Last June, Ann Coulter, a stunning blonde lawyer and activist, wrote a
short column for George magazine about the social life or lack thereof in
Washington, a place, she said, where traditional mores are reversed or
suspended, where romantic lives are subsumed in ambition, and restaurants
tend to empty out early so patrons can go home and do what they want to:
watch themselves and their friends on TV. In passing, she mentioned a few
other oddities: that struggling staffers buy costly gifts for their rich,
famous bosses; and that Washington men, instead of asking women to date
them, try to get girls to ask them out.
As columns go, it was a pleasant bit of fluff and filler; perhaps too
innocuous. It was a shock, therefore, to read the "response" to it that
ran in Salon magazine. Titled Ann of a Thousand Lays (seemingly, on no
grounds whatsoever), it offered to help her in her "quest for tube steak"
with ten useful hints such as these: "Quit injecting yourself with your
own urine," "Buy a vibrator," "Stop being a mean bitch," and "Get your
head out of your ass." "I think you need to wrack up some quick orgasms,"
the Salon writer added. "There's one called the 'rabbit' that gets you
going from several different angles at once, if you know what I mean."
And what could have caused this explosion of sewage? Possibly, two
different things. Ann Coulter is six feet tall and a size six; with
sheets of blonde hair that hold their own in the Rapunzel sweepstakes
that take place on televised chat fests. She has been mistaken, she says,
for the late Carolyn Kennedy, and has cheekbones better suited to the
cover of Vogue than the plebian round face of Mrs. Clinton. She is, in
short, a Hitchcock blonde, the sort of ice princess likely to wring rants
like this out of nerdy male losers. More to the point, she is an ardent
conservative, a regular on Rivera, and other talk programs, who wrote a
best-seller, High Crimes and Misdemeanors, that made the case for a
Clinton impeachment before the sex scandals exploded. Her critiques have
veered away from his prurient interests and focused instead on his less
fleshly failings, such as his habit of lying in public. Nonetheless, our
Salon correspondent has seen fit to call her a "castrating bitch" for
spreading lurid sex tales about Clinton.
In fact, Ann Coulter has not spread these stories, and evidence that she
is a bitch of any kind is unclear, or is missing. But what is clear is
that this is a sorry new stage in an old Clinton pattern, where political
foes have been savaged on private—sex—matters; and women are trashed for
their nature as women; attacked for their sex lives, real or imagined;
attacked for their looks—their hair, weight, or noses—sometimes described
as being hookers or stalkers; called trash, tramps, bimbos, bitches,
witches, and sluts.
Under a cover of "correctness" and "caring," Clinton has a long record of
verbally battering women, going back before the 1992 campaign. It was his
then-aide Betsey Wright who coined the term "bimbo eruptions," and then
found the ways to deter them: paying private eyes more than six figures
to dig up the dirt about old Clinton girlfriends and threatening them
with it. Destroying the speaker was supposed to discredit the story, a
smart move when stories are true. So Gennifer Flowers, telling the truth,
was attacked from the start as a trash-for-cash bimbo; a cheap
bottle-blonde, whose word was worth nothing. Then came Paula Jones, a
"tabloid trash" who became "trailer trash." (In the well-known taunt of
James Carville, "Drag a $100 bill through a trailer camp, and there's no
telling what you'll find." His implication was taken up fairly quickly.
"Privately," said The New Republic, "Washington liberals are already
pronouncing her, in the words of one, a 'little kurva' [whore]."
Then, there was Kathleen Willey, whose frail, wounded beauty did not lend
itself easily to these tactics, though not for want of trying on the part
of our leader. "You know what they say about her in Richmond," he
gallantly said. And loyal feminist Sheila Jackson Lee was sent out to
tell Brit Hume on Fox News Sunday that Mrs. Willey had caused her
husband's suicide by going to her job in Washington, where she'd flaunted
herself in front of our innocent president (and goaded him into
assaulting her) instead of staying home where she belonged.
