San Diego A few weeks ago, Tony Perry, a reporter for the L.A. Times who knows I love Walt Whitman's poetry, called me on the telephone. "What would Whitman make of the fact," he asked, "that Bill Clinton gave Monica Lewinsky a gift of his Leaves of Grass?" The question took me aback, but my immediate response was that he would have been amused by it. As I thought about it, however, it became clear that the literary dimension of the Lewinsky story may be its only under-reported element. Her tastes inclined to Shakespeare. Not surprising she would send him a Valentine's message from Romeo and Juliet. She probably saw the two of them as unlikely star-crossed lovers, brought together by fate but separated by age, social position, and Hillary. He, on the other hand, might have seen the relationship as a Whitmanic celebration of the body, and because of Whitman's dual role in America as both the poet of democracy and the poet of sexuality, Leaves of Grass must have seemed the ideal gift. A lesson in citizenship for an intern and the Joy of Sex all bundled into one.
The more I think about it, the closer connection I see between Whitman and the Lewinsky scandal. One of the primary achievements of Leaves of Grass is the creation of an unveiled language to both describe and celebrate human sexuality. It pushes discourse about sex out of the closet and into our literary heritage. And one of the remarkable aspects of the Lewinsky matter is how it has done that for our national mainstream media. Depending on your orientation, you're likely to see the open and frank discussion of presidential sexuality it has spawned as either further evidence of the decline of Western Civilization or a sign of a new American sophistication about matters sexual. But I think Whitman would not have gasped, as nearly all America did, when Ted Koppel began his already "historic" January 22, 1998, broadcast with the sentence "It may...ultimately come down to the question of whether oral sex does or does not constitute adultery."
That "breakthrough" was followed a couple of weeks later on 60 Minutes with Mike Wallace telling Sally Quinn of the Washington Post (mixed company, no less) that what Vernon Jordan and President Clinton talk about on the golf course is "puy" (the word was bleeped, but clearly audible). Here's what Whitman has to say about words and phrases like "oral sex" and "pussy":
And sexual organs and acts! do you concentrate in me, for I
am determin'd to tell you with courageous clear voice
to prove you illustrious,
And I will show that there is no imperfection in the present,
and can be none in the future,
And I will show that whatever happens to anybody it may
be turn'd to beautiful results...
Both Monica and Bill ought to take some comfort in that last line. But it's not only on the level of liberated language that Leaves of Grass acts as a commentary on this moment in our history. Every time I see those two endlessly replayed clips of the President hugging Monica as he works a reception line on the White House lawn, I wonder if he had underlined these lines from "As Adam Early in the Morning" for her:
Behold me where I pass, hear my voice, approach,
Touch me, touch the palm of your hand to my body as I pass,
Be not afraid of my body.
Might the President, in a moment of Whitmanic fervor, have said to Monica, "Be not afraid of my body"? Or maybe she, after reading Leaves of Grass, said it to him.
It's clear that for Whitman, sex is both merely a bodily function and a mystical union of souls. He often mentions it in long lists describing other bodily functions:
The brain in its folds inside the skull-frame,
Sympathies, heart-valves, palate- valves, sexuality, maternity,
Womanhood, and all that is a woman...
Although Whitman was homosexual, women play a large and important role in his poetry. Like Clinton, he was endlessly fascinated by them, and like Clinton, he saw no conflict in seeing them both as sexual beings and as equal partners. I wonder what Monica made of this passage from "A Woman Waits for Me":
A woman waits for me, she contains all, nothing is lacking,
Yet all were lacking if sex were lacking, or if the moisture of
the right man were lacking.
Sex contains all, bodies, souls,
Meanings, proofs, purities, delicacies, results, promulgations,
Songs, commands, health, pride, the maternal mystery, the
"Seminal milk" and "the moisture of the right man" sound so much nicer than "semen-stained dress," don't you think?
"A Woman Waits for Me," in fact, strikes me as something of an anthem for Clinton's ongoing struggles with women. Suppose, like Whitman, he believes that "sex contains all," not merely those things mentioned above but
All hopes, benefactions, bestowals, all the passions, loves,
beauties, delights of the earth,
All the governments, judges, gods, follow'd persons of the
These are contain'd in sex as parts of itself and justifications
As one of the "follow'd persons of the earth," it would be hard for him to avoid sexual expression whenever possible; hence, Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky and God knows who else. But what troubles me about Clinton is his unwillingness to stand up for sex the way Whitman did. He keeps staring us in the face and saying he did not, and now apparently has admitted in a deposition that he did. (At least with Gennifer Flowers.) Given the ongoing puritanical constraints of our society, I guess this wishy-washyness is understandable, but I keep wishing he'd call a press conference and make an opening statement that says something like:
Without shame the man I like knows and avows the
deliciousness of his sex,
Without shame the woman I like knows and avows hers.
Or he might say:
I am he that aches with amorous love;
Does the earth gravitate? does not all matter, aching, attract
So the body of me to all I meet or know.
Then he could take questions and answer nearly all of them with lines from Whitman. For example:
Q. Mr. President, how do you want the American people to respond to your sex life?
A. Give me now libidinous joys only.
Give me the drench of my passions, give me life coarse and
Today I go consort with Nature's darlings, to-night too,
I am for those who believe in loose delights...
Q. But Mr. President, this was a young woman in her 20s and an intern. How could you....
A. One hour to madness and joy! O furious! O confine me not!
(What is this that frees me so in storms?)
Q. Mr. President, how do you reconcile your sexual attraction to women with your commitment to absolute equality for them?
A. They are not one jot less than I am,
They are tann'd in the face by shining suns and blowing
Their flesh has the old divine suppleness and strength,
They know how to swim, row, ride, wrestle, shoot, run,
strike, retreat, advance, resist, defend themselves,
They are ultimate in their own right -- they are calm, clear,
well-possess'd of themselves.
Q. But what about Gennifer, Paula, Monica, Hillary?
A. I draw you close to me, you women,
I cannot let you go, I would do you good,
I am for you, and you are for me, not only for our own
sake, but for others' sakes,
Envelop'd in you sleep greater heroes and bards,
They refuse to awake at the touch of any man but me?
Q. How, specifically, did you get involved with Monica?
A. Among the men and women the multitude
I perceive one picking me out by secret and divine signs,
Acknowledging none else, not parent, wife, husband,
brother, child, any nearer than I am,
Some are baffled, but that one is not -- that one knows me.
Regardless of what actually happened between Bill and Monica, a press conference like that would clear the air of sexual hypocrisy and show us at least that Clinton stands behind the gifts he gives. But then there's material in Whitman for Ken Starr as well. At the press conference across town, in front of the Grand Jury room, he could issue this proclamation:
Whoever you are, come forth! or man or woman come forth!
You must not stay sleeping and dallying there in the house...
Out of the dark confinement! out from behind the screen!
It is useless to protest. I know all and expose it.
Whitman's advice about sex and sexuality is clear and unequivocal: we need to stop thinking about it as some sort of surreptitious activity and bring it out into the sunlight:
Though me forbidden voices,
Voices of sexes and lusts, voices veil'd and I remove the veil,
Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigur'd.
I do not press my fingers across my mouth,
I keep as delicate around the bowels as around the head and heart.
Copulation is no more rank to me than death is.
Monica, Bill -- take your cue from Walt. Tell us what's going on.