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 "pu**y" (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.