The New Yorker
September 28, 1998

AMERICAN STUDIES:
THE KENNETH STARR REPORT PROUDLY CALLS ITSELF A NARRATIVE. BUT, AS IN MANY LITERARY WORKS, THE CHARACTERS GOT AWAY FROM THE AUTHOR

Adam Gopnik

 

What is this thing called "The Report"? A four-hundred-and-forty-five-page book, among other things, a story to read and criticize--a "narrative," as its authors proudly call it. What happens if we try approaching it that way? After all, no one has had much success dealing with it as a judicial or a legal document--since judiciousness is a quality it so obviously lacks, and it is directed to no court of law. Nor can it be read as journalism, a reluctantly arrived-at exposé: its elaborations are far too ornate, its attention far too riveted. An indictment? But its manifest content--a man had sex with a woman not his wife, and then said that he hadn't--could be summed up in a sentence. In fact, the unnamed authors provide us with exactly that sentence in their opening pages, as though to show how duller hands might have done it: "Ms. Lewinsky contradicts the President on a key issue. According to Ms. Lewinsky, the President touched her breasts and genitalia--which means that his conduct met the Jones definition of sexual relations even under his theory." Footnotes; appendix; end of story.

So why all the schmurtz? Well, Ken Starr and his crew are writing, God help them--they're trying to dramatize a relationship, depict a mood, evoke a moral atmosphere. Think of "The Report" as a love child of the novel--as what the quarterlies call a text--and maybe that gets you closer to its purpose and to the undeniable spell it casts. Its authors are stirred by something, and the thing that stirs them can be grasped only in its monstrous entirety as a story, with details right down to plaster casts of the hero's and heroine's parts. This explains why there are more gratuitous insertions in "The Report" than there ever were in the Oval Office: the oral-anal encounters are "saved" for the footnotes, lest readers become bored, and sentences are repeated for dramatic effect. "Again, he stopped her before he ejaculated" and "The President had phone sex" and "Mrs. Clinton was..." (Athens, Ireland, Denver, Bolivia) are the favorite three. The laboriously recounted instances of near-ejaculation, the orgasms achieved and enumerated--it's all there for the reviewers.

You can almost read it as a novel in the classic tradition. When Richard Nixon got into trouble, the cliché was that there was something Shakespearean about his crisis, and his fall, if it lacked Shakespearean poetry, had a Shakespearean subject: the slow declension of ambition into crime, and of crime into evil. But nobody would call Clinton's troubles Shakespearean; they're more bourgeois than that. There's something vaguely eighteenth century about them. It's there in the constant references to a higher piety that nobody believes in, and Monica gives new life to the word "wench." Not since Richardson's "Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded," one of the first novels, has so much ink been spilled on a pas de deux between a guy who owns a big manor house and the girl who works there, with the difference that this girl, unlike that one, succumbs. (So, "Monica; or, Sin Punished.") Even the special achievement, in Starr's report, of what Sean Wilentz has accurately called "pornography for puritans" recalls the original novelistic formula: pornography for Puritans is exactly what novels were accused of being. And, in the spirit of "Tom Jones," the first great novel, "The Report" is a text that ultimately, though against its will, makes a favorite moral point of the English novel: in a narrative of the ins and outs of bourgeois love, a scapegrace hero is almost more appealing than a moralizing narrator. "The Report" is a classic story about adultery, in which the law and human affection are in tension, and it resolves itself in the usual way. When there's a choice between law and sympathy, the law may take the lovers but the lovers take the cake.

"The Report" arrives at this message in any oddly elliptical yet recognizably American manner. Like such other long-awaited works as Harold Brodkey's "Party of Animals" (not such a bad title for this book, either) and Truman Capote's "Answered Prayers" (the G.O.P. perspective) and Joe Gould's "Oral History of Our Time" (oh, gee), it is a book that promised to be vast, encyclopedic, and overseeing, and turned out to be narrow, claustrophobic, and obsessive. What we had been promised--and what the authors received a forty-million-dollar advance to deliver--was a work in the spirit of DeLillo or Ellory, or even Melville: an epic study in evil and its pursuit, sweeping from Little Rock to Washington and back again in waves of bad faith and intricate deceit. That book, however, has quietly been allowed to disappear, and the book that we have been given turns out to be the endlessly reiterated account of a few personal interludes. Maybe American classics are just like that.

