By Michael Miner
There's no realistic way for Libido--a Chicago-based quarterly journal not nearly as dry as it sounds--to stay on top of the Bill Clinton story. "We're just catching up on Viagra," admits editor Jack Hafferkamp.
But he and coeditor Marianna Beck follow the trials of our chief executive with the cool perspicacity of academics. In the past year each received a doctorate in erotology from the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco. Erotology is the study of cultural expressions of eros--a field Beck and Hafferkamp pretty much invented. They've written the textbook and are now waiting for some university to decide to teach the course.
Is the president priapic? I asked them.
"I think he makes bad choices," Beck responded. "Does that make him have to enter a 12-step program? I don't think so. I don't think there is such a thing as sexual addiction."
Hafferkamp stepped in. "I don't think we agree completely," he said. "It's a concept that could be useful, but it's overused and misapplied."
"The media," Beck said.
"Misapplied by the media, misapplied by Protestant fundies," said Hafferkamp.
But doesn't the Christian right insist on personal responsibility and dismiss the notion of mitigating pathologies?
"I like to patrol Channel 38," said Hafferkamp. "I do believe I've heard it used in context. It's like some pop psychology term that somebody who's got an agenda has learned to use."
Why don't you think sexual addiction exists? I asked Beck.
"Maybe that was an overstatement," she said. "I think it's grossly misused. Because we have such a divided notion of positive sexuality, we're either voyeurs or we condemn it. Those who have problems around sex are labeled sex addicts. I think it's a buzzword that's sort of meaningless."
"Since there are people who when they face pressure go shopping too much or drink too much," Hafferkamp put in, "there are probably people who turn to sex in ways that are counterproductive. If you want to call that addiction you probably could. It depends on the level it reaches. If somebody gets paralyzed to where it's the only thing they do, they may be genuinely addicts. Here's the president, someone who hypothetically is predisposed to acting out his feelings, and an attractive, available--"
"Consenting, I may add," said Beck.
"Consenting, and maybe even initiating--that's unclear--woman comes along. Hey!"
"Porque no?" said Beck.
"The question of judgment does come up," Hafferkamp allowed. "It seems no matter how good it was, it couldn't be worth all the trouble it caused. The danger is Bill will be remembered as Blow Job Bill."
Beck said, "I'm kind of fascinated with Kenneth Starr. It's almost to the point it's kind of kinky."
Hafferkamp: "Dr. Susan Block, the west-coast sexologist who's--"
Beck: "She recently gave him her own creation, the Pornographer of the Year award, for pursuing this in such incredible detail."
Hafferkamp: "These are fascinating times."
Beck: "I do believe there's never been $40 million spent on a porno movie." The reference was to the total cost of Starr's Whitewater-Lewinsky investigation.
I happened to be talking to Beck and Hafferkamp because they'd just observed the tenth anniversary of Libido, which they established when they were garden-variety Chicago journalists. The years haven't been easy; a low point was 1994, when Hafferkamp was run off the faculty of Medill after photographs of him and Beck being far more forthcoming than Clinton was on TV last week showed up on an HBO series called Real Sex. Hafferkamp told me then that without his teaching income the wolf would curl up outside their door. They've since shooed it off. He and Beck say that their book The Ecstatic Moment: The Best of Libido is in its second printing, and their video Sexual Ecstacy for Couples is a gold mine.
"We were junior partners," said Hafferkamp. "Our senior partner suggested to us the title should have a maximum of five words and three of them should be 'sexual,' 'ecstacy,' and 'couples.'"
"It sells and sells and sells," said Beck. "It allows us to survive."
Sex is a two-edged sword that dubs and smites. Our smitten president is lamented by the editors of Libido as a champion of civil liberties--"the guy in the doorway preventing Trent Lott from being in your bedroom," is how Hafferkamp put it--whose excesses may turn the Oval Office into a testosterone-free zone. "You'll wind up with guys who all should have worked for IBM," said Hafferkamp.
But there are other possible resolutions. If the crisis comes down to a national referendum on testosterone versus Kenneth Starr, Bill Clinton may be remembered as the president who made the White House safe for swordsmen. And if in the process the commander in chief becomes incommensurate with Father America--pure, fair, and beyond reproach--the job might open up to competent administrators of whatever sex, race, degree of hair loss, or choice of nightlife.
"In Europe this is all looked at as another example of America's provincialism," said Hafferkamp.
"Not to mention sex phobia," Beck added.
Hafferkamp: "The idea that you can bring the government down because of a blow job does seem far-fetched. On the other hand, it does speak to the fact the bimbo-eruption thing is not a new concept with Bill."
Beck: "And in regard to Hillary, I can't believe she's really been in the dark. They've worked something out along the way. So the fact she's painted as the betrayed wife is ludicrous."
Hafferkamp: "The day after the speech, Sam Donaldson was obsessed with Hillary's body language when they were leaving on vacation. Much was made of the fact Chelsea walked between them and Hillary had sunglasses on and didn't look at Bill the whole time. And this was repeated on lots of radio and TV. Clearly, it was some sort of Rorschach for the media--who had no real reaction from Hillary, so they were bringing to it whatever they wanted to see. It was a clear case of the media creating the whole impression of Hillary being the wronged woman and feeling terrible about this."
What do you think her actual reaction was? I asked.
"I imagine she's pretty pissed," said Hafferkamp.
Code of Silence
"It's very important that you both understand what's about to happen," said the president. He looked at his wife and then his daughter. "Because I have dignity to burn, I've decided to spend a little to put this tawdry ordeal behind the country."
