The Magazine


Apr 13, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 30 • By JAMES W. CEASER
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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.