It is American, too, in regarding a banal bourgeois theme with a rising sense of horror. Like Poe far more than like Melville, this text--whose tone recalls "The Tell-Tale Heart" (the throbbing organ that keeps the narrator uneasily awake) and "The Cask of Amontillado" (all those windowless rooms!)--uses an obsessional voice to tell what is, in all other ways, a relentlessly ordinary story of adultery. A supposedly dispassionate account of a man's sins becomes so overwrought that the reader gradually realizes that the point of the story is not that the hero is wicked but that the narrator is mad.

"The Report" tells how a middle-aged politician (if this were a novel, its one flaw would be that the authors rather trashily make him the President) with a bad case of arrested development gets involved with a young woman. At first, he exploits her, almost brutally, and then--tentatively, sporadically--comes to treat her marginally but crucially better. Yet "The Report" also tells the story of how the same man, doing exactly the same things in the same order, descends into criminality. This double movement is what makes the work so compelling.

When we meet the hero and the heroine, what surprises us is not that, with Josephine Hart-like speed, the hero succumbs to the temptation of a zaftig Jewish girl in thong underpants--surely as familiar a literary temptation as you could hope to find--but that he proceeds to treat her so piggishly. ("While the President was on the telephone...'he unzipped his pants and exposed himself,' and she performed oral sex.") This treatment leaves her hurt and confused. She wants to be recognized as a person, not just as a sexual object.

The form that her demand for authentic personhood takes is the wish to be allowed to "complete" an act of oral sex: "I told him that I wanted...to complete that. And he said...that he needed to wait until he trusted me more." This demand is at first as puzzling to the hero as it is to the reader. But the debate over "completion" tenderly outlines, as a novel should, a fine and otherwise easily missed distinction in American mores. The two principals are not, as there critics insist, children of the sexual revolution; rather, they stand on either side of it, semaphoring with their bodies across a divide of incomprehension.

The hero, far from being a sixties free-love-in-Yasgur's-mud kind of guy, is still a saxophone-playing, short-haired smoothies--a fifties guy (the fifties lasted until 1963) and a Southern boy's elaborated etiquette of where you can put what when, for how long, and with what meaning. When he says he doesn't think of it as sex, he is simply giving us the time-honored weaseling of smart Southern boys in the back seats of cars circa 1963 ("I know, darlin', I know. But, see, darlin', it isn't sex if I just...").

On the far side of the sexual revolution, where the heroine has spent her life, oral sex is as banal as kissing; the sign of maturity, adulthood, commitment, respect, and confidence is to be ready to complete it. The ultimate sign of sexual contempt in 1963 has become the ultimate sign of sexual trust in 1998. (A weird point for the social historians, and not one that we would have looked to Ken Starr to clear up; but, there, he has.)

It has become commonplace for journalists to say that the sex in "The Report" is "sordid" or "disgusting" or "squalid." (American journalists, of course, lead especially protected lives, in which furtive office couplings are not merely unknown but cause for instant anathema. That cloistered existence is what give indignant newspaper editorials their charm, like the cheese produced by monks.) But, really, it's just sex. Starr has obviously caught on to Swift's discovery that everything mammals do can be made to sound obscene if you write it down flatly enough. Only on reflection does it occur to the reader that, for all the narrator's shock, this rhythm--animal encounters passing drowsily into semi-affectionate banter--sounds like...well, like sex.

Yet if the sex stays about the same (and there really isn't much of it; ten encounters in two years is not so hot), our hero's behavior improves. There's a touching, subtly presented moment in the text where the improvement seems most evident:

Ms. Lewinsky testified that on Friday, March 29, 1996, she was walking down a hallway when she passed the President, who was wearing the first necktie she had given him. She asked him where he had gotten the tie, and he replied: "Some girl with style gave it to me."

Not Cary Grant, perhaps, but not Tommy Lee, either--a decent attempt to reconcile sinful desire with human recognition. Even the compulsive gift-giving that united these two American shoppers is neither brutal nor caddish, not even when it includes "Oy Vey! The Things They Say!: A Book of Jewish Wit." Is there a lovelier, sadder sentence in American writing than "Many of the 30 or so gifts that she gave the President reflected his interests in history, antiques, cigars, and frogs"? This amateur of plaster amphibians even attempted to cut off the affair, announcing that he's doing wrong. Far from being out of control--conforming to the formula "Lost to all shame, they recklessly..."--he was haunted by shame, or the possibility of it, at every step. This wasn't a man indulging in dreams of omnipotence; it was a man who had a thing for a girl in the office and succumbed to it.

