|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
17 - 23 September 1998
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
The president and the baseball player
Now that most of the Starr Report has been released and read by people all over the world, one can stand back a little and try to make sense of this quite extraordinary episode in American history. The fact is, first of all, that there is simply no precedent for it whatsoever. The Independent Prosecutor Act, by which Congress established the office of a special investigator for executive branch misdemeanours, is hardly a decade old, and the kind of powers it gives this prosecutor are virtually unlimited. So no president has been so intimately investigated as Clinton, and it is likely no one ever will be again. For the first time in history, the American public has been virtually inundated with detail about the President's private life, not just information from the Starr report. For the past nine months the media -- unprecedented in its power and reach -- has bombarded everyone who can read, listen to radio, or watch television with literally innumerable stories, speculations, reports and interviews concerning Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, Janet Tripp, David Kendall, plus the whole immense cast of players in this outrageous farce. Yet perhaps the most egregious aspect of the story has been the prying into an individual's private life without limits set either by law or by taste. The idea that even a US president -- arguably the most powerful person on earth -- should not be immune to this kind of vicarious prurience is frightening, but that indeed is what has happened. Despite this, however, the polls show that a majority of Americans still seem to believe that, no matter how gruesome or unsavory the details of Clinton's private life, they approve of his performance on the job for the time being.
There is no doubt, however, that things have changed with the actual availability of the Starr Report. Having read most of it myself, I am satisfied in concluding that it has become exclusively an indictment of the president's sexual behaviour with a White House intern, and says absolutely not one word about the Clinton family's financial dealings in the Whitewater affair in Arkansas almost twenty years ago. But it was precisely that scandal, real or supposed, that Kenneth Starr was appointed to investigate. Having found nothing there, Starr went more or less on his own to find nothing in any of the subsequent complications to Whitewater -- the suicide of Vince Foster, or the firing of the White House travel staff, or the paying off of Webster Hubbell, all of them supposedly tied directly to Whitewater. There is, therefore, no mention of any of these matters in the report, which, once again, was supposed to have been about only them. We now know that, over a period of four years, Kenneth Starr and his office have spent no less than $40 million for their investigation, with no limits or observable accountability set to their expenditures. As someone who suffers from leukaemia, I would have wished that those $40 million could have been available for research on cancer rather than for inquiring into Clinton's rather boring and tawdry sexual tastes.
The main contention made by Starr is, of course, that the President lied to the courts and the people of the United States: hence the charge of perjury -- supposedly one of the grounds for the president's impeachment, which (if it ever occurs) in effect means that the Congress will put Clinton on trial. There are many flaws in that contention, not the least of which is that, according to the US Constitution, impeachment of the President comes as a result of demonstrable "high crimes and misdemeanours", understood literally here to be an attack on the state and people and constitution of the United States, an attack and an active intention to harm. Now it would be impossible to construe Clinton's corridor dalliance with Monica Lewinsky as an attack on the United States or its people. Moreover, even if perjury were equated with so grievous a crime, it is equally impossible to imagine that the entire Congress would turn itself into a law court against Clinton solely for the purpose of inquiring as to whether he lied about one or two details in his affair with Lewinsky. Of course, now the various committees of Congress will spend weeks and weeks "considering" Starr's report, but I very much doubt whether the result will be impeachment proceedings. In fact, it seems more likely that the Republicans who control Congress would prefer to have Clinton around as a very much weakened, embarrassed President -- someone who will present them with little challenge as they go on with their tax-cutting programmes -- than to see him leave.
If impeachment is an impossibility, why is Clinton losing no opportunity to apologise and act contrite in so desperate, not to say tasteless, a way? One important reason is that his advisers, lawyers, press agents, lobbyists -- every public personality in this country is armed with people of that sort, the president more than anyone -- have told him that the American people like signs of remorse and religiously inspired contrition. Another reason is that his first response on August 17 was considered "angry" and therefore insufficiently contrite, since he didn't really confess to his misdemeanours and sounded as if he was more anxious to attack Kenneth Starr than appear sorry about his misbehaviour. A third reason is that, I think, he feels cornered for the first time in a career that has been dotted with dubious behavior, slick responses, and political treachery of every kind, but from each of which he has somehow managed to escape. Now, this time, there is little doubt that the sheer weight of the immense publicity and exposure of his weaknesses, mendacity and coarse tastes will follow and perhaps damn him for the rest of his life. It is impossible, alas, to imagine that Clinton will ever escape the opprobrium and disgust he has elicited from so many of his compatriots for his petty and silly behaviour; but if he is also thinking, like the true politician that he really is, that things may soon die down, he is also probably right. No one in the country, even Clinton's most implacable enemies, can for long condone the fact that Kenneth Starr, the son of a fundamentalist preacher, small-time lawyer, and obsessed voyeur could have spent four years and $40 million only to uncover Clinton's sexual encounters with a 20-year-old woman. But what the complications and consequences for Clinton's career are, no one can now really say. Certainly his presidency is fatally impaired, but this means neither that he will resign nor that he will be impeached. The next few weeks will determine his fate, but at this point it is far too early to tell what that will be. My own feeling is that he will not resign but will stay on to finish his term.
