The Magazine

IN THE COURT OF SULTAN BILL

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