Sex, Lies, Videotape and Lots of Hypocrisy

National Catholic Reporter, September 25, 1998 | Go to article overview

Sex, Lies, Videotape and Lots of Hypocrisy


Frequently when people don't know what to say, they say it all the louder. Frustrated and stupefied, we pile our words on, afraid to risk the silence.

We seem in one of those headlong episodes right now. Though not the only ones, we Americans seem uncommonly prone to paroxysms of grief (for a dead Princess Diana, for example), of adulation (for a Sammy Sosa or Mark McGwire), of outrage (against a philandering, lying president or a too-zealous special prosecutor).

Surrounded by circumstances and waylaid by emotions we can't put into words, we grope for metaphors and precedents and excuses and exceptions. We stretch to score points, gain advantage, get elected, get even.

Time for timeout.

It's as if Aristotle had Bill Clinton in mind when he wrote his famous definition of the tragic hero: "a man who is highly renowned and prosperous, but one who is not preeminently virtuous and just, whose misfortune, however, is brought upon him not by vice and depravity but by some error of judgment or frailty."

Calling Clinton a hero of any stripe is likely to increase the cacophony again. Yet he was only a few falls away from some vague greatness. Highly intelligent, a weaver of words, personable, he said what most people wanted to hear about a kinder, gentler world for those who most needed it, such as children, women, various outcasts. He came along at the luckiest time a president could choose, when the United States was preeminent among the nations, the world was free from major war, the engines of commerce were humming along nicely and nearly everyone had money for a new car. All he had to do was preside over this privileged situation -- he had little to do but be great: Things were so good, people could scarcely be displeased with him about anything.

But he found a way to fall. Several ways. Monica Lewinsky and her predecessors. Liking Clinton, we didn't want to believe he fell. With a little help from independent counsel Kenneth Starr, we're beginning to believe it and now we're mad as hell.

And how our hero fell. Not only the old-fashioned carnal way but with hairsplitting legal verbal gibberish that would be comic were it not tragic.

Starr looks so clean by comparison. A preacher's son in shining armor singing hymns as he jogs each morning. But virtue is often hard to love; the more it shines, the harder to love. We are cynical enough now to be suspicious of everyone, and although we may not always be right, the law of averages is in our favor. So we sniff and suspect.

What kind of hymn-singing preacher's son would publish the Starr report, a document that, irrespective of its accuracy, wallows so inelegantly in Clinton's calamity? …

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