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Urban Rhythms

The Tell-Tale Heart

By Wiley Hall III | Posted 8/16/2000

Shortly after the Monica Lewinsky affair broke in January 1998, I sat down with a man I knew who had cheated on his wife. My plan was to find out what made him tick. Maybe then, I thought, I would have some idea about what makes Bill Clinton tick.

The question seemed relevant then, at the beginning of the long, tiresome presidential scandal, and it seems relevant today, as Clinton prepares to pass the leadership of his party over to Vice President Al Gore.

For all of the finger-pointing and tongue-wagging about President Clinton's infidelities, we actually know very little about adulterers and philanderers. Generally speaking, adulterers don't give interviews (at least not about their adultery). They don't write books--certainly not with the same gusto as the vengeful women who are their victims. The few character studies of habitual philanderers that exist tend to be censorious and judgmental. I suspect we know more about the inner workings of murderers, child molesters, and drug dealers than we do about men who cheat on their wives.

Yet Clinton's dalliance with Lewinsky is said to have cast a major blot on his legacy. During the recent Republican Convention, George W. Bush promised to respect the dignity of the office--as though the occasional racists, womanizers, liars, and fools who had held the presidency before Clinton had not compromised it in quite the same way. Entering the Democratic Convention this week, Gore's strategists were said to be pondering how the candidate could disassociate himself from the taint of the Clinton "sleaze factor" while embracing the successes of the past eight years.

Clinton himself has been no help. Like other adulterers before him, Clinton has been contrite, remorseful, repentant. But he hasn't really been very forthcoming about his inner workings. And we really haven't learned much from his accusers--many of whom were later revealed as hypocrites with their own skeletons.

So it's worth recalling some of the things my friend had to say. His affair cost him his first marriage. He has since remarried and has two children. (By the way, in the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I'd never have known about the cause of his breakup if his ex-wife hadn't talked about it with my ex-wife. Men never, ever seem to speak of such things.)

I first asked him if he felt he deserved the kind of epithets--"sleazy," "tainted"--that were applied to Clinton. My friend thought about the question for quite a while before answering.

"You're asking me if I'm a sleaze because I did something wrong ?" he said at last. "You're asking if I'm a sleaze because I made a mistake? No. I wouldn't call myself a sleaze. I'd call myself a human being."

"But isn't that kind of easy?" I asked. "Isn't that like shrugging it off?"

This time he answered right away. "I'm not shrugging nothing off. I'm just saying I don't define myself by that behavior.

"I never sat down and psychoanalyzed myself," he continued. "What I did, I did a long time ago. I will tell you this, though--I'll never do it again."

He said that what he regrets more than anything else--more than the breakup of his marriage--was the betrayal of two women who loved and trusted and respected him. He was referring to both his wife and his mistress.

"When people who used to look up to you suddenly turn around and look down on you, it affects your self-esteem," he said. "They didn't have to tell me I was dirt, although they both did--I already felt like dirt. That's why I can look you in the face and tell you that I'll never, ever go there again. I value the respect of my wife and daughters more than anything else in the world."

"So what about Bill Clinton?" I asked.

"Well, look at it this way," my friend said. "Say he's like me, and no matter how good he feels while he's in it, getting caught is a terrible blow to your self-esteem. You have to wonder about a man who keeps doing it again and again and keeps getting caught again and again. Clinton can't feel good about himself. Here he is, leader of the free world, and inside, he feels like a lowdown, dirty dog because the people closest to him, the people whose respect means the most--his wife and his ex-girlfriends--are telling him he's worthless. It makes you wonder, doesn't it?"

"Yeah," I said. "I guess it does."

None of which says anything at all about Clinton's legacy as president, of course. It doesn't even answer the central question: Is a man who acts like a sleaze really a sleaze?

Somehow, Al Gore's frenetic desire to distance himself from Clinton, the man, tells me more about Gore than it does about Clinton. Why men do what the president did remains, to me, a mystery wrapped inside an enigma.

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