Mutual Assured Destruction

He made sex obsolete—at least as a weapon of political war

Win McNamee / Reuters

Is it possible that Kenneth Starr was really a double agent, working for the other conspiracy? Think about it. Before Judge Starr got into gear, Newt Gingrich was still riding tolerably high as Republican speaker of the House, with a bevy of good old boys jostling for position behind him in case he should stumble. But then, just like that, Newt was gone, and so was the next man in line, and suddenly you couldn't give this plum away. The Republican Party had been definitively exposed as the Party of Adultery, and would in the last result have to reach all the way out of the Bible Belt and into the sinful North to find a pure Republican.

A real double agent could hardly have done more, or done it more entertainingly. There is nothing in nature funnier, or better for the nation, than the sight of a pharisee running down the street with his pants around his knees. And one assumed that when the laughter had subsided, everybody would have learned his lesson and would return gratefully to the ancient doctrine of mad, or "mutual assured destruction," which says, "I won't use the sex bomb if you won't." Done and done, over and out.

But the cheese was still sitting there in the trap, and the bait was on the line, and the conservatives simply had to keep going—though more carefully this time. In fact, a kid listening to the second wave of right-wing telethoners might have gotten the fuzzy notion that sex outside marriage actually wasn't all that bad, and that maybe lying to your wife about it was at least understandable. But using legalisms in a court of law? Would the man stop at nothing?

So the wily Starr kept on reeling until the conservatives were all the way into court themselves—a joke of their own devising. Along the road to impeachment Starr had somehow even persuaded them to acquiesce in another conservative first—pornography on the Internet, in the form of the salacious Starr Report on Clinton's doings, a sin the religious right is still paying for in lost power and credibility.

And the basic weakness in elementary fairness of the conservatives' case remained: namely, that since no other major politician had ever before been trapped into testifying about his sex life in court, there was no standard to judge Clinton by, no precedent. Was he really the only one who would have lied about this? And if Ronald Reagan could honorably lie about Irangate in the national interest, why shouldn't Clinton lie about a matter of no national consequence in his family's interest?

At this point, it seems, the Republicans were hoping the man would simply resign out of shame. They would have. But Republicans have a certain unstated advantage in this respect. Much like Muslims who aren't afraid of dying in battle, they know they will go straight to heaven if they resign from office—heaven being a chance to make some real money. And since for this kind of conservative, politics is a lot more like jury duty than a serious calling, a grand passion for it like Bill Clinton's must seem almost satanic. But time hangs heavy in Washington if you don't believe in government to begin with, and the devil notoriously finds work for idle hands—most temptingly in the form of investigations, which look just like work and also serve to take the public's mind off politics for precious months and years on end. In the 1950s there were, as I recall, at least two or three committees engaged in the rooting out of old Communists in addition to Joe McCarthy's sub-one. This time around every hand seems to have downed a tool in order to catch the President in the act of fanny-pinching, or whatever. (I myself am a bit of a prude about other people's private lives.)

Anyhow, the Starr revolution has brought a sharp halt to this particular line of make-work, if only because the scabrous Larry Flynt does it so much better—and was in fact threatening to turn the Grand Old Party into a grand old shambles, complete, no doubt, with pictures and affidavits. Now it's down with the politics of personal destruction, which no one else had been practicing anyway, and back to kicking in the shins and biting in the clinches—in short, the normal give and take of politics.

One obvious legacy of the Clinton years is that with hypocrisy temporarily routed, the basics have become much clearer. Republicans are adventurers, Democrats are worrywarts, and neither group is particularly Christian. Play ball! Most of Clinton's other legacies will naturally depend on how his various horses run, from NAFTA to Beijing to health care. But two things stick out so far from the normal that they will probably be remembered no matter what happens. One of them is the sheer insensate virulence of his critics. If size can be measured by the lip-frothing frustration of one's enemies, Clinton is right up there with Moby-Dick. The other is the five-minute standing ovation Clinton received at the UN at the height of the Monica madness. The applause couldn't all have been for adultery—not even the applause from the French ambassador.

And even if, as his critics maintain, it was all a trick both at home and abroad, the trick had worked wonderfully well. But he couldn't have gotten all five minutes without Kenneth Starr.

Wilfrid Sheed is working on a book about the great American songwriters circa 1920-1950.