The famous Gap dress saved Monica Lewinsky from the worst of this
treatment, but somehow an old boyfriend just happened to come forward
when her name was first mentioned, appearing in a nationally televised
press conference with his aggrieved wife and his pony-tail, to tell the
world that she had been a teen-aged slut. Loyal Democrats chimed in to
cast doubts on her sanity. Mario Cuomo called her an "inveterate liar."
Charles Rangel came through with a similar statement: "That poor child
has serious emotional problems. And I haven't heard that she played with
a full deck in her other experiences."
No one dared lower this kind of boom on Juanita Broaddrick, though, when
she came forward there was the sudden appearance of rumors that she'd had
an affair with the man she then married, and Clinton friends like Susan
Estrich and Jonathan Alter went on the air to suggest that she only
thought Clinton had raped her.
"Lookism" was once the ultimate sin among Clinton's feminist groupies,
especially regarding his appointees like Janet Reno. But with Linda
Tripp, who did not look like Kathleen Willey, the gloves, and the
scruples, came off. Sensing a kill, feminist friends came in like
circling vultures. She was a freak and a witch and a shrew and a harpy,
her size and her hair were endlessly ridiculed, as proof of an unstable
and treacherous nature. This is par for the course in misogynist circles,
where a woman who is good-looking is either a whore who sleeps around or
a repressed bitch who ought to (the somewhat confused thesis of Salon's
little mudbath); and a woman who isn't is a figure of fun, who ought to
be stoned just on general principles. These clichés, of course, are what
feminists are supposed to be fighting against. But with big brother
Clinton, they break their own rules.
Women aren't the only ones who get caught in these maelstroms. From the
very beginning, timely outings of Clinton opponents have been a constant
theme of public life. From the tabloid explosion of Gennifer Flowers
through the footling affairs of Dick Morris, to the present day, when the
First Family and its hangers-on—the endless array of crooks, victims, and
lovers—have replaced sitcom and Hollywood royalty as the new national
sources of rumor and gossip, the newsworthy events of the Clinton
Administration have seemed more in the line of the Star and the National
Enquirer than Foreign Affairs and the Washington Post. In fact, the
Clinton Administration and the tabloid press have often appeared to be
working in tandem, with their mutual interest in other people's private
lives. In recent years, it has often seemed certain that posing a threat
to the public career of Bill Clinton is the best way to have your own
private linen exposed. Question Clinton's approaches to law and veracity,
and all sorts of odd things tend to float to the surface: an old affair
here, a love child there, a rumored abortion, a spat with a friend, a
teenage arrest—largely a prank—that Clinton's Pentagon breaks its own
rules to expose and to publicize.
Time after time, the pattern repeats itself: Dan Burton chairs a
committee, and stories appear about a son out of wedlock. Henry Hyde
takes a lead role in impeachment proceedings, and a decades-old affair is
revealed. Helen Chenoweth, a congresswoman thought in political trouble,
is outed on her old affair. Much is made of the House managers' personal
troubles. Bob Livingston, the Republicans' soon-to-be Speaker, is outed
because of Clintonian revels, and dramatically and very publicly resigns.
It is not just the living, who sometimes can answer, who are subject to
these ministrations. The Clintons have stooped now to retro-exposure:
outing our long-hallowed dead. In Clinton's defense, our dead
founders—Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson; dead war leaders—Dwight
Eisenhower and Franklin Roosevelt; and murdered leaders of the
1960s—Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Kennedy—have had their old sins
exhumed and their characters darkened to drag them all down to Clintonian
levels, making our history read like one long tabloid story. Lucy Mercer
and Kay Summersby (who are not certified as guilty by any DNA) are now on
a level with fat White House interns, groped in the pantry.
"Hamilton lied when he was Secretary of the Treasury, and he wasn't
impeached!" trilled Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), an impassioned Clinton defender.
(Hamilton did not lie about his affair with Maria Reynolds, the woman he
dallied with in 1792. He was Secretary of the Treasury when the affair
occurred, and it became known to several congressmen. He was a private
citizen when it became public knowledge five years later. Neither a
private citizen nor a cabinet member can be impeached. But, never mind.)
