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Nashville Scene Psychology 101

Life with alpha ape and arrested toddler

By Margaret Renkl

DECEMBER 21, 1998:  Our house's 2-year-old, an enrollee in Use and Value of the Standard Commode for Beginners, consistently attempts to deflect any discussion of his own private parts toward those of the rest of the family. "Honey," I ask when a suspicious aroma emanates from his general vicinity, "have you got dirty pants?"

"No," he always lies. "Baby got poopy diaper," he says, pointing to his sweet-smelling sibling. "Baby need new britches."

It doesn't take a genius to notice parallels between this pass-the-buck mentality at home and in our national political arena. Even a sleep-deprived hausfrau like me can see that Bill Clinton's encounter with a certain navy-blue dress--as well as Kenneth Starr's closet-riffling interest in same--shares some characteristics with the thus-far doomed efforts at potty-training my toddler.

Elementary child psychology might offer an explanation for the behavior of everyone involved in our ongoing national soap-opera. Anal-retentive is a term that comes to mind, and oral-fixation probably has a place in there too, not to mention Freud's famous remark about cigars. It's not exactly respectful to compare a federal special prosecutor and the president of the United States to your average 2-year-old, but if the blue dress fits, you might as well zip it tight.

Lately, grown-up Democrats and Republicans have been using in public the kind of language I forbid my children to use in the back yard. It's now possible to hear, on national television, Republican officials referring to the president of the United States as "our chief executive scumbag," and to hear Democratic congressmen referring to the prosecutor as "Special Sex Investigator Kenneth Starr."

Pretty is as pretty does, and both the presidential Repentant Sinner and the prosecutorial Moral Prig no doubt deserve the tongue-lashing they're getting, though some of us wish their accusers would hold their tongues until the nation's children are safely tucked away in bed. I myself have no wish to explain certain executive privileges to my offspring, though I've heard other parents argue that the whole sorry mess has introduced a wonderful opportunity for "values-based discussion," as one mother (surely a retired bureaucrat herself) put it in the park last week. Another mom suggested that children can watch the news and learn "that bad decisions have bad consequences." Frankly I have my doubts about that.

A lot of the speculation surrounding the president's infidelity concerns Why He Did It. This is where armchair psychologists are having the most fun, but real-life wives may have a more visceral interest, if only because the Oval Office's tight fetters would seem the modern equivalent of a chastity belt. In other words, Hillary had every reason to assume that the Secret Service could keep her philandering husband safely under lock and key for at least eight years. That he managed to slip out of his cage, at least as far as the next-door hall, doubtless strikes mortal terror in the hearts of many women whose husbands daily drive to work unchaperoned.

Men, on the other hand, seem mostly puzzled by why a sitting president would risk--for an incomplete hallway encounter with an intellectually limited woman half his age--every single achievement he'd spent his life attaining. "It's the selfishness of the baby-boomers writ large," theorize some pundits; "they think they ought to get every thing they want right when they want it. No impulse control."

"It's typical alpha-male behavior," argue others. "A nation's president is the human equivalent of a silverback gorilla: It's not his fault that he has a biological impulse to mate with every available female, spreading his seed far and wide." Even, apparently, in the decidedly unproductive soil of a navy-blue cocktail dress.

"He's a man in mid-life, having a mid-life crisis," muse still others. "When a beautiful young woman finds you attractive, you don't have to face the fact that you're getting fat and old and that the entire last half of your life will be an anti-climax." (No pun intended, of course.)

It's a puzzle, all right. Not everyone believes there's a deep psychological reason for the president's apparently self-destructive behavior--for some he's just a horny bastard who can't keep his pants zipped, even when the free world's leadership depends on it. But such a spectacular case of risk, for many others, simply can't be explained away by garden-variety lust. There's just got to be a deeper explanation.

What no one seems inclined to examine in psychological terms, however, is just why Kenneth Starr has pursued the president's every episode of hallway onanism with such single-minded zeal. In his case, as opposed to the president's, the pragmatic explanation is seemingly sufficient: Starr's a right-wing ideologue determined to bring down a popular centrist president on any available grounds. When he couldn't nail the adulterer from Arkansas on Whitewater, Filegate, or Travelgate, he turned to the much more fertile ground of sexual adventurism. Thanks to Paula Jones's legal juggernaut, every person in the western world is aware of Bill Clinton's carnal appetites. Thus, according to this line of reasoning, all Starr had to do was to put Clinton on the witness stand and ask him to admit he's a scumbag, then catch him in a lie. Simple.

But I think the national pundits are missing a dark, psychological side of Kenneth Starr, too, and it's a side that every mother knows all too well. Ken Starr sees life strictly in terms of black and white, good guys and bad guys. He believes that grown-ups should live their lives without secrets. He is--like many Americans in this dirty-memoir-besotted, Jenny Jones-ified age--the emotional equivalent of a potty-training toddler.

"Mommy tee-tee?" asks my 2-year-old, pushing open the bathroom door to inspect my activities there. A lot of people would find such a question invasive, a violation of the right to privacy, but unlike Bill Clinton, I'm perfectly at ease with such interrogations. This boy is, after all, my second child. My first son at this age never let me out of his sight long enough to close the bathroom door in the first place. If I left a Thomas the Tank Engine video running long enough to slip into the shower, mere minutes would pass before he'd be right there in the bathroom with me, pulling open the shower curtain and murmuring admiringly, "Hi, Mommy. I like your nipples."

Not that I blame him for finding the human body a lot more fascinating than cartoon trains. But I do hope, if he ever becomes president of the United States, that he might find running the country at least marginally more compelling than the nipples of a White House intern. Because it is, after all, one thing for a 2-year-old to be uncontrollably obsessed with other people's private parts and private lives, and another thing for a middle-aged elected official and a middle-aged attorney to be similarly beset. Maybe it's time for the adults in this country to stand up and say to each of them, "Oh grow up, why don't you?"

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