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Published in the Globe and Mail's Focus, Saturday, August 22, 1998


Clinton: Pinocchio Priapus on the Potomac

People have lied before, sure. Politicians have lied, sure. And there have been moral cold spells in Washington before. But with the arrival of this president, we have entered the Ice Age of Mendacity.


The distinguished ethicist and moral philosopher Geraldo Rivera -- friend of Marcia Clark and Johnnie Cochran, National Enquirer epistemologist (let's get this over with), the Ludwig Wittgenstein of trash TV -- has been one of the most frantic pack mules of presidential prevarication for more than seven months. Rivera Live , the professor's nightly symposium on CNBC, has really been little more than an extended course (complete with live demonstrations) on when lies are not lies and when sex is not sex and when lying about sex is neither sex nor lying.

Geraldo, the truth-seeker, has spent not a little of his vigour during this period roundly denouncing the hypocrites and puritans who took offence, or otherwise thought it wrong, when Bill Clinton lied, and lied under oath, on the subject of the serial gratifications he suborned from the enchanted and enchanting Monica Lewinsky. It's difficult to reduce anything Geraldo Rivera says to its essence (how do you return a smear to its originary globule?) but, as close as we can, it comes to this: Lying about sex isn't lying.

If you take out the small qualification in there -- about sex -- you'll note that it reads: Lying isn't lying (cogito ergo dumb ). I guess you can only host so many panels with Johnnie Cochran and Barry Scheck as guests before the old brain pan is good for nothing more than catching lugnuts.

It will also be noted that the "lying about sex isn't lying" is a Second Stage refinement. The First Stage was "the President isn't lying." This was the "I believe the President when he tells the American people he isn't lying" stage.

So, Stage 1: He's not lying. Stage 2: He's lying (but it's about sex), so he's not lying.

But then there was that pesky business that the Great Equivocator had gone under oath to lie and not lie. Remember oaths? Oaths occur when people sacredly swear to God that they're not lying. We're in Third Stage forked-tongue surgery here. This is the "lying under oath, about sex, if it's in a civil disposition, isn't lying" lie.

An eel couldn't crawl through this logic and have any hope for its spine.

Geraldo Rivera, of course, is only the pilot-fish, or pilot-snake, for a vast zoo of spinmeisters, truth doctors, flacks, hacks, legalists and weasels, who have spent the same period of time trying to convert raunch into righteousness, and to pummel a disobliging and disgusted public into accepting that oral sex is not sex, that the Oval Office is a private place and that slagging a vaporous on-the-job intern for 18 months should be taken as nothing more than a sagacious exercise in stress management by the Frat House King. They have also been trying to tell us that lying isn't lying, and that the only time you want to foul your hands or mouth with the truth is when it becomes absolutely unavoidable to tell it.

Remember when the famous novelist remarked of another famous novelist: "Every word she writes is a lie -- including "and" and "the." Except with Bill Clinton and his brigade of semantic prostitutes, we would say every word including "and" and "the" and the spaces between the words. People have lied before, sure. Politicians have lied, sure. And there have been moral cold spells in Washington before. But with the arrival of Bill Clinton, Pinocchio Priapus on the Potomac, this is the Ice Age of Mendacity. Miles deep and glacially thick, the place is rigid with duplicity.

They lie so much, they lie so often, they lie so vigorously -- I (furrow the brow) did not have (grit teeth, don't bite lip) sexual relations (is this going to work?) with that woman (oops!) Ms. Lewinsky -- and they lie so fully and so well that you are sometimes brought to wonder, truly and anxiously wonder, did we get it all wrong when we were young, or have we been so wrong ever since, that lying in itself, just plain lying, is hardly ever right? And were we also wrong to hold that public men and women, lying in public, to the public, were practicing the most corrosive kind of lying?

Can't a president have some privacy, they ask. Bill Clinton's sex life is private, they say. Yes it is. Bill Clinton's private sex life is with his wife. It's that other one, going on in the Oval Office with the one-woman reception line, that isn't and never was private. That bonk was public property from Day 1 and every month thereafter. So even the defence (sic ) that it's okay to lie about sex, because sex is private, is a lie.

But whence came the dispensation in the first place (was there a Vatican Council we all missed, or did Cosmo have an issue that never made it to the doorstep?) that lying about sex, public or private, wasn't lying? That deceit about sexual deceit wasn't deceit.

The principle is really very simple: In the Clinton catechism, lying about the one thing you do get caught at isn't lying. If he'd been nailed on Whitewater, rather than nailed on nailing Monica, we'd have heard: "Who in the real-estate business doesn't lie? You can't buy or sell land in Arkansas without lying. The President lied -- yes. But it was a lie about real estate. A land deal, for God's sake."

The mystery is where these guys and gals got the notion that lying itself had lost all sanction. Where they got the courage or the effrontery to start lecturing and hectoring an entire nation about which lies weren't lies, which were non-lie lies, or lies that didn't count, or lies that were right. That by some grand and invisible executive flourish, when it suited the First Philanderer and his gypsy lust, they could de facto cancel, at the snap of a finger and the rev of the spin machine, the great ancient code of simple truth-telling.

And so it came, like John the Baptist after feasting on locusts -- the times will find the man, the ethos its braying emblem -- that there emerged as chop-logician to His Randiness, the low priest of Monicaspeak: Geraldo Rivera.

Tricky Dick. Slick Willie. Why has it taken so long to see that these are exact synonyms? With no apologies to James Carville: It's the lies, stupid.

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