In time, this sliming became so extreme that it brought angry defenses
for FDR by Rush Limbaugh, a libertarian conservative; and of Eisenhower
by Christopher Matthews, an FDR Democrat. Both were enraged at the
tarring of heroes and leaders to save the bad name of Bill Clinton, whose
only connection to many great men is that all were or may have been
adulterers. Other presidents have betrayed their wives, but none other
has so looted his country and its history.
No one is too great, or too dead, to be used by this president. A dead
founder has his old sins exhumed and exploited. A congressional critic
has his private life ransacked. An old girlfriend is threatened and
labeled a hooker. And a cover-girl critic of President Clinton becomes
the unwitting star of Salon's blue movie, as a way of combating her
arguments. This is the war that is politics by means ever ranker than
usual. This is the marriage of "statecraft" and porn.
But even in these terms, the Salon piece is different; a new escalation
of nastiness. Bad as they were, the exposés were of real things, that
actually happened. Other attacks were generic in nature: "You know what
they say about her in Richmond," etc. The Salon piece is not real, and it
is far from generic. It is a succession of fantasies—raw, detailed, and
extremely specific—made up from whole cloth in the "mind" of the author,
and projected on to an absolute stranger, with no grounding whatever in
fact. This is not a response to Coulter's column in George, which is a
mild, Jane Austen-ish riff upon social mores. It is not about her real
private life. It is, rather, an attempt to rip apart a critic of Clinton,
on the ground this administration has made wholly acceptable—from
attacking critics on the basis of what they had actually done, or might
have done once, or might even have thought about doing, to attacking them
now for what they never did, probably never even thought about doing, and
might not have done if they had. This is the new ground of the Imagined
Slander, where people are tarred with sins in the minds of their
accusers, to which they have no connection whatever, a rather odd sort of
political argument. But with Clinton and friends, as we have long watched
with wonder, bets of all kinds are off.
Actually, the Salon piece does have an odd sort of genesis, stemming in
equal parts from the misogyny implicit in Clinton's attacks on his
girlfriends and victims and from the White House's attack on Ken Starr.
When Starr was first named to investigate Clinton, updated versions of
the Betsey Wright bimbo patrols were sent out to delve into his
background (and those of his aides and associates), hoping to find dirt a
la Bob Livingston. When no dirt was found, new tactics were called for
and were quickly designed and perfected; much like those tried in Salon.
Let us recall that the White House line throughout the scandal and trial
was that Clinton was being pursued for his private behavior—his "affair,"
such as it was, with Lewinsky—and not for perjury and obstruction of
justice, which might tend to make attitudes relevant. With the charge of
hypocrisy out of the question—Starr had never done anything remotely like
Clinton—a new line of attack was quickly developed: the Special
Prosecutor had not sinned quite enough. He was too square and too
straight to be normal or human. He was not man enough to be judging the
President. He was repressed, oppressive, and deeply perverted. He was
jealous of the wide-ranging sex life of our leader. He was driven by
In An Affair of State, his elegant dissection of the scandals and trial,
Judge Richard A. Posner, a man so detached one cannot read in his book
his political leanings, details in disgust the "campaign of vilification"
the White House inflicted on Starr. At almost the moment the scandal had
broken, Abeno Mikva, an ex-White House counsel, stepped forth to call
Starr "out of control," "a bottom feeder" weirdly obsessed with "gossipy
talk between two young women." Mikva admitted, "I know nothing about the
facts but I think Judge Starr is sick." And James Carville (who has a way
with words), who called Paula Jones a tramp from a trailer park, called
Starr a "media whore" and "an abusive, privacy-invading, sex-obsessed,
right-wing, constitutionally insensitive, boring, obsequious, and
miserable little man."
