Tuesday, October 06 1998, 4:48 PM
When Reagan was president, the national imaginary was populated by wholesome and tough figures from fifties Hollywood. We looked back — sneeringly or nostalgically — at Reagan's own cinematic oeuvre and the other movies that inspired it to find the historical template which stamped the eighties with its ideological image. In Reagan's anti-welfare policies, we could see Peyton Place (1957); in his Cold War mania we could see Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). And in his family values, we could see a vision of John Wayne's squint from The Searchers (1956).
But with the Clinton Era, we were finally able to forget the fifties once and for all. Even the inaugural theme song, Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow," was an emphatically post-fifties hymn to the future. But we haven't escaped from the tug of pop cultural déjà vu just yet.
Now, we cannot ever look into Clinton's cute boy grin without seeing a fleeting glimpse of the movie genre that took mainstream America by storm right around the same time Fleetwood Mac did. I refer, of course, to the pornographic feature film epitomized by seventies classics like Deep Throat (1972) and Behind the Green Door (1972). For obvious reasons, Deep Throat has become particularly poignant, and indeed crucial to understanding the surprisingly seductive eroticism of The Starr Report.
As many critics have noted — Hustler ringleader Larry Flynt among them — the Starr Report is obviously pornographic. But I would argue that it recalls a specific kind of pornography, the sort that went aboveground for a brief period during the mid-seventies. Like work by the Mitchell Brothers (auteurs of Behind the Green Door), there is a kind of goofy, liberated glee to the stories of Clinton's sexual prowess. The Report is, after all, not the tale of a sexual predator, but a man engaging in free love within the confines of a Puritanical culture. And Lewinsky, like the Mitchell Brothers' famed porn muse Marilyn Chambers, is hardly exploited: she seems to enjoy her status as presidential sex kitten, and reports the orgasms she enjoyed in the White House with the erotic irrepressibility of someone who appears not to have lived through the Sex is Death era in the eighties and nineties.
The media frenzy around Clinton and Lewinsky's tryst — while it means many things — should also be considered a manifestation of national sexual nostalgia. Like That 70s Show, a new sitcom about raunchy teenagers growing up in the mid-seventies, Lewinsky's testimony reminds us of a time when sex was beginning to seem like a "nice" thing, even a casual and generous form of affection, rather than a prelude to disease, public shame, and political failure.
For leftists like myself who are dismayed at the degree to which Bill and Hillary Clinton betrayed us, the Clinton-Lewinsky affair is a tragic booby prize. Finally we get some progressive values in the nation's capital, but they are "private" and "personal" values, ones that can barely be discussed openly and analyzed for their social meaning. Non-monogamy and oral sex are the hallmarks of sexual radicalism, if we grant that sex acts are political, and sadly it would seem this is all the radicalism we're going to get out of the Clinton Era: a shamefaced, hidden urge to cast off traditional family values. Progressive change, like "forbidden" sex, has been consigned to the closet again.
Thus, while a few people like Lewinsky will get the personal satisfactions they deserve from Clinton, the public will be robbed of its health care, its social programs, a sane strategy for market regulation, and the civil rights it deserves. In my darkest moments (and there have been quite a few lately), I wonder if the power of social and sexual activism on the left has been turned into nothing more than the freedom to say "oral sex" on television — albeit only when "humiliating" or "gratuitous" are used in the same breath.
But I haven't given up hope. I'm still scanning the media for a scandal that will finally prove that sex is good and capitalism is bad.
Annalee Newitz is a freelance writer and adjunct professor at UC Berkeley.