MAXWELL:  A sex-crazed nation, with the emphasis placed on crazed

10/11/1998 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Few things in this century have defined the American character like the moral paroxysms over the President Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair.

If we dare look in the mirror, we will see a people haunted by sexual demons that are both salacious and fearful, creatures buried so deeply in the American psyche that we hardly recognize them when they jump out at us and stare us in the face.

Just look at what the House of Representatives did on Thursday: In a historic move, it voted, largely along party lines, to initiate a full-scale, open-ended investigation into possible grounds for the impeachment of the president over his sexual misconduct.

To top matters off, this high-toned proceeding is being led by Illinois Republican Sen. Henry Hyde, a white-haired, dignified-looking adulterer, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, no one’s ethical exemplar, and a few others who probably could not withstand a protracted inquiry into their sex lives.

No matter, the House Judiciary Committee is going forth in faux solemnity. We are proving to be a bunch of hypocrites _ voyeurs and prudes simultaneously. Sure, Clinton should be punished for his misdeeds. But who are we to punish him when we cannot come to terms with our own feelings toward his misdeeds? Nor can we define them.

Our society is infused with sex and sexual innuendo. In fact, we celebrate sexuality. After all, we are the Viagra Nation.

The other day, a colleague said that Clinton had betrayed him. “Oh, cut the crap,” I said. “Clinton betrayed his wife and his daughter. He didn’t betray anyone else in the land. He didn’t betray the nation. You’re making up a problem that doesn’t really exist.”

For a while, I was beginning to think that I, along with pundits such as Anthony Lewis and Richard Reeves, was the crazy one in this matter. The longer the Clinton-Lewinsky tragicomedy plays out, the more convinced I am that we, as a nation, have lost our blooming minds.

Many people abroad certainly think that Uncle Sam needs to see Dr. Ruth. Most recently, Desmond Tutu, retired Episcopal archbishop of South Africa, for example, signed a letter of protest against the federal prosecutor’s inquiry, which has ballooned to more than $40-million.

Tutu, who won the Nobel Prize in 1984, was in the United States last week addressing the New Hampshire Humanities Council. “I am actually quite surprised by what seems an extraordinary obsession (over the Lewinsky matter),” he said. “To spend over $40-million. . . . For what? People are hungry, even in this country. I would think $40-million could have been used in so many creative ways.

“Your president has done what is very difficult to do when you are wrong. I don’t know about you, but I find it very difficult even in the intimacy and privacy of my bedroom to say to my wife “I’m sorry.’ Can you imagine having to say it in the full glare of television lights? Why do you rub his nose in the mud? Why do you want to wipe your boots all over him? You (Americans) really are an incredible people. Generous and loving, and caring . . . but you are also strange.”

Tutu is not alone:

+ Traveling in the United States a few days ago to promote his book, East and West, Christopher Patten, former governor of Hong Kong, said of the Lewinsky affair: “The world requires an end to this mawkish nonsense.”

+ German Chancellor Helmut Kohl said that America’s fixation on the matter “makes me want to throw up.”

+ The New York Times reported the incredulity of a Paris taxi driver. “Are you people (Americans) nuts?” he asked. “Why are you trying to weaken your country when the world needs it to be strong?”

+ The Times reported also that a man in the Berlin bureau of the Washington Post said: “It just can’t be that a 25-year-old girl turns the superpower U.S.A. upside down!”

+ In France, according to the Times, a television announcer, referring to the station’s refusal to air the four-hour tape of Clinton’s appearance before the grand jury, said, “We have no intention in wallowing in the pornographic character of this testimony.” An executive with the same station said, “We have no intention of surrendering to voyeurism.”

Of course, the Chinese, who expect their leaders to have wives and concubines, find the whole matter inexplicable. One journalist told the New York Times, “It just doesn’t make sense. We always think of America as such an open and free-thinking society. But in this regard, you are more conservative than us.”

Again, I am just as dumbfounded as many foreigners are by our tortured relationship with sex.