Here is where the narrator begins to move at cross-purposes to the reader. You would think that the voice might increase in warmth or in grudging fairness as the relationship develops--that his goal would be to prove that the sexual relations were selfish and exploitative, and that reluctantly he would have to admit that this was not entirely so. Yet, bizarrely, what offends this narrator is that the sexual relations did become reciprocal and engaged--that the hero aroused the heroine as much as she aroused him, that he touched and caressed and praised and eventually gave her pleasure, several pleasures. For, as the hero becomes more sympathetic as a human being--less contemptuous, more remorseful about his own behavior, more generous in his sexuality--he also (according to the narrator) incriminates himself ever deeper. ("Whereas the President testified that 'what began as a friendship came to include [intimate contact],' Ms. Lewinsky explained that the relationship moved in the opposite direction.") This is because the narrator is obsessed by a luridly abstract document--a definition of sexual acts--drawn up by the hero's enemies, which in effect criminalizes any reciprocal acts.

The crisis comes when the hero finally does what the heroine wants. At her urging, he completes the act and leaves the traces on her dress. The very moment when he gives the girl the authentic feeling that she has demanded (his semen: an odd sign, perhaps, but these are odd times) is the moment when he incriminates himself finally and permanently. The selfish acts are the safe ones; the reciprocal acts are criminal. Just as the reader sighs with relief, the narrator claps on the cuffs.

The book's epilogue becomes increasingly frantic. The narrator's voice intrudes, postmodernly, insisting that the hero is guilty because of his unwillingness to cooperate in the creation of the text. In a strange way, the narrator begins to compete with the disappointed lover. He, we realize--another postmodern touch--has taken her voice: "This office extended six separate invitations to the President to testify." Why won't you respond to my requests? Why won't you return my phone calls? You do everything you can to avoid me. And, finally: I will not be ignored. The plaint of the rejected disciplinarian (Clinton "spurned six invitations to testify"). Hell, our chagrined hero learns, hath no fury like a woman scored ("You want me out of your life...I guess the signs have been made clear for awhile--not wanting to see me and rarely calling"), except that of an independent counsel spurned.

What we have, in other words, is a classic novelistic confrontation between a sinner and his pursuer, with the usual novelistic moral: given a choice between human sin and abstract justice, our hearts go to the sinner. This doesn't mean that we don't want the sinner, whether Hester, Lady Glencora, or Dagon, to be punished--"censure" is a very good word for what we want--but we also want him (or her) to be made safe from the pursuing narrator. People seem to be trying to parse "The Report" from scratch, as though its subject were entirely new. But there is a whole literature devoted to the question of adultery, transgression, and the law, and that literature is called "literature." It has what are called "points" and "morals," and first among them is to be extremely suspicious of anyone who tries to compress the erotic life into overly pointed morals. Novels have always been inhospitable to people who make too much of the law--think of the beadles and lawyers in Dickens--precisely because a good narrative gives us such a complicated view of human motives and their mixture that we are rightly suspicious of anyone who tries to apply a rule book to that plurality.

The curious thing is that America is the one country whose law once tried to mimic the principle of literature. "We are a nation of laws," we say. But all nations are nations of law. France is a nation of laws, one for every person. Ancient Babylon was a nation of laws. Eighteenth-century England was a nation of so many laws that there were more than two hundred separate hanging offenses. What we are, perhaps distinctively, is a nation where law is "essentially contested" in terms of rights, including the right to touch an inner thigh and say it was an outer. Our law, in Auden's phrase, is like love, or tries to be.

This is the lesson that the best American narratives are there to teach us. It is why Huck Finn tears up the lawful bit of paper turning in Jim the runaway slave, and why Hawthorne thought it was better to wear a scarlet letter than to hand one out. We are grateful to the authors of "The Report" for reminding us of this vital literary lesson, and now let us hear no more from them. They can only dilute the effect, as authors have been known to do, by writing a sequel.

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