"Surely, dad, you're not going to lend any credence to that floozy."
"Let compassion be our watchword. This is someone whose most cherished possession is a Gap dress containing a semen sample from the free world's leader. That's pretty sick. If I rebuffed her on national television she might fall apart completely."
"So you're going to say it's true, is that it, dad?"
"I'm going to tell a little white lie I don't expect anyone to believe. I'm going to say that while it's absolutely ridiculous to think for a second I would have had a sexual encounter with that troubled child--in a very narrow, technical, legalistic, contorted application of the concept--I might have passively, unwittingly, and over a period of no more than several months led her to conclude we were up to something we might rot in hell for, if the God this family worships were not as merciful as he is discreet."
"So you're putting her feelings first?" said his wife.
"This is a girl who's barely older than our daughter. There's no reason to humiliate her."
"What about my feelings?" said his wife.
He pursed his lips. He sensed disrespect.
"This has been very hard on your mother," he told his daughter. "People who remember Watergate are maliciously comparing her to Richard Nixon. They're asking what did she know and when did she know it? Fortunately I've looked out for her every step of the way. She has complete deniability. She'll come out of this smelling like a rose."
"Are you going to leave him, mom?"
"No," she said. "The country's not ready yet for a divorced woman president."
The president guffawed, and the tension eased. He opened his closet and began taking out the clothes he intended to wear when he addressed the nation.
"Do you know what I'd like, dad? I'd like you to wear the tie I gave you for Father's Day, so when you come clean I'll be close to your heart."
"What a lovely thought, pumpkin!" he said. "But that tie of yours is pretty loud. I thought I'd wear this quiet little checked one I picked up somewhere."
"Well, what about the cuff links I gave you for Christmas?"
"Pretty flashy. Given the occasion, I think I'd better go with this discreet pair from Vernon Jordan."
"Wouldja wear my wristwatch?"
"Oh no, look at this one. Betty Currie gave it to me. Hold it to your ear. Completely silent."
"Got one from Susan McDougal."
"Your speech is only four minutes long," his wife noted. "I know you've got a lot of signals to send, but if you finger your tie, shoot your cuffs, check your watch, and blow your nose, the nation will think you're having an epileptic fit."
"I bet people sympathize with epileptics," the president said brightly. "What did our polls show?"
A.E. Eyre came whooping into my office waving a news clipping. "The words of Eyre have found their public!" he cried.
The article he slapped on my desk proved to be a column from a Boston paper, written by the biggest name in Beantown, Mack Mollusk. Mollusk had hit the bricks looking for the people's views on a weighty question: Hillary Clinton--victim or enabler?
"I think she knew without knowing she knew," opined George Farbuck of Brookline. "He knew she didn't want to know, so he didn't tell her--which shows the kind of guy he is. But I know she knew."
"He's the biggest liar that ever lived," said Rosie Mattoon of Southie.
Mack Mollusk went on to say that Farbuck and Mattoon's addresses and social security numbers were available for inspection in the newspaper's public service office along with notarized affidavits signed by two witnesses to each interview.
He usually writes a pretty lively column, but I don't care much for this one, I said.
"Yes, times have changed," said Eyre. "Keep reading."
"Another perspective was offered by a caller from Chicago who identified himself as Bo, hip-hop artist and street philosopher. 'If we be lookin' through the prism of the presidential jism, America is gonna face a cataclysm,' Bo chanted."
"Bo sure pulled Mollusk's chestnuts out of the fire," said Eyre.
It was hard to put my finger on it, but something made me doubt Bo's authenticity. Eyre fished into his wallet and brought out a crisp new business card. It said:
For a Vox that Socks
Dial the A.E. Eyre perspective.
He puts the POP in Populi.
You're trifling with the dignity of my profession, I told Eyre.
"Everything Mack Mollusk wrote about Bo is literally true," he replied. "Mollusk was desperate. The common man had nothing to offer but the usual witless babble. Fabrication was out of the question, given the times. So he reached out for a specialist in quotability."
All his life Eyre has dreamed of a venue for his unheeded wit and wisdom. At last he's spotted his opportunity. I should be happy for him. I feel sick.
"I'm a busy man these days," said Eyre grandly, "but I'll always have time for an old friend in need. Mind you, I don't come cheap."
Hypocrisy in Action
It's rare for journalists to deny their own expertise, but much less personal wisdom has been brought to bear on the president's affair with Monica Lewinsky than the Washington press corps has to offer. For example, Carl Bernstein came on the tube to ruminate uselessly about the president's address to the nation. If sections of ex-wife Nora Ephron's Heartburn had been read to him first to jog his memory, perhaps he'd have offered something genuinely insightful.
George Will has made it clear that Bill Clinton has to go. Our lesson: "It is tremendous folly to put trashy people in positions of trust and conspicuousness." Clinton's strategy: "To corrupt the public by encouraging indifference to brazen deceit about scabrous behavior."
I don't expect Will to write more kindly than he feels. But he might point out that scabrous behavior isn't something he knows only from the papers. After all, he did quietly help Ronald Reagan prepare for a presidential debate, a performance he then praised in his column. More recently, he lambasted the Clinton administration for tariffs it was proposing on expensive Japanese cars, without mentioning that his new wife was a registered agent for the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association. "It's just too silly," said Will, when the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz called him on this omission.
Why be merely sanctimonious about arrogance and deception when you can also be authoritative? o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jack Hafferkamp, Marianna Beck photo by Eugene Zakusilo.