IN THE COURT OF SULTAN BILL
Apr 13, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 30 • By JAMES W. CEASER
In the complex relationship between sex and politics that has preoccupied Americans for the past three months, many of those seeking to condemn the president have relied on some version of the feminist principle that "the personal is political," while those seeking to excuse or exonerate him have rallied to the libertarian idea that "the personal is personal." But to see the issue solely in these terms misses the strikingly novel and dangerous turn that American political life is taking: What the Clinton White House is actually asserting is the despotic principle that "the political is personal."
The personal is political, a cryptic phrase casually introduced by feminist theorists some twenty years ago, became one of the major slogans of the modern women's movement. It is shorthand for the feminist attack on the notion that relations between the sexes -- in dating, in marriage, and on the job -- take place in a private, non-political realm. The reality, feminists insist, is that such matters involve fundamental struggles of power and influence, which make them intensely political. And because they are political, they are legitimately subject to greater public control, be it by expanded definitions of sexual harassment, codes of sexual conduct for business corporations and universities, or censure of objectionable behavior by vigilant organs of opinion.
Long before the advent of modern feminist theory, of course, American society had (and still has) a system of public regulation of private life designed to defend traditional morality, especially as it relates to protecting marriage and the family. Under this system, there is today a modest network of laws that encourages marriage and restricts pornography and lewd behavior, and a body of religious teachings and customary beliefs that disapproves of adultery and condemns boorish behavior by men against women. Clearly, feminist proponents of the principle that the personal is political did not have this system in mind -- except as a target. Traditional morality, they argue, is an amalgam of Christian, chivalric, and Victorian values that serves merely as a polite disguise for male dominance. Yet despite the radical disagreements between feminists and traditionalists, the two have sometimes managed to work together where their principles coincide, as in opposition to pornography, which both offends decency and demeans women. Such was the uneasy coalition many perhaps expected to develop in the current White House scandal, with Gary Bauer and Gloria Steinem walking, if not exactly arm in arm, then at any rate side by side, to defend their respective causes.
The libertarian idea -- the personal is personal -- holds that consensual sexual relations are private matters that should be beyond the reach of law or custom. A prudential version of this principle, consistent with the older morality, allows traditional standards to be publicly stated, but argues that it is wisest to steer clear of discussions of such matters, except perhaps in the most flagrant cases. Otherwise, there is a risk of sliding into moralistic crusades. But it is not the mild and almost apologetic version of this principle, but the strong and positive one, that has had the greatest influence on American life. Known among the mass of middle-aged college graduates as the morality of sexual liberation, this variant moves beyond asserting a zone or right of privacy in all sexual relations to proclaiming that consensual sexual relations of any kind, where openly announced, deserve to be accepted, if not celebrated. The personal is personal means here that the personal is non-censurable. The movement for sexual liberation was a crusade to end repression of all kinds and to make the world safe for eroticism. "Make love not war" -- a cause to which the young Bill Clinton was devoutly and passionately committed -- was not just a statement of opposition to the Vietnam war, but a clarion call to fashion a new kind of society.
Over the past three decades, the cause of sexual liberation has lost much of its revolutionary ardor, having been moderated by the ravages of middle age and the fear of sexually transmitted diseases. It has also been curbed by the strain of feminism which contended that liberation often allowed men, especially powerful men, to practice openly their contempt for women. Now that many feminists have for tactical reasons thrown their support to Bill Clinton and become the chief public defenders of the principle that the personal is personal, this last element of restraint has been removed. The cause of sexual liberation, devoid of any political content, has been reborn. Within sophisticated circles it is remarkable now how many -- men and women alike -- don't just tolerate but applaud the president's erotic exploits. But the idea that the personal is personal has wider support even than this. Many defenders of traditional morality have found recourse to this seemingly neutral principle in their desire to block the excesses and zealotry of the feminist-inspired program. Just as many conservatives have gravitated to a doctrine of pure free speech and expression in order to try to escape the campaigns for political correctness, so some traditionalists have moved to embrace the absolute principle that the personal is personal in order to combat some of the new sexual codes.
