"Have You No Decency?" Doctorow on Starr
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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Mon, 12 Oct 98 17:28:05 -0700
Subject: "Have You No Decency?" Doctorow on Starr
[I've gotten so much mail in response to the Michael Moore Newsletter (some
of it heartening, some merely amusing) that I thought I would forward an
excerpt of this article from the New Yorker... -psl]
(From a writer deeply grounded in American history, the most thoughtful
reflection I've seen thus far on The Mess. -jv)
Excerpted-from: The New Yorker 10/12/98
Has Starr humiliated us all?
We are undergoing a constitutional crisis because a President is said to
have lied to the American people.
I try to think of a President in my lifetime who has not lied to the Ameri-
Cross off Lyndon Johnson, who fabricated a North Vietnamese gunboat at-
tack in the Gulf of Tonkin to justify his escalation of the Vietnam War.
Ronald Reagan's Iran-Contra schemes-- carried on behind his back, he
claimed, with characteristic modesty--probably amounted to the most serious
subversion of constitutional government in the twentieth century. George
Bush, too, avowed ignorance of the arms-for-hostages trade with Iran, and
continued as President to lie magnificently even after he was expressly
implicated by Mr. Reagan's Secretaries of State and Defense.
And, but for his inept lies about Watergate, Richard Nixon might have
completed his second term by not telling the American people about his
bombing of Cambodia.
Perhaps the problem with President Clinton's lie is that it lacks
grandeur. It is true that he is alleged to have uttered it in a legal pro-
ceeding. Whereas Richard Nixon committed crimes for which he then had to
answer, the alleged crime of Bill Clinton, perjury, did not occur until he
was questioned under oath. Adulterous behavior may be a sin, but it is not
a crime. On the other hand, if you can bring someone into a courtroom to
equivocate about it, it is convertible to a crime.
All you need is a sinner and a suit. If you happen to be a prosecutor
with a righteous bent, you can transform what morally offends you into a
The use of legal procedure to elicit an illegal act was common practice
in the nineteen-fifties. People who had committed no crimes were brought
before congressional committees to testify about their political beliefs
and the beliefs of their friends, and when they refused they were cited for
contempt and sent off to jail.
What is different here is the target: the President of the United States.
That is horrific.
The sexual act can be barbaric, brutally selfish, and self-aggrandizing,
or loving and revelatory. It can be infantile and ludicrous, or spiritually
exalted and profound. It can be narcissistic, heedless, and exploitative,
or devotional. In the course of one person's life, it can, at one time or
another, be all these things. But the particular character of a consensual
act is manifest only in the intimate connection of two minds. When it is
exposed to an audience, it deconstructs as something inevitably prurient,
automatically scandalous. This is especially true in America, where one of
the abiding shames of the Calvinist mind is that only a Son of God can be
conceived without animal intercourse.
We don't have to condone Clinton's conduct to understand that the
published narrative of his sexual behavior and the gratuitous televising
of his grand-jury testimony would have had the same result had they
concerned his sexual unions with his wife. We are all humiliated by this
treatment of a President. It isn't just his person who is demeaned by this
conflation of church and state. In a free society, the private struggles we
have with our own appetites are supposed to be our own business, as we
strive over a lifetime to become rational and self-respecting human beings.
Speak of perjury if you will, but to me the whole thing smells of
entrapment. In my head I keep hear- ing the voice of the late Joseph Welch,
the attorney who said to Joe McCarthy, PHave you no sense of decency, sir,
at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?" I would ask Kenneth Starr
this question. The word "independent," as attached to his office, assumes
an ideal of objective, impartial investigation with no axe to grind. But
his grand-jury hearings and the breaches of their secrecy, his extralegal
wiretaps, the legal bullying of a mother to coerce the testimony of her
daughter, the Hooverish examination of bookstore receipts, the tearing down
of attorney-client privilege of confidentiality and the accusations of ob-
struction ofjustice when these privileges are asserted, and, finally, the
triumphant prurience of his report are more of a scandal than Mr. Clinton's
sexual behavior- and more dangerous to the republic. Starr has shown us how
a conscienceless, ideologically vindictive use of the investigative
privilege can undercut the legitimacy of any duly elected American
What must have been the rage of Mr. Starr and his, accomplices as they
read the polls month after month telling them that the majority of Americans
were able to separate Mr. Clinton's private failings from his public
performance as President? The message was clear: people un- derstood that
an errant sort of private speech had gravitated into the public discourse
and that it didn't belong there. Still Starr pressed on, a man in whom two
powerfully combined illiberal traditions, the fundamentalist religious and
the political far right, had driven past willfulness to obsession.
Those Republicans now so happy to capitalize on this Democratic
misfortune should understand that more than partisan politics is going on
here, that this is the unseating of a democratically elected President with
all the legitimacy of a coup d'etat. Something this momentous, if it
succeeds, will bring consequential changes in the social compact. My own
view is that if Mr. Clinton is impeached or forced to resign, American
Puritanism, with its punitive lusts and its theocratic visions, will be
reborn for the twenty-first century.
After the Salem witch trials and all the death and misery they caused,
the authorities who were responsible reviewed what had happened. It is
wishful thinking that Mr. Starr may come to do that and to admit, with rue,
that he made a tragic mistake in turning a sexual indiscretion into a
constitutional crisis ...just as those responsible for the hangings of the
supposed witches of Salem confessed, too late, that they had been grievously
--E. L. DOCTOROW
(c)1998 The New Yorker
© 1998 Peter Langston