The President's Penis

January, 1999

by David Cogswell

When caught up in the flurry of events, it is difficult to get a historical perspective, but even this close I think it is safe to say that never in our history has so much attention been directed toward the President's penis. At least -- and we have to be careful here -- not that of a sitting president. We have to conclude that this is more a sign of the times than it is due to something unique about this particular president. It is well established that plenty of other presidents, if not a majority, carried on exploits outside of their marriages, and many of these affairs were potentially much more scandalous than Clinton's alleged indiscretions. FDR and Ike had mistresses. JFK is reported to have told Prime Minister MacMillan of Britain, that he had to have sex every day or he got headaches. Even when the Republican dirty tricksters were trying to nail Clinton in '92 over Gennifer Flowers, Bush was reported to be carrying on with some young thing. But who cared? Nixon? Now there's a president that may not have had sex with anyone ever other than his wife, if even then. Clinton may be a little easier to see as a ladies man than most presidents, but it's hard to imagine that he's really all that much more sexy than the others, at least not enough to warrant all this attention. So we really can't take all this at face value. It's not even very interesting at face value, so we have to look beyond the surface if we want to derive any meaning about the whole . . . movement? Is it a movement? Is this what political movements have come to in our time? Once a political slogan was "Peace in our time." No one imagines that anymore to be credible. Today it is "Sex in our time."

We might as well not wait for historians of the future to play the part of judge. There may not be historians in the future. That may be only a thing of the past as we drift into an Orwellian world in which reality is wiped off the slate every day and replaced with a revised version. History is virtually a forgotten subject in American educational institutions. It's not something that is valued much in this culture, if you can call it a culture. It's more like scattered remnants of many exploded cultures. History faded from American consciousness some time since the '70s. With the deconstruction of Cold War culture, we are told that it is the "end of history." Now all historical conflict has ceased. Capitalism won. We are in Utopia, the perfect world. So why all this concern with the president's penis: where it was, who saw it and what he did with it. What exactly is going on here?

Mass media to us in America today is like water to a fish. It is said that a fish has no concept of water. It is the total medium in which it lives. It has never experienced an environment without water between it and everything else. Mass media are like that for us now, the negative space of our environment. Between us and everything else in our environment, interceding between us and practically everything we experience. Media today have a power over us beyond what we can even imagine. The noise in our environment is so great as to shatter the clarity of mind to ponder almost anything. And what is it that is being turned on us with the force of a firehose at any given moment? White noise. Information without content. Random bits in a constantly revolving kaleidoscope of meaninglessness. But turned on us with great intensity. Innocuous messages blasted at us from every side. TVs have invaded practically every sort of public space now. You see them on subway platforms, in bars, restaurants, delis. Practically every surface broadcasts some commercial message. Coffee cups, the sides of buses, the sides of buildings.

Now that we are deep within the Information Age we've been hearing about so long, what information are we being battered with daily? In this Ruppert Murdoch-style reality we go from one nuclear firestorm of meaningless information to another. Last Autumn was the Diana storm in which the blowdried heads paraded sideways past us clucking with righteous indignation about the bloodthirsty way the paparazzi pursued their quarry. Then they would cut to grainy photos of Princess Fergy's naked breast taken by some photographer who crawled on his belly for miles through some estate to take them. Only hours after Diana Spencer's death, the major networks all had their little logos in place: "The Death of Diana: A Royal Tragedy," which they played every time they cut to and from a commercial. They carved her up and portioned her corpse off to the "viewing public' with dionysian abandon, selling it exactly like they sell cars and beer. It was a gargantuan public sacrifice, a ritual of symbolic cannibalism as they rushed to grab every dime from their last big opportunity to sell the princess.

But when you are really saying nothing, you have to switch it every once in a while to keep people's attention. The major media don't have to struggle much to get the attention of the mass of people. There are few alternatives to absorbing it. With great discipline you may be able to avoid media exposure to some degree in this country. Maybe. You can avoid it, but not by much. You can lower the threshold. Or you can go live in Montana, and stay out of cities or other people's homes. So after a few months of Diana they switched back to another favorite theme of recent years, the President's Penis.

I suspect that I was in the majority in that I didn't pay any attention at all to all the Gennifer Flowers crap or the Paula Jones nastiness. It is all so vulgar, independent of anything else you might think about it. These are very trashy people throwing themselves away for the seduction of big money and the other great deity of our culture: fame. Fame has become a thing of unquestioned preciousness, regardless of whether you get it by slicing human beings into tiny cubes or bringing down a presidency in the name of love. I had paid no attention because it was obviously useless, debasing garbage to pollute the mind. Then suddenly one weekend the rumblings became too loud to ignore as I heard one vacuous face after another on the news tell me that President Clinton was done, out of there. His presidency was over, the Clinton era was over and we would now go into a sort of replay of the Gerald Ford period with Gore in place of Ford. And it was all because of . . . what? A blow job? That's what we were being told, absurd as it is. We were being brought by the media into a room we didn't want to be in with two people we did not want to be intimate with. We were thrashed mercilessly with this stuff. The newspeople were so excited they were practically frothing. They had brought down a president like it had been a fox hunt. It was a tacky display. It was high tech homo sapiens at their most barbarous. I found myself being quite upset by the whole thing.