The widespread support of the American populace for the idea that the personal is personal has proven a real surprise to most political observers, who after all live in a hothouse of pressure from feminists and traditionalists for more social regulation. Defenders of President Clinton, who in the dark days of January were at a loss on how to mount a positive case, stumbled upon this principle as their Maginot line. The president's team has concluded that if his difficulties can be framed as a matter of " personal" morality, he can escape adverse judgment not only for his sexual misadventures but also for publicly lying about them or even committing perjury to cover them up. If the personal is personal is a deeply supported principle, then -- or so the thinking goes -- people may excuse all reasonable actions designed to defend it.
The problem for the White House is how to maintain the fiction that Bill Clinton's personal behavior is the issue at stake. For the president himself has already collapsed the distinction between the public and private realms. He has made his own top staff, government employees all, complicit in the defense of his personal pleasures. And he has asserted executive privilege to keep secret the degree of that complicity -- which is equally an assertion of the despotic principle, the political is personal.
This principle erases the distinction between the public and sexual realms by allowing the power and prerogatives of public office to be employed to satisfy the public official's private desires. Under this principle, what takes place in the political realm -- in the Oval Office or in the deliberations between a president and his counselors -- may legitimately promote entirely personal ends. The full array of public instruments and resources may be put in the service of this purpose, from using political spaces for private acts, to employing public officials to procure sexual partners, to granting or denying public jobs to induce sexual favors and maintain silences, to calling on a panoply of communications experts and legal counselors to protect these exchanges. These public instruments are supplemented by a nominally private network -- but one available obviously only to someone enjoying the prestige of high public office -- that includes high-powered private lawyers and "friends" with connections to major private corporations. Fully developed, the principle that the political is personal leads to the formation of a state within a state -- an entire apparatus devoted to serving the leader's private parts.
Systems of rule based on this principle are certainly not new. The political is personal was the governing idea of the Oriental despotisms that supported large harems, as Montesquieu illustrated in his Persian Letters. In the Mogul and Ottoman Empires, the emperors and sultans would stash away in their seraglios anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand women to service their wants. Maintaining the harem posed a formidable administrative challenge that occupied much of the energy of the state. Above all else, of course, was the problem of assuring a constant replenishment of young and nubile females, who were to be plucked at a time when, in the verse of one fourteenth-century Arab poet, "their breasts still hang like pomegranates." When the Mogul Akbar the Great (1542-1605) began to build his harem, the families of the proud nobles, solicitous still of defending their own, resisted giving up their daughters, whom Akbar then had to take by force. But with time the mores of society adapted, and far from expressing indignation, parents traded on their connections to bring their daughters to the sultan's attention and help them secure entry to the harem.
Procuring the maidens also posed the age-old difficulty of how to guard the guardians. Here, no doubt, the technical superiority of ancient methods over modern ones is most apparent. In the Paula Jones lawsuit, there was sworn testimony that, as governor, Bill Clinton sent state troopers to solicit women for him. This charge raised the ire of the president's lawyer, Bob Bennett, who vowed to prove that these troopers "hustled for themselves on a day to day basis." Understanding how complications of this sort might develop, the sultans created a special caste of administrators -- the eunuchs -- who were deemed uniquely qualified to exercise their responsibilities. The eunuchs were also assigned the difficult task of managing the harem, trying -- like their White House counterparts -- to forestall eruptions and to deal with scandals. To help in managing the harem, the sultans turned as well to the older women (sometimes wives), who either knew enough or had acquired enough connections in the court to virtually demand a share of power. Through byzantine alliances and intrigues with the eunuchs, these women during certain periods emerged as the chief power in the state, with the sultans being relegated to figurehead status.
The principle that the political is personal, while clearly the modus operandi in Washington today, has yet to be openly defended. But it is making steady headway in the public mind, largely because it is being confiated by those defending the president with the widely accepted principle that the personal is personal. There may in fact be a moral connection between the two views, for if nothing is really censurable in private life then why shouldn't political power be used for private ends?
In this sense, it is no surprise that the liberationist ideas of the sixties should underlie the tyrannic practices of today. Still, there remains a world of difference in constitutional form between these principles. To think that the current crisis fits under the rubric of "personal" behavior is therefore not just a casual ruse, but a fatal error. What is really at stake is a choice of political regimes. We can either opt to keep a republic or ratify the reign of Sultan Bill.
James W. Ceaser is professor of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia and the author Reconstructing America (Yale).