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Nashville Scene The Cost of Sex

A common-sense view of the Clinton sex scandal

By Liz Murray Garrigan

SEPTEMBER 21, 1998:  The private nature of sex is among the most fundamental of ideas being advanced by the president's supporters--indeed, defenders--in the context of the drubbing he's getting over the Monica Lewinsky affair.

They say that the first couple's privacy has been tragically invaded, that sex is no one's business but the ones getting off, and that sex has no bearing on the president's ability to do his job.

For the moment, therefore, forget about the apparent perjury and duplicitous finger-wagging. Forget about the president's aggressive denials during the first seven months of the scandal. Forget, as well, that the Lewinsky affair broke in the context of a sexual harassment lawsuit. And consider instead, for the sake of argument, the notion that sex is personal.

At face value, assuming that sex is private and not the business of some highly-paid independent counsel is reasonably palatable. The notion that sex is private assumes that the act happens in an equally private and personal context. The most basic interpretation of the president's liaisons with the oversexed intern is that the sex did not happen in a fundamentally private context. In fact, nearly every pertinent detail about the bizarre relationship and the subsequent handling of its publicity involved things that are very public indeed.

Somewhere out there is a federal employee who has been fired from his or her government job for having had sex within the walls of a public building.

But members of the Washington, D.C., press corps apparently haven't thought to go out and find one. Meanwhile, despite all of the various media availabilities with President Bill Clinton since the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal broke eight months ago, the press corps has also neglected to ask Clinton the most basic of questions: "Mr. President, do you think federal employees should be fired for having sex--in any of its various forms--in their offices?"

It's the kind of question that wouldn't have been just about the president. And had it been asked prior to the president's very belated and reluctant admission of marital infidelity, it may have reaped a telling response. Clinton's answer may have been far more interesting, in fact, than his replies to any of the standard queries that prompted him to evade, deny, and then insist he wanted voters to have "more" information "sooner rather than later."

Where is this point headed?

Part of what makes Clinton's tawdry sexual encounters with Lewinsky a national issue is the venue in which he chose to have them--the Oval Office of the White House, a public building. What's more, the president's gratification came from a public employee who, ultimately, worked at the pleasure--no pun intended--of the president.

Not only did the sex between the president and a federal employee happen in a public building, it was coordinated by yet another federal worker. Clinton secretary Betty Currie testified that she frequently arranged the visits, passed on messages, and delivered gifts between the two lovers. In other words, government resources were being used to titillate the president and his starstruck mistress.

It is inarguable that the scandal has distracted the president from doing the job for which he was hired. We know that much of his working time has been spent trying to outwit Ken Starr's investigators. We know he has appeared with what is now an embarrassingly long list of heads of state throughout this ongoing scandal. Instead of being able to represent the country by talking about policy and peace, Clinton's visits with Boris Yeltsin and Tony Blair, among others, have become veritable sideshows during which international media outlets have pounced on the Lewinsky matter. It's a state of affairs that more honorable presidents would sooner have resigned to prevent.

Once news of the affair broke, Clinton lied to and manipulated his Cabinet and his aides to keep them denying the tales of Oval Office sex with a woman young enough to be his daughter. His top advisers and department secretaries spent countless hours defending him on background to news reporters, on Sunday morning talk shows, and on nightly cable-television programs.

Many of his aides--public employees--spent personal resources for legal fees as they fought off subpoenas and countered other efforts by the independent counsel.

The president can take credit personally for at least some of the massive $40 million-plus in resources the country spent on Independent Counsel Starr's investigation, which was prolonged by consistent lying and sophisticated stonewalling by the president and White House operatives.

All of this says nothing of the cost of a Grand Jury, the use of White House attorneys to defend the president on charges of the affair, and the substantial hours the nation's courts have devoted to the Lewinsky matter and related sex scandals such as the Paula Jones sexual harassment case.

The point is this: the massive public resources involved in allowing the president a few extramarital sexual pleasures and then assisting in their cover-up should be compelling enough to expect a resignation. If the president's nationally broadcast lies are not compelling enough to condemn him, the fact that we paid for him to declare them and perpetuate them should be.

The president said it best himself in 1974, during the thick of the Nixon Watergate scandal, at a time when he was running for Congress from a district in Arkansas. "If a President of the United States ever lied to the American people he should resign."

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