It's not that I believe Clinton to be some sort of great idol. I can't really sort out exactly how the camps are divided between this side or that of the ruling elite. I knew for sure I felt 10,000 percent better waking up every morning knowing he was president than I had for the 12 years previous. God knows what another term of George Bush would have been like. He was champing at the bit for more military adventures. His boys had only begun with Nicaragua, Grenada, Panama and the Gulf. The direction of the progression was clear. These guys wasted no time putting their agenda into place and riding it at full speed over any resistance, going around any blockage like the Constitution, checks and balances, Congress, democracy. If Congress wouldn't put up money to fund their Contras they'd get it in the ways they knew best: selling drugs and weapons covertly. If the real story of CIA-man George Bush could be known, the man's place in history would be far more notable, he would appear not as the harmless, stumbling, "kind and gentle" old man, but as one of the truly great rogues.

There are allegations that Clinton's past in Arkansas is entangled with CIA operations that were run from his state. It would hardly be shocking to find that the man is sanctioned by the agency. A clever poor kid from Arkansas doesn't rise to the presidency in 1990s America without the backing of the major power blocs. He is certainly compromised and that's why the big boys let him play at all. His margin for action is very narrow. When he stepped a little out of line and started to mess with the "healthcare industry," he was immediately blasted with a character assassination campaign of nuclear dimensions that knocked him flat on his back with such force he almost didn't get up. As Gore Vidal said, Bill and Hillary tried to give the people what they wanted, which was healthcare that didn't lag behind all of the industrialized countries. They figured out a way that the money needed to run the reformed system would come from the insurance companies, which would be fine because no one likes insurance companies anyway. But, said Vidal, what they failed to realize is that when a major insurance company is owned by ITT, that entity is not going to allow it to show a loss. Therefore, Clinton would have to go. Clinton fought his way back by giving them everything they wanted, pushing social programs farther into the dirt and keeping military spending -- absurdly -- high.

He can't do much even if he's basically a goodhearted guy. But at least he's a different personality than George Bush. That was our alternative and George would have done all those things with great relish, militarily crushing third world countries, tearing apart any vestige of social programs, dismantling environmental protection, running covert operations both legal and illegal. So I felt more or less at ease with that sax-playing, dope-smoking, draft-dodging, womanizing guy in the White House, though I knew that everything I liked about him counted for approximately nil in the practical functioning of political power. Who knows if the economy was really going better or what? The figures are so manipulated, their meaning is up for grabs. Things for me feel a little better, but it's very subjective. I sometimes wonder what happened to the homeless I used to see all over New York and other places. I have a hard time believing they all got jobs. I suppose some day we'll hear about what happened to them when it's history and those in power can pretend that it is all in the past and the government is all better now.

So after the weekend that the news media had Clinton on a skewer and roasted him until they said he was done, I rallied for my boy. I even sent him a couple of e-mails in support for him against the nauseating media campaign about his sex-life. I mourned the loss of him; he was given no chance of rising out of this one. And I thought bleakly and uncertainly about what the next step would be. A one-year Clinton term ended by an illicit blowjob scandal and then after the dreaded cancer was removed from the body politic . . . what? President Gore? I can accept that eventually and it's a glorious alternative to Dan Quayle or God-knows-which Republican, but not yet. Just let me finish my breakfast. This is all moving a bit too fast.

Apparently I was with the majority this time because in a couple of days the polls were showing Clinton with higher approval ratings than any time in his presidency. There was a backlash against all the "sex scandals." The population at large was expressing my own feelings. This guy is an executive, that's all. He's not a religious figure or a mythological hero. Maybe he's not the greatest and apparently his personal life is not picture perfect, but why do we even want to know about that? Would I be upset if the chief executive of the company I work for had an affair? Am I when it happens?

There was a backlash. People who had never noticed it except as a mild irritation just out of the line of vision suddenly focused in and said, this thing is becoming a real pain in the ass. Even the Republicans -- never ones to let principle get in the way of a political advantage -- found themselves a little too close to the precipice of a Gore presidency, and they danced back from the edge quickly. Those damned newsmedia get carried away; they are so idealistic. The point was not to take him out of the presidency. The point was just to wound him, to marginalize him, to paralyze him. The point was . . . noise.

