Sometimes I think I was born too late. I long for the days when certain things weren't talked about, when we weren't presented with every sordid detail of every public figure's life on a slime-dripping platter. The quagmire of ugly revelations and disclosures we're in right now may be yet another legacy of the freewheeling '60s and '70s. Let it all hang out, man; don't hold anything in; get it out in the open. The rock-bottom result of this is anonymous jerks going on Jerry Springer to share their fucked-upness with the rest of the world. And if you're not willing to dime on yourself, some weasel will do it for you.
I'll start with the lesser of two weasels. Weasel #1: Joyce Maynard.
A columnist and novelist (TO DIE FOR was based on her book), Maynard has chosen to write a memoir, AT HOME IN THE WORLD, in which the centerpiece is her brief affair with J.D. Salinger, the reclusive author of THE CATCHER IN THE RYE. (I identify him here not to insult your intelligence but to educate those who know only the King/Koontz/Clancy axis.) Many have remarked on the commercial shrewdness, the insensitivity, and the downright ugliness of a compulsively self-revealing woman's throwing good taste and judgment to the wind and giving us chapter and verse on her youthful fumblings with the world's most intensely private public figure.
One pictures poor old Jerome David whirling in his grave over this assault on his dignity and privacy ... except he ain't dead yet. Nope, Maynard hasn't even had the decency to wait until Salinger checks into the maggot motel. Thus, a great writer whose work has touched so many of us now has to endure this late-inning humiliation in his autumn years, when he should be maxin', relaxin', and packing his bags for his trip to the undiscover'd country.
Apologists for Maynard have said that it was Salinger who first approached her, in a fan letter written to the then-teenager after her article, "An 18-Year-Old Looks Back On Life," had been published in the New York Times Sunday magazine. Bedazzled to hear from this literary lion (but never having read any of his work, not even CATCHER, which seems unthinkable to me, since she was a freshman at Yale at the time), Maynard soon ditched boring old college and moved in with Salinger. Their relationship (if we can call it that) clocked in at nine months. The same apologists will point with trembling finger to the disparity in age. Maynard was a dewy 18, Salinger a leathery 53. Thus he was a Dirty Old Man, and deserves whatever dirty-laundry-airing Maynard can visit upon him.
It strikes me as ironic that "Dirty Laundry" was the Don Henley song used in the trailer for TO DIE FOR, and that Maynard has become her protagonist Suzanne Stone, the ambitious weatherperson who'll stop at nothing to get ahead. Her most recent novel, WHERE LOVE GOES, failed to hit bestseller lists despite her stabs at multimedia marketing -- a CD of songs referenced in the book and playing on the stereo when Maynard wrote the novel. So, how to increase one's visibility and assuage the pain of having peaked at 18? Answer: a warts-and-all tell-all dragging out the skeleton in the closet of a writer whose chief characteristic over the last forty years has been his stubborn refusal to reveal anything of himself except that which can be found in his fiction.
Which brings us, in a not-especially-smooth segue, to weasel #2.
At this writing, the polls show that not many Americans have changed their minds about Bill Clinton, even in the face of the televised video of his grilling. This prolonged and squalid mess has either confirmed their hatred of the man, or inspired them to say "Enough! Stop it, for Chrissakes! What he did was shitty and stupid and wrong, but he doesn't deserve to go down in flames for it!"
I fall into the latter group. I empathize with what Hillary and Chelsea are going through -- one cannot overstate the toll adultery takes on both the cheated-on and the children of a faithless parent -- and their agony is magnified by being in the public eye. No question, Clinton thinks with the wrong head, as he apparently has always done. (And whether or not we voted for him, we knew two things about him going in: he's a hound, and he's slick. Why anyone is shocked at the proof of this, six years later, is beyond me.) The emotional bottom line for me is that Clinton cannot look at his wife and daughter without seeing the pain he's caused them. If he could look at them guiltlessly before, he can't any more. If there's anything positive in all this, it may be the protracted reality slap Clinton needs to drive home the point that his actions have consequences for those who love him. Adultery, like any illicit act, requires a mental leap in which all possible consequences are banished from one's mind. No one sets out intending to devastate their loved ones through an affair. Which is cold comfort to those picking through the ruins of trust. Maybe Hillary knew what she was in for, but whose heart doesn't go out to Chelsea?
But my focus is on Ken Starr, the real Weasel #2, whose weaseltude makes Clinton seem squeaky-clean. Starr has spent $40 million of our tax dollars on, as it has been pointed out, a 500-page issue of PENTHOUSE FORUM. He has aided in the disgrace of the presidency and publicized a stupid little fling that should have remained private. Do the people who profess shock at Clinton's adultery have any memory whatsoever? JFK's skirt-chasing made Clinton look like the Dalai Lama. In fact, some of JFK's kinks were so ugly as to be psychopathic. I can't even give an example here; it's just too grotesque. It's far worse than anything in the Starr report, wherein the big kink is the business with the cigar. But I think of that report, and I think of Chelsea going to college with fellow students who have probably read at least excerpts from it. (If I seem overprotective of the First Daughter, it all goes back to when dickheads like Rush Limbaugh were so cruel about her looks. Shit like that disgusts me. That is never necessary. Bash Clinton all you want, but leave his daughter out of it. It's important to remember that the Starr report doesn't humiliate just Bill Clinton.)
This all points toward the Springerization of our society, where lost souls and trailer trash get their 15 minutes of infamy on TV, and fading novelists spice up their careers with juicy anecdotes ("I Had a Sexless Affair With a Hermit!") and monomaniacal lawyers follow their obsessions to the tune of $40 million.
Which leads me to my Springer-like Final Thought. Check Uma's quote above. Do we really need to know that Clinton did Stupid Cigar Tricks, or that Joyce Maynard couldn't have sex with Salinger for, let's say, gynecological reasons? Whence comes all this phallic/gynocentric fascination? Are we all thirteen-year-old boys hovering over a stolen copy of Playboy? What the fuck is wrong with us? We don't need a wag-the-dog scenario to distract us from matters of importance -- we do it to ourselves. And I predict all this airing of dirty laundry will lead to even more friction and mistrust between the sexes. The sexual relationship you have today could come back to bite you in the ass twenty years from now. You could find the size of your penis or the sag of your breasts detailed in some gut-spilling twit's memoir ... or in some gut-eviscerating twit's report.
None of us are pristine. None of us have always behaved, sexually or otherwise, in ways we'd be proud of if they became fodder for public consumption. You may have a Starr or a Maynard lurking in your life, but you won't know it until the specifics of your boudoir peccadilloes become above-the-fold news. To reduce the likelihood of this happening to you, you can take the obvious step of never wetting your genitalia with another person again. Since this is not an option for many people, I suggest an easier route. This stuff will not be aired and published if it is made resoundingly clear that there's no audience for it. Vote with your wallet or purse. Don't tune in, don't buy the magazines or papers that shill this swill; or, if you have subscriptions or want to enjoy the more worthwhile reading material in those publications, bug the shit out of the editors with letters demanding that they knock it off. Sometime soon, we have to send the message: We're sick of hearing this shit; it's out of control; stop it.
This isn't about prudishness; it's about protection of privacy. They got Salinger; they got Clinton. You may one day have a position of visibility and power, and that's when they'll get you, too. Every hapless, fumbly thing you've done in bed, or anywhere else, will be laid out and autopsied. And if you drool over other people's misdeeds now, you'll deserve it happening to you later. Instant karma.