The problem with this, aside from its nastiness, is that it seems to be
wholly untrue. Starr, of course, seems no more obsessed, repressed, or
possessed than Ann Coulter seems frigid, promiscuous, bulimic, anorexic,
bitchy, or bigoted, all of which the Salon piece has called her. As
Posner writes, "Nothing is known about Starr's personal life that would
support such a theory. There is no basis for the claim by Clinton's
defenders …. that the vigor with which Starr pursued the investigation …
was a consequence of his being a sex-obsessed Puritan witch hunter, or a
Puritan of any kind."
And does this remind you, in any particular, of the rancid attack in
Salon? Both are sex-based attacks upon critics of Clinton, based on no
knowledge or facts whatsoever, but projected onto them by Bill Clinton's
friends. This is the Clintons' time-honored approach. When criticized,
challenged, or questioned on any grounds whatsoever, delve into the
sexual pasts of your critics. If dirt emerges, expose it, or leak it, and
make sure that it reaches a very large audience. If nothing emerges, do
not let this deter you. Go on and make something up. Or, let the lack of
a record become a perversion; your critic is deeply repressed. Too
repressed to be trusted in judging our leader. It is the win-win, or
spin-spin, solution. Criticize Clinton, and his friends will find
something deeply wrong with your past or your attitudes. Count on it
happening. It does, all the time.
And Salon is very much among the friends of Bill Clinton: at times, they
could almost be twins. An online publication, Salon bowed in around the
time the Lewinsky scandal broke open. It quickly defined itself by this
event. The magazine and the moment seemed made for each other. It quickly
became associated with the defense of Bill Clinton and with the Clinton
approach. It fell into line with the White House defense, which was that
the investigations and the impeachment process were all about sex and
invasions of privacy; and that Clinton's critics were obsessed or were
hypocrites. Salon ran numerous personal attacks on Ken Starr, in the
terms so deplored by Judge Posner. It was Salon that broke the story of
Henry Hyde's decades-old relationship, before he really was in public
life. Again, it was the tone that made it distinctive. Other
magazines—The Nation, for instance—defended Clinton in the impeachment
fracas, but not exactly in this tone of voice. This tone of voice does
not appear in the National Review, The New Republic, the Weekly Standard,
the American Spectator, or the many other magazines that write about
politics. Nor does it appear in the glossies that write about culture and
style: Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, George, Capital Style, or Tina
Brown's Talk magazine. It appears more often in Hustler, and other
publications that come in brown wrappers, or are placed on the higher
store shelves behind barriers, where children cannot read, much less
reach, them. It also appears, in a modified version, in Carville's
attacks on Ken Starr.
It is not likely the White House asked Salon's author to write this
attack on Ann Coulter, or urged the editor to publish it. But it did set
a tone of political discourse, in which such things were welcome and
normative. It is not possible to imagine another administration in which
this could have happened, another president who might have sanctioned
this, or another mainstream magazine in which it could have been
published. As Posner says of the slanders by Carville and Mikva, "Clinton
could easily have silenced, and even more easily disavowed, his
irresponsible defenders. He did neither. He either encouraged or condoned
a 'low road' attack on Starr."
Likewise, he can be also regarded as having "encouraged or condoned" the
Salon attack on Ann Coulter, by making it seem unexceptional, by the tone
of his comments on Jones, Willey, and others, and by those of his flacks
and his lawyers. He has mainstreamed abuse into the political dialogue; a
"legacy" to truly chill the heart.
"Ugly times call for ugly tactics," says David Talbot, Salon's editor.
And he ought to know. He has done his part to make the times uglier,
though it is not the times that are culpable. What is culpable is the
aberrant nature of Clinton and the strains of mounting a defense in his
behalf. Clinton, of course, cannot be defended; he can just be excused on
the grounds that he is not that much worse than are others, who either
did what he did, or wanted to do it, or should have wanted to do it, in
the event that they did not.