No sooner had I recovered from the delirium induced by the Monica Lewinsky barrage than I started hearing the campaign for the war. The rumblings approached very quickly. We were on another verge, this time of bombing Iraq back to the stone age again, of burning and crushing another 100,000 or so poor Iraqis while playing it as though it were some kind of Olympic event between Bill and Saddam. The arguments for bombing Iraqi families are always about what a bastard Saddam Hussein is. That is of course undeniably true and was true when the U.S. built up his military machine and was true when the U.S. gave him the nod to go into Kuwait. But Saddam is not the one getting killed, maimed, blinded, burned, decapitated, etc. Suddenly as I have gathered my wits after an assault that threatened to uproot everything, we're hit with the war campaign. As I wake from my stupor I see that we are within inches of another war and I say to myself: Wait a minute. Did I just get manipulated here? After arousing the most emotion I've ever felt for Slick Willie, the same forces are trying to transmute this energy into war hysteria. Wait a minute.

As always the media fall right into place. They jump to their positions and parrot the party line. They frame the debate within hopelessly narrow margins. On The News Hour with Tom Lehrer, the news show of the former Public Television (now Corporate Television), they held a debate one night over whether or not to go ahead and launch a military assault on Iraq. The pro side of the debate was a "military analyst." I tuned in in the middle, but I took it that this was a Pentagon spokesman. His position was that we should go ahead right away and bomb the hell out of these barbarians, try out our latest weapons, make this a great showcase, create some great programming for CNN. It's framed like a streetfight. We can't let this punk get uppity with us. On the other side, the side of restraint, representing the position of the doves, was a representative of the American Enterprise Institute. This point of view -- presumably the extreme opposite pole -- was something like: well, don't start the bombing yet. After all, the Olympics are Sunday and maybe . . . well, I can't think of any reasons not to go ahead, but here I am on this monitor representing the other side so let's wait a couple more days.

As they were dragging us to the brink of the planned attack, CNN broadcast a "town meeting" from a university in Ohio in which the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense and the National Security Advisor spoke and then took questions from students and faculty members. It was designed to be part of the effort to sell the war but it fell flat on its face. The "dignitaries" probably expected to encounter a mood of awed deference, but instead they were exposed to the raw will of the people, who had little sympathy for their war effort. The students and professors had the cheek to ask them the obvious questions that the moderators on real news shows are coached not to ask, like: What makes you think you have the authority to bomb this country? Why bomb Iraq when you support other countries that slaughter minorities? If it's such a great policy, why is there almost no international support? If Iraq is so dangerous, why don't the countries in the region support your war plans? and so on. One said, "If [Clinton] wants to send a message, we, the people of Columbus and central Ohio and all over America, will not send messages with the blood of Iraqi men, women and children."

For the next 24 hours or so, it was a big scandal. It was a public relations (propaganda) error that will not soon be repeated, to let the real -- unsanitized -- voice of the people be exposed on major media.

Then amidst the ongoing Capitol Hill bickering, the obligatory bitching of Trent Lott and the boys was that "The president had not done a good enough job selling the war." Selling the war. Selling the destruction of that country again, the slaughter of a new generation of those people. They think they have us so braindead with this constant media assault that it's just a matter of marketing. We're not supposed to see it as any different than a new campaign to sell laundry detergent, or computers . . . or cigarettes.

So all this stuff about the President's penis, what is it really about? They know we are not such fools as to really care, though they may think they have us convinced that everyone else cares. And that thought is enough to induce cynicism and apathy, shame at being a part of such a disgusting species. And that is what it is designed to do. Not to convince us. Certainly not to inform us. Not even really to entertain us, but just to keep us out of the way, the vast majority of us anyway. And to sell to those who are affluent enough to constitute a market. If there is enough noise blasting hard enough and relentlessly enough, it will keep us from thinking, from talking to each other about other things. What kind of things? Like why there is a gigantic military budget, but no money for health care, for food for kids, for day care for families; what the real statistics of poverty are; what the trends of income distribution are; what happened to environmental protection; where it is all leading us; what we are becoming; where our taxes really go; how the public resources are distributed . . .

But those people in Ohio, God bless 'em. They created enough evidence to remind us again that the population is not as dumb as the media portrays us to us. We are not the herd of mindless dumb beasts that we are supposed to be. We are supposed to think that if we don't want the latest war -- if we are outside the margins of debate that they show us between the Pentagon and a right wing business association -- then we are all alone. There is no one there with us. We who might dare to think that an Iraqi life might count for something somewhere in this debate are isolated freaks. No sensible person would entertain such a notion. But we are not the mindless mob. The individuals that make up that public are not the great Other as it is portrayed by the multibillion dollar institutions that control what we see and hear. And the reason the blast of random noise is so overwhelming is because that tiny minority that tells the rest of us how we are supposed to live and think are scared to death that we might wake up from the dream they have induced. And when we do, they are in big trouble.

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