|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
17 - 23 September 1998
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Choose your own ending
If I'm not mistaken, nowhere in the US Constitution does it say that Americans have the inalienable right to snooze. The world's loudest alarm clock has been attempting to awake the slumbering giant for some time now, but no one seems to want to wake up, though the so-called American dream is rapidly becoming a Nightmare on Elm Street.
If you're watching American TV, between special reports with names like "Clinton Accused" and "The President Between a Rock and A Hard Place", you might catch an episode or two of the wildly popular Jerry Springer or Jenny Jones shows. These daily talk shows, which feature real people talking about their real scandals to a national TV audience, reveal a lot about what's happening in America today. Far more fascinating than a mom who might have stolen her 14-year-old daughter's boyfriend is the fact that she agrees to bash it out with her family on TV.
Springer himself used to be the mayor of Cincinnati, before he was shamed out of office for using public funds to pay for his prostitutes. Of course now that he has his own TV show he's never been more successful.
Clinton, it seems, has never had to pay for sex -- not even politically. His charm is renowned. Monica Lewinsky said he once told her he'd had hundreds of affairs, but had promised himself at 40 that he would stop cheating on Hillary. That's why they only had oral sex. That is, Lewinsky performed oral sex on the president. Please don't stop reading, the details are important.
As the press will have you believe, this whole case is hinging on whether or not Clinton lied when he denied last January that he had had a sexual affair with Lewinsky.
He tells the judge in the Starr report, which is now before Congress, that he has read the description of a sexual relationship carefully. "Most ordinary Americans," Clinton says, would agree with him that there can be no sexual relationship without sexual intercourse. His "contact [was] with the lips of another person".
That is the media's version of a leading man who can do wrong for you. The audience is always with him. And again we have to ask whether we really needed to know all this, or to imagine all that?
Don't be fooled by the independent counsel's deeply religious background. "It's the do-gooders who end up doing the most harm," said Brent Riley of Utah, describing Kenneth Starr.
Best-selling author Jonathan Coleman told Al-Ahram Weekly that Starr "is as sleazy as Clinton has been", and that "he has a perverted voyeurism".
That, of course, is only because we do too. In fact, while much, seemingly negative, hype has been made about the Starr investigation costing $40 million and only ending up as a glorified sex scandal, it's really all too clear that that was precisely the point.
To grasp this issue, we must remember what every good marketer has always known: that sex sells, and it sells well. The Clinton/Lewinsky story is the ultimate victory of Hollywood, and more specifically, its formulaic "sex sells" approach to life, over the rest of the world.
Reality has become a continuously rolling stag film. The details of the story -- he is the president of the world's superpower, she was the buxom young intern who seduced him -- are superfluous to the sex which, it seems, was never even consummated. That, of course, only makes it more titillating, and it's no surprise that ever since the so-called Starr report, a 453-page inquiry into Clinton's wrongdoing, came out last week, people have dubbed the scandal "a 40 million dollar-porno flick".
The amount of money generated into the US economy as a result exceeds that by a thousandfold. Compared to sitcoms and dramas, continuous news coverage is awfully cheap to produce, and with everyone tuning in more to catch the latest juicy tidbit, the ad bucks are rolling in. As such, Clinton is a double whammy. Not only is he known as the president who righted the US economy, he's also become the ultimate Hollywood leading man. No matter what trash they dish out with this guy in it, it's bound to bring them in.
The Clinton/Lewinsky saga is more about the triumph of business over politics than a US president about to be impeached, as if a level playing ground ever existed in the first place. It's about the fact that Lewinsky's blue dress with Clinton's semen on it was from the Gap, and that she gave him a Hugo Boss tie for Christmas.
But more than that, it's about what America exports to the world -- their "style of life".
Describing the world's population to the Council on Foreign Relations on Monday, Clinton made it clear what globalisation is really about. "These people are our customers," he said.
Appropriately enough (although also ironic, considering its link to US arch-enemy Cuba), the cigar, that symbolic bastion of successful US businessmen and Hollywood producers, is the recurring consumer motif of the "zippergate" saga.
When Clinton, while touring Africa earlier this year, found out that the Paula Jones sexual harassment case against him had been dismissed, he lit up a big old victory blunt for the cameras. This week the world read all about another cigar, this time as part of the Starr report.
Whether you find that particularly sordid detail of this affair sad, funny, or shocking is not that important. The point is that even if you didn't want to know anything about Clinton's cigars and where they've been, now you do. And so does every four-year-old in the world.
Whether or not it's been intentional, a transformation has occurred, and the news, which is supposed to be about real life, has become more and more like a lousy movie. Who needs make-believe when real life is so interesting?
It's an all too familiar scenario. Weren't we all stuck in a movie just like this last year, involving Dodi and Di? And the year before that, involving OJ and Nicole Simpson? All of those films followed the same pattern as the Lewinsky saga, except now the producers and directors of these escapades are becoming even more savvy at their craft.
How? Because by focusing on the "most powerful man in the world" (who allegedly holds our collective fate in his hands), they've made it nearly impossible to get out of the cinema. When you go to a movie you don't like, or are sick of, what do you do? Well, you may be sick of hearing about it, but try walking out of this film. Unless you decide not to watch TV or pick up a paper or talk to anyone at all, you're pretty much stuck with this sorry plot for a while.
So imagine this now: you're trapped in a movie theatre and the movie won't end. It's all about the president of the United States and the tryst he's trying to have with a chubby young intern. Of course, just like cinema, you're somehow simultaneously watching two time frames at once, the events going on now that the love affair hasn't quite gelled, as well as the gritty, fragmented flashbacks of the story as it happened, thanks to the Starr report.
We have seen, for instance, that Clinton's secretary Betty Currie was "on a certain level, a pimp" for the president of the United States who time and time again helped to facilitate his clandestine meetings with Lewinsky. According to author Coleman, Currie is a 59-year-old woman who should have known better.
Perhaps, so should we. Clinton's philandering was no surprise to anyone. In fact, Coleman argues, "it became a challenge to himself. The more he was able to get away with, the more he tried to get away with."
That may be the real tragedy of this unique form of participatory consumer democracy. As much as it's about the helplessness of the individual to affect what's going on up there on the screen, it's also about precisely how much we, the world, the billions of "customers", are determining where this story goes just by continuing to watch it.
For younger Americans, Watergate is more about Robert Redford playing a Washington Post reporter than the actual trauma and soul-searching the nation went through when it found out that President Richard Nixon was a crook.
Will Clinton's story end up being a feel-good film ("He said he's sorry, so just leave him alone, so he can do his job and save the world..."), or, like many of the best movies and moral tales can be, somewhat more ambiguous?
Of course the ambiguous approach is the most difficult since it involves actually reacting, thinking, questioning, coming to conclusions, doing something other than receiving information, sound-bites and a constantly pre-packaged world view.
Perhaps everyone is merely waiting for that first brave soul to get up and, although in itself a cinematic move, smash the screen and scream, "Enough is enough!" before the tables are turned on reality once and for all.
Or else, who knows, a couple of years from now, we might actually all be watching Hillary Rodham taking a swing at Bill and Monica Lewinsky-Clinton, live on the Jerry Springer show.