Thus the scurrilous nature of the current political dialogue. Thus the
outings, the tarrings, the slurs against everyone: blonde pundits, dead
heroes, old girlfriends; Henry Hyde, Kenneth Starr, and Ann Coulter; FDR,
DDE, JFK. Thus the politics of smut and exposure as the sole way to
maintain viability. Thus the tactics of Salon, and its strange editorial
standards. Thus too the alliance with Hustler and with its political
guide, Larry Flynt.
Hustler entered the political lists last October when Flynt took out an
ad in the Washington Post, offering payments of one million dollars a
piece to people who could come forth with proof of adultery among members
of Congress. Then the publisher issued a caveat: he was interested only
in dirt on Republicans, as his intent was to help President Clinton. Of
course. No protests came from the President, or from his party, or from
his, and its, feminist backers. In a news conference, the President's
press secretary referred to Hustler as a "news magazine." A "news
magazine" like Salon. As Michael Kelly wrote in the Washington Post. "The
president's pornographer, who has a professional interest in undermining
conservatives, openly pays cash for Republican sex secrets. And the
President stands by, in silent support. Among friends, he laughs about
that merry prankster, Flynt. And the President's party, eaten to the core
by the ravages of Clinton's cowardice and selfishness, stands by."
It did more than stand by. It applauded. "Tuesday morning," Kelly went
on, "the distinguished Democratic senator from New Jersey, Frank
Lautenberg, appeared on television to perform his contemptible duty.
Noting that Barr was the fifth Republican to be outed, Lautenberg praised
such efforts. 'Larry Flynt says his mission is against hypocrisy, and
boy, I think that's a pretty good mission,' he said."
Hustler and Salon are now the pet rags of the Clintonized Democrats, the
two magazines that best express their sensibilities and their governing
ethic. When criticized for things having to do with facts or with issues,
hammer your critics for personal matters, while claiming your own "zone
of privacy." Salon has now added this ruffle to Hustler: if you can't
find bad things about an opponent, invent them, out of your own wormy
mind. Perhaps Salon's author wants assignments from Hustler or a job at
the White House in the spin-control office, if one can still tell the
difference between them. It gets harder and harder each day.
So his party, as Clinton will leave it, is something not too different
from the Jerry Springer Show. It is the party in which Springer himself
was proposed as a possible senator; a party in which Geoffrey Fieger, the
foul-mouthed attorney for Dr. Kevorkian, could, and did, run for a
governorship. (His four-letter campaign assailed every religion
imaginable.) What a team the two of them would make. Mr. Springer has
declined the offer, but perhaps Mr. Flynt will step in, in his place. Or,
should Hillary Clinton drop out in New York, carpetbagging being no
longer an issue, Mr. Flynt might want to run there. Or, he might go to
New Jersey and try to fill the seat being vacated by his fan Senator
Lautenberg; it seems not a moment too soon. But Mr. Flynt has already
given a possible gift to his favorite party; a new symbol, should the
donkey retire, that would seem to be more up to date. He is the man, one
recalls, who once ran a picture on the cover of Hustler of a naked woman
being fed headfirst into a meat grinder: an offense that brought shrieks
from feminists, with protests, pickets, and demands that he be fed
headfirst into a meat grinder; and that the First Amendment be suspended,
at least in his case. But his de facto alliance with our first female
president (see the authentication from Toni Morrison, Mary Gordon, and
others) went unremarked on by our feminist leaders; and the people who
spent most of last year inveighing against "sexual McCarthyism" (and had
more to say later) saw nothing amiss in all this.
Clinton has succeeded in uniting feminists and Larry Flynt behind him and
in his party, a stunning feat of coalition-building that would stagger
masters such as FDR. Flynt's infamous cover could run as the art work for
Salon's little essay and would work well as the logo for Clinton's new
feminized party; as it explains so well what he was, and is, doing. Our
ambitious president has finally nailed down his legacy as one of the few
men who reshape and define their own following. He has given his party a
wholly new image. In the '40s and '60s, it once was the party of freedom.
It now is the party of porn.
Noemie Emery writes frequently for the Weekly Standard and the National Review. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia.