The latest skeleton to rattle out of the Dumbo closet brought the indictment of former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) on charges that he lied to the FBI and tried to disguise cash withdrawals paid to an unnamed party identified only as “Individual A” to “compensate for and conceal his prior misconduct against Individual A.” Hastert’s “prior misconduct” was not explained. The references to Hastert's earlier career as a teacher and wrestling coach at Yorkville (IL) High School in the indictment established in media reports that "Individual A" was a male student at the high school at that time. Hastert withdrew substantial sums of money and perjured himself during the investigation of the bank withdrawals mandated by the Patriot Act to prevent terrorist act financing via bank account withdrawals. It is ironic that Hastert took credit for the passage of the Patriot Act while he was House Speaker and then more than a decade later that very law came back to bite one of its principal sponsors. If this is a (fair & balanced) example of 'hoist with one's own petard'," so be it.
[x New Yorker]
The Changing American Sex Scandal
By Adam Gopnik
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The news that former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, once known as the Coach, had been indicted for a scheme in which he allegedly drew out cash in order to pay an unnamed person to “compensate for and conceal” a past misdeed—reports say it was the sexual abuse of a high-school boy, back in those coaching days—sends one irresistibly back to the noble era of the Clinton impeachment, in which Hastert presented himself as a moralizing figure. It supplies, as Barney Frank noted, the mordant thought that the three men who were trying to take charge of the Republican-controlled House as it gravely decided to alter American constitutional history were, in sequence: Newt Gingrich, who’d had a long affair while his first wife lay ill, and then, as Speaker of the House, cheated on his second wife with a Congressional aide (who became his third wife) during the impeachment; Bob Livingston, who was nominated to succeed Gingrich but passed on the job when it became known that he’d had affairs with several different women; and Hastert, the ultimate recipient of the Speakership, a man with some pretty dark sexual secrets of his own. Family values, all over.
The Clinton impeachment, the first of an American President since the Civil War, was, of course, all about sex, despite various attempts, by Hastert among others, to pretend at the time that it was actually about perjury. As Dale Bumpers said then, “When you hear somebody say, ‘This is not about sex,’ it’s about sex.” Clinton’s was a classic case of a perjury trap, designed to turn a noncriminal act into a criminal one by forcing the respondent to lie out of normal and unexceptional human embarrassment. (Michael Kinsley put it this way: “He lied in answer to questions he should not have been asked.”) Questioned about an affair in a deposition to be seen by your spouse, most people would have lied, and though scholars and lawyers may debate if there are circumstances where such a lie can fairly be called criminal, a morally alert person might see that a wrong that nearly every person would commit in the same circumstances is something closer to a human right. If there was any doubt, the Starr Report, still a genuinely sick and startling document, whose principal purpose was to shame and embarrass the prosecutors’ political enemy in front of his wife—who can forget the constant, smirking refrain of “Mrs. Clinton was away from the White House”?—demonstrated that it was the sex, and the sex alone, that obsessed Clinton’s persecutors. There was no need, precedent, or reason on earth to supply, as it did, the graphic details of the Clinton-Lewinsky gropings, other than an almost pornographic fixation.
And, yet, another way to think of Hastert’s role, and of that time, is to see how far most of us have gone in changing attitudes about such matters. The sexual exploitation of an intern, even an entirely willing and eager one, would surely be judged more harshly now than it was then—as a worse thing than Clinton’s defenders still want to admit. Monica Lewinsky would likely and properly become a subject for sympathy now, as a victim of a man with power who should have been wiser in its use. (Lewinsky’s own recent, mature statements say something moving about what it feels like to be mocked by a mostly liberal mob.) However consensual their engagement might have been, we see more clearly now the link between power relations and libidinal ones. Taking advantage even of a willing subordinate is rightly understood to be, in itself, dubious, or worse. That Clinton and Lewinsky were both, undoubtedly, consenting adults—which Hastert’s alleged victim was not—remains true; that ideas of consent (and adulthood) remain more problematic than those outraged by the persecution of the President for political reasons might like is true, too. In this case, the power relations were vastly unequal; we see more clearly now than we did in the nineties that this truth can’t be written off.
But moralizing equations in American life always seek equilibrium. Even as many have become more sharply discerning, and even, often enough, more narrowly judgmental, about power relations and sexual consent, American culture—or at least the part of it that gets seen every night on television and read each day on the Internet—has lost its last pretenses of gentility, and of any reticence at all about matters sexual. Blow jobs and bum jobs are both part of the standard currency of the best pop entertainment; how could you embarrass someone out of office now by detailing their sexual antics when there would be nothing there that you hadn’t just seen on “Girls”? What has replaced the lingering puritanism is a more acute sense of power relations; we have become at once less shockable about the erotic and more punitive about the uses of power. When a sexual relation can be shown to be an improper power relation, all hell tends to break loose. This is obviously a good thing if you are, say, a high-school wrestler who might be less vulnerable than you may have been forty years ago. But it’s also the case, since almost all sexual relations have some element of power relations in them, and since few power relations are perfectly or even partly equable, that the double hit can be confusing, not to say confounding—as the ins and outs of campus-assault controversies and consent arrangements prove in the news almost every day.
Some of us may have more rectitude in these matters than others. But Philip Roth’s point remains the essential one. The “human stain” spreads and implicates us all. None of us is entirely free from doubtful desires and few of us from any dubious acts; those with minors or by force or coercion are always wrong—as are other acts that destroy or damage someone’s else’s humanity; most everything else has a good shot at being merely human. In that realm, puritanical shows of disdain for other men and women’s weakness are guaranteed to be met, sooner or later, by the exposure of our own. Nobody, other than the novelists, gets sex and power quite right. It can’t be done. At least the particular kind of hypocrisy that the Republicans calling for impeachment represented—men of unconsidered appetite pretending to be men of self-imposed reticence—seems likely to be at an end. We should be alert to the power relations in the people we have sex with; we shouldn’t spy on or persecute other people having sex unless some reprehensible or criminal act is involved—and that does not include simply lying about it afterward. We should all be alert to other people’s humanity in proposing sexual relations, and just as alert in proposing to police them for having them—that is different from criticizing unequal sexual relations, something that has been part of everyone’s moral education in the past twenty years. Sex involves power; it also involves people. We should still politicize it hesitantly. It’s just too democratic in the bites it takes of us all. Ω
[In 1986, Adam Gopnik began his long professional association with The New Yorker with a piece that would show his future range, a consideration of connections among baseball, childhood, and Renaissance art. He has written for four editors at the magazine: William Shawn, Robert Gottlieb, Tina Brown, and David Remnick. Gopnik, born in Philadelphia, lived his early life in Montreal and received a BA from McGill University. Later, he studied at the New York University Institute of Fine Arts. In 2011, Adam Gopnik was chosen as the noted speaker for the 50th anniversary of the Canadian Massey Lectures where he delivered five lectures across five Canadian cities that make up his book Winter: Five Windows on the Season (2011). More recently, Gopnik has written The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food (2012).]
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