On the other hand, so powerful has been the national trauma that some compensatory processes, some attempt to see elsewhere in the national life an alternative to Clinton's profanity and gracelessness, have already begun. For non-Americans, unused to the peculiarities of the national culture in its popular forms, these are hard to discern, but it seems to me interesting at this point to mention one that has probably eluded Arab and Muslim observers who may only now see a conspiracy or a Zionist plot. (Incidentally, I do think that in the Starr Report, Clinton has been the victim of what Hillary discerned several months ago, namely a right-wing conspiracy, determined to destroy his liberal presidency: there seems to be little doubt of that.) Now while it is true that national attention in America has been focused mainly on Clinton and Monica, it is also true that another drama, of an opposite sort, has simultaneously been taking place in the national psyche. This is the one that concerns a baseball player called Mark McGwire, who plays for the St Louis Cardinals. During the past week when headlines of papers like the New York Times were about Clinton, a parallel set of headlines concerned McGwire, on the other side of the Times's front page.
The national American sport is baseball, and the oldest, most famous, most hallowed name in baseball is that of Babe Ruth, who established a record for 60 home runs in one season in l927. In baseball, the ball is thrown to a batter from the opposite team by a pitcher; the pitcher's aim is to make the batter miss or ground the ball, whereas the batter's aim is to hit the ball as far as possible. The furthest possible hit is for the ball to be driven outside the stadium: that is called a home run. Babe Ruth's record stood at 60 home runs until 1961, when it was broken by Roger Maris, who hit 61 of them. Curiously, though, Maris's achievement was never celebrated as much as Babe Ruth's; it was as if the country resented him taking the Babe's record from him, Babe Ruth being, along with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, one of the greatest popular heroes in American popular culture, adulated, almost worshipped, never equaled. For that reason, his record number of home runs per season was, and still is, the most famous record in American sport, and hence in American psychology. It has become nothing less than a symbol of heroic triumph, unequaled, powerful, solitary, upright, public. Then, after Maris, there has come McGwire to break the record with 62 runs. The importance of this cannot be underestimated, since it has taken place just at the same time as the other pinnacle of American symbolic life, the president, has been debased and devalued, despite the macho military strikes against Afghanistan and Sudan. (Note also that the elevation of Osama Bin Laden to the position of number one devil for America is part of the same process of sanctification and demonisation, redemption and damnation, that is so essential to American life. America, after all, is the most religious and ideological country on earth).
Consider McGwire's attributes. He is 6 foot 5 inches tall, muscular, blond, good looking -- more manly and physically impressive than Clinton. He was married and has one son, but his marriage broke up some years ago. Ever since then, McGwire has been having psychological counseling. Why? Because he is convinced that he was to blame for the break-up of his marriage. He has donated one million dollars to establish a foundation for children from broken homes, a fact of his contrition that makes the president's attempts to appear sorry for what he has done seem hollow and unconvincing. Each time McGwire gets up to bat is like a religious occasion -- the good man confronting danger with courage and simplicity. When he actually hits the ball and scores still another home run, he is in effect symbolically making up for Clinton's shortcomings and sins. That, at least, is the way this momentous progression of breaking and re-breaking the record works itself out in the American psyche. It doesn't do much for Clinton or lessen the constitutional crisis in any way, but it does begin to explain what the governing framework of American popular opinion is. Just as Clinton is now beginning, through his lobbyists, lawyers, and spin-doctors, to transform the sleazy mess revealed by the Starr Report into a drama of sinning and confession, followed by forgiveness and redemption, so too the almost-as-powerful drama of a truly good man, a hero, overcoming all odds to set new records in a uniquely American sport is part of the same framework.
It is in this context also that Kenneth Starr and his supporters can be understood. Outside America, they would be considered snooping, deranged people, willing -- in Starr's instance -- to spend hours and hours "going after the truth" (a phrase he has used all along), whereas in fact he has been combing through a man's private life. What Starr has done has nothing to do either with criminality or with a threat to the US, anymore than Castro's Cuba, a tiny, basically poor island that is no match for New York, much less the US military, has anything to do with the threat of communism. What operates in these cases is an ideological passion creating excesses and exaggerations virtually unimaginable in most other countries. There was an article about Starr's father in one of the newspapers recently: he was described as a fundamentalist preacher who delivered a sermon once on the evils of a woman in shorts milking a cow on Sunday. It was in such an atmosphere of inflamed, and repressed, passion that Starr himself was raised, and it is no wonder that for him the profligate, easy-going and promiscuous Clinton came to symbolise not just a bad president but evil incarnate. That Starr's ideas have many supporters in this country suggests the extent to which even baseball, and McGwire's heroic role in the national game, can also be seen as a cosmic drama between good and evil.
I have often said in these articles that one cannot understand American policies abroad without some knowledge of the peculiarities of American culture at home, which is very different indeed from cultures like those of France and Britain with which, as Arabs and Muslims, we have had more direct experience. There is an element of irrationality in American culture -- as evidenced in the Lewinsky case -- that refuses individuals the civility of privacy because "larger" issues of good and evil take precedence. Looked at rationally, what Clinton has done is tasteless indiscretion, and what Starr has done is to violate his privacy with a vengeance. And all Mark McGwire has accomplished is to hit a ball for about 400 yards. But in the American popular imagination, amplified millions of times by the ubiquitous media, we have been watching a cosmic drama of vast proportions. A dangerous business indeed.