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Caveat lector

13 August 1999

The Howler epilog: Recalling the child

Synopsis: The New Republic, in an editorial, made the least insightful remark of the week.

The Abuse Excuse
Editorial, The New Republic, 8/23/99

Hillary, Get Real
Lee Chafee, The Washington Times, 8/13/99

The Clinton Enigma
David Maraniss, Simon & Schuster, 1999

We knew we were in trouble when we hit this version of Mrs. Clinton's remark on abuse:

THE NEW REPUBLIC: [S]he told Talk..."He was so young, barely four, when he was scarred by abuse that he can't even take [his mother's memoir] out and look at it."

And yes, that's the way TNR wrote it, assuming it was Virginia Kelley's autobiography that the president "can't even take out." (Lucinda Franks quotes Mrs. Clinton saying "he can't even take it out and look at it.") We assumed Mrs. Clinton meant that, because the events described occurred at age 4, the president can't really remember and assess them. In this morning's Washington Times, a Clinton critic rewrites the Franks piece our way:

CHAFEE: "He was so young, barely 4, when he was scarred by abuse that he can't even take it out [of his memory] and look at it."

It helps demonstrate the point we made Monday—the Talk piece provides sparing, inconclusive treatment of the psychosexual topics that have the press corps so aroused. It is not all that clear what Mrs. Clinton does think about her husband's psychosexual history.

Did she say—does she think—silly things? It's possible, but we aren't all that certain. We thought it seemed odd when she suggested that the government shutdown and the pain of family deaths helped trigger Clinton's conduct with Monica Lewinsky. Why, we could have thundered with the rest of the herd about how ridiculous that comment seemed to be! But then we revisited David Maraniss' The Clinton Enigma, which reviews the literature on both children of alcoholics and sexual addiction, and we found ourselves rereading this:

MARANISS: The strongest case that Clinton has a sexual addiction was made by Jerome D. Levin, an expert on rehabilitation counseling...In his recent book, The Clinton Syndrome, Levin argues that "Clinton's background as a child of addiction predisposes him biologically and socially to an addiction of his own,"...and that specific stresses in his life before and after he began his relationship with Monica Lewinsky—stresses that included the death of his mother, Virginia, his friend and political ally Ron Brown, and Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin—made him "highly vulnerable to acting out once again his sexually addictive behavior."

Like almost everyone writing about this matter, we aren't qualified to evaluate that passage. We know next to nothing about sexual addiction, or about the children of addicts, or about addiction in general. That passage did at least make us wonder if Mrs. Clinton's remark was based on some specialized knowledge. Maybe she has some idea what she's talking about—although, given the excitement it stirred in the press, she probably shouldn't have said it out loud.

But The New Republic, like many others, is so eager to join the Boobird Chorale that it is willing to act like it doesn't know that the human psyche can in fact be a riddle. "The interlocutor from Talk even reports that the president's 'friends' expect him to seek therapy after he leaves office," it gasps. Even that! Why doesn't the journal denounce teaching evolution while we're at it? TNR thinks Mrs. Clinton was insincere in her comments—though it doesn't quite tell us how it knows. Writing from a press corps culture in which every event must be interpreted in the most negative way possible, TNR refuses to imagine that Mrs. Clinton may be speaking sincerely—and that some knowledge may drive her sketchy comments, which the press corps has spun up and bronzed.

But there is one part of this editorial that really does demand comment. That is when TNR undertakes to assure us that Bill Didn't Have It So Bad:

THE NEW REPUBLIC: We don't mean to be heartless, but by the standards of child abuse in America the competition for a boy's love between a mother and grandmother doesn't seem all that punishing. And if being caught between two women really was "the worst possible situation," then why did Bill Clinton spend his life as a man reproducing it?

That second sentence is one of the silliest comments in a week of silly commentary. In it, TNR says that a psychiatric thesis can't be true because the conduct described doesn't make rational sense! In this passage, TNR reverts to 19th century thought to add to the chorus of booing and ridicule. We wish that "heartless" were the only word we could imagine applying to this work.

But it is the journal's first sentence we would protest. In it, TNR argues that a child of a violent alcoholic didn't have it that bad, presumably because he wasn't beaten or murdered. The statement does verge on being heartless, and is remarkably unintelligent to boot:

MARANISS: One night, Virginia dressed Billy up to take him to the hospital to visit her grandmother, who was dying. Roger did not want them to leave. When Virginia said she was going anyway, he hauled out a gun and fired a shot over her head into the wall. Virginia went across the street and called the police. Billy slept at a neighbor's house.

TNR would point out that the gunshot missed, so why should it cause kids a problem? Life did go on for the Clintons:

MARANISS: In seeking to end the marriage on grounds of mental cruelty and abuse, [Clinton's mother] testified that Roger's drinking had led to two violent eruptions, first at a dance when he became drunk and kicked her and struck her, then at home when he "threw me to the floor and began to stomp me"...Bill not only comforted his mother during these troubles, he offered her strong testimonial support for the divorce. In his own affadavit, he stated that he was familiar with his stepfather's habitual drinking and had witnessed the second assault on his mother. "I was present...and it was I who called my mother's attorney who in turn had to get the police to come to the house to arrest the defendant," he said in a deposition.

Do such experiences affect young children? A picture of Clinton, age nine:

MARANISS: For Bill Clinton, the prodigal son, religion offered something other than discipline and gratitude and social service...He began attending church when he was nine years old, toting a leather-bound Bible in his left hand as he walked alone down the streets of Hot Park Place Baptist Church. The pastor, the Reverend Dexter Blevins, said that young Clinton was at the church not just Sunday mornings but "every time the door opened," and seemed starving for a refuge from the inner turmoil of his family life.

But The New Republic, restricting its gaze to grandma's tussles with mom, tells us that Clinton's childhood experience "doesn't seem all that punishing." This may be the most misleading statement we have seen in the press this whole week.

Was Mrs. Clinton sincere in her comments to Talk? At THE HOWLER, we have no way of knowing. And we don't really know what Mrs. Clinton thinks about her husband's personal history. But the press corps is eager to spin every word to make the First Lady seem as stupid as possible. Children of violent alcoholics often carry lifelong scars. TNR is deeply wrong not to say it.