Sex is a fact of political life

Too much has been revealed now for President Clinton to merely zip himself up and get back to business
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WE WANT to get back to normal. That's what the American people say. That's what Mr President is saying. That's what many Californians said to me a couple of weeks ago when I was there. "We are not interested," they insisted. "We don't want to talk about it any more." Then one by one they would go on to talk about it. At great length. That's why I don't trust the opinion polls any more that I trust the President.

If anything may be learnt from Zippergate, it is that what people say they want and what they actually want are very different. It is not only the President who lies about sex. We all do. We do not want to know the sordid details, we say, after filleting out precisely the bits of Starr's report that concentrate on sex. We do not want this man's sex life shoved down our throats we say, when in fact we are we are gagging for it. So the sex is embarrassing? All sex is embarrassing and sleazy if, as Woody Allen said, you are doing it right.

This is why opinion polls can no more tell the truth than the man himself - because they simply cannot capture the complexity of the response to this scandal. Starr's report has enabled us to occupy the moral high ground while at the same time rolling around in the dirt. Smut is now the order of the day, and Starr, that obsessive little puritan, has revealed his true dirty-mindedness, not by legalising porn but by revealing the porn of legalese; the quasi-legal language of his report, while insisting that it is uncovering hard-core evidence, reveals itself in all its soft- core sensibility. Still there is no unknowing what we now know, and so, for all their protestations, "the American people's" desire to "get back to normal" is likely to remain unsatisfied.

How can things go back to normal? Clinton wants "closure", the people want "censure". Whatever either of these words really means, they certainly do not mean the same thing at all. What happens when Clinton next addresses the nation from behind that desk in the Oval Office? No matter how dignified he looks above the desk, we will wonder what's going on beneath it and whether the man has any trousers on. Too much has been revealed merely to zip up and get back to business.

What has also been unwittingly exposed are a whole number of fissures that many would rather turn away from than face up to. There is the gap between the political class and the people as defined by pollsters. There is the gap between the legal and the political process. There is the gap between men and women, and there is the gap between public duty and private desire. The biggest fault-line of all is the one between what we might call sexual politics and politics with a capital P. So much discussion of the whole affair has been conducted by the sort of men who occasionally pay lip-service (an unfortunate phrase) to women only by talking of the "soccer moms" who are a key constituency for Clinton. Such debate is impoverished because it pretends that it is possible to use the same tired old terms that have been used for every other political scandal.

This is no longer possible because, whatever one may feel about the right to privacy - even of philandering presidents - what was formerly private has been made public. The truth is out there. We cannot go back to a virginal state in which we were happy to be deliberately deceived. Zippergate has not taken place in a vacuum. Traditional commentators lament the muddle of public opinion and hope that the political class will reassert itself. In other words, politics must carry on as usual without taking on board the forces pushing together that which they would prefer to keep separate: the personal and the political. These forces - an unwieldy, unexpected combination of media intrusion, feminism and right-wing conspiracy - have produced a situation where a man's private life has become a matter of public judgement.

The lines between the public and the private are being redrawn. As women have entered the workforce two worlds have collided: the so-called masculine values of the workplace and the feminine values of the domestic sphere . As women now inhabit both worlds, it makes it more difficult for men to maintain a different set of rules about how they behave in public and how they behave in private.

Many of the advances that feminism has made, especially in America, have been around breaking down discrimination against women in the workplace. Most company directors caught doing what Clinton has been doing - abusing office furniture - would have to do more than appear contrite to get away with it.

Yet feminists, as we know, have joined in the vilification of Monica Lewinsky for both personal and political reasons. Personally they see that Clinton is sexy and they are afraid of being dubbed anti-sex, and politically they see a President who, if not particularly good for women, has not been bad for them. They rightly fear the real right-wing revolution that will occur if the Republicans take control of the White House as well as Congress.

Yet, in supporting Clinton, they are again allowing the man's selfish desires for power to come before the common good. What the President does in private does matter not because it reveals him as a sex addict (whatever such a ridiculous beast might be) but because he has displayed consistently bad judgement for several months. His arrogance has put him so out of touch that his faked humility adds insult to injury.

There are those who feel that this emphasis on the personal is so undermining to the political process that it would be better to get back to a time when we were simply ignorant of what those who would represent us get up to. It's "the no one is perfect" argument that the White House is making. I am sympathetic to this as I take it for granted that anyone who wants to be a politician in the first place must automatically be a flawed human being.

However, once the genie of personal relationships being seen as somehow indicative of political ones has escaped, it cannot be put back in the bottle. The concepts of trust and betrayal and abuse of power are personal as well as political. It is precisely the ability to compartmentalise, or dissociate, that has caused Clinton the trouble in the first place.

Sex is one place, marriage is another, actual political power is elsewhere. It turns out these things are more connected than perhaps we want them to be. That is why these artificial boundaries are still in play, and many would clearly be more comfortable if they were resurrected. Thus we have the strange combination of Clinton's political contrition and legal counter-attack, we have seasoned pundits dubbing Monica the minx, the parasite who has sucked the spinach dip out of Slick Willy. The inference here is particularly offensive: Monica should have kept her mouth shut, except for those crucial moments when it was important that she opened it.

Monica then has had sex with the President, but amazingly he hasn't had sex with her. Meanwhile Hillary soldiers on, her helmet of hair harder than ever, smiling dead-eyed at her husband, patting rather than hugging him. Both continue to lie or be lied for. To each other? To us? For they claim not to have read the Starr report. Of course, in the new country of Clintonia this could mean anything. It means probably that they haven't inhaled its pages but had it read to them.

The American people thought the man was a liar and a cheat. Now they know this for sure. Will they continue to maintain the separation between the ability to be a good president and the ability to be good? If so, this means that such high office is best left in the hands of professional actors, rather than amateur soap stars like Bill Clinton. It means pretending that the sexual politics of the last 20 years has not happened. But it has, and its impact on the closed world of grown-up politics is now being played out before us, and it is making the earth move in mysterious ways.