting the jettison button and igniting the last of the fuel in the shuttlecraft Galileo.

In the real world, desperation hail-Mary passes are a lot more likely to get picked off or thud pathetically into the grass than to win the game. But desperate times, and all that.

Of course, if he had enough courage to tell the whole truth he never would have ended up here in the first place, would he?

Enough. I'm going to bed. Somebody wake me when it's over.

Perfect Tommy

new lies / old lies / whose lies

Logo graphics created with Pixelsight.