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Volume 11, No. 6—September 2001  
Table of contents for this issue  

Fear of a Queer President

IN OCTOBER 1998, AS THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES voted to begin impeachment hearings, Toni Morrison announced in the pages of The New Yorker that Bill Clinton was our first black president. Or at least, she explained, he was blacker than any actual black person who would ever be elected. By way of evidence, she pointed to his birth into a poor, single-parent household, his penchant for junk food and the saxophone, and the fact that his sexuality served as the basis of his persecution.

Morrison's assertion, it turns out, was just the beginning. "If, as Toni Morrison has argued, there is some truth to the claim that Clinton is our first African American president," writes the queer theorist Tyler Curtain in the new anthology Our Monica, Ourselves: The Clinton Affair and the National Interest (NYU), "then I want to pipe up: he's our first queer one as well." Curtain's proof? "[T]he bestowal of a copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass by William Jefferson Clinton on Monica Lewinsky and a rim job by Monica Lewinsky on William Jefferson Clinton. Any queerly enculturated gay man will recognize the acts and the objects."

Our Monica, Ourselves takes its inspiration from earlier anthologies about the Clarence Thomas nomination and the O.J. Simpson case edited by—who else?—Toni Morrison. Whereas those collections featured work by scholars of race, the experts here, fittingly, are students of sex—primarily feminists and queer theorists like Curtain—and the book is published under the aegis of New York University Press's Sexual Cultures series. Indeed, the volume's editors, Lauren Berlant of the University of Chicago and Lisa Duggan of NYU, are queer-theory stars.

"I have a long-standing interest in issues of sexuality and the state," Duggan says. "When [the Clinton] scandal broke, I had already written quite extensively about sex panics, and here we had another one. I became inexplicably obsessed."

Duggan was frustrated by mainstream commentary on the scandal, which, she says, tended to reduce to one of two arguments: "One was a moral denunciation, and the other was a defense of privacy. Liberals were on the privacy side, and on the moral-denunciation side were a range of conservatives." It seemed clear to her that the discussion would be enriched by other perspectives, including queer theory, the academic approach influenced by Michel Foucault that takes existing sexual norms and definitions as fundamentally problematic, not just for those who identify as gay but for all who run afoul of the boundaries of socially acceptable (monogamous, heterosexual, married) sex.

Despite the contributors' shared interests, no fixed queer or feminist position emerges from this collection. Catharine Lumby takes issue with the widespread presumption that Clinton had a right to sexual privacy, arguing that scrutiny of public figures' sex lives is a positive legacy of feminist efforts to politicize behavior once deemed private, such as sexual harassment. Because the affair came to light after Clinton lied about it in a sexual harassment suit, its details are "every bit as important as the details of Nixon's attempted cover-up of Watergate."

Jane Gallop's take could not be more different. She argues that conservative forces have co-opted sexual harassment and turned it into a fundamentally antifeminist issue. Indeed, by suggesting that sexuality in the workplace is "bad" and that "good" sex is private, sexual harassment law forces a regression to "a time when the workplace was all male and men were closeted."

Few other pieces in Our Monica, Ourselves enter into current debates over sexual harassment law or the like, but what the remaining essays lack in immediate political relevance they make up for in the reach—at times, the very long reach—of their cultural analysis. Simone Weil Davis considers the 1998 porn film Deep Throat V: The Quest—Slick Willy Rides Again! Sasha Torres imagines how television news coverage of the scandal might have functioned had Peter Jennings and Judy Woodruff turned to the sex gurus Dan Savage and Susie Bright for commentary. Ann Cvetkovich conducts a close reading of the Starr Report wherein she improbably compares the document to classic slave narratives. (Among other things, Cvetkovich argues, both sorts of text employ "fictional strategies," grapple with ambivalence about making private lives public, and reveal information about the sex lives of powerful men.)

With considerable spirit, Laura Kipnis assesses Linda Tripp's face and the public aversion to it, concluding that though she endorses feminist critiques of lookism, perhaps in Tripp's case repulsion was justified. "Ugliness," she writes, "might be less a physical fact than a social relation, not physiognomic but...intersubjective," and our judgments of ugliness might be a means of "producing social knowledge."

By contrast, James Kincaid, a Victorianist who specializes in analyzing the social anxieties that surround pedophilia, barely manages to stifle a yawn at the affair's "banality." He characterizes the Clinton-Lewinsky spectacle as distinctly unerotic, in part because "neither Monica nor Bill can be easily thought of as children." Since they are not childlike, he explains, "it's hard for us to see them as enticing.... We've seen Shirley Temple and are not going to settle for Monica in pantaloons."

Throughout, strikingly little attention is devoted to the anthology's title character. Only two essays take Monica as their explicit focus (by comparison, two essays are devoted to Clinton's penis alone). In "Moniker," Marjorie Garber studies the implications of Monica's Jewishness, noting, among other things, the parallels between Monica's story and Queen Esther's. A second piece, "Monica Dreyfus," considers Monica within the context of various conspiracy theories, both vast right-wing domestic ones and international ones, and the notion—widespread in the Middle East but little reported in the United States—that Monica was a Zionist pawn.

It is Bill, however, who proves the source of near-universal fascination. Few contributors resist somehow answering Morrison's 1998 claim about Clinton's African-Americanness: Echoing Tyler Curtain's assertion that Clinton is the first queer president, other contributors offer up Bill the feminine, Bill the black woman ("We should get Angela Bassett, or better yet Dr. Vaginal Davis, to play her in the movie," declares Frederick Moten), Bill the white-trash president, and even Bill the sacrificial offering.

Will cultural and queer studies scholars ever find such material in W.? Though Duggan and Berlant report no plans to take him on in the near future—Duggan is working on a book about Jesse Helms, and Berlant is finishing a volume on trauma in liberal culture—they venture a few thoughts. Berlant finds that the contrast between Bill's "all-too-human" appetites and W.'s "recovery from his appetites" to be revealing. Duggan, meanwhile, is struck by W.'s upholding of "normativity," his "upper-class minstrelism of 'populist' politics," and "his infantilism (he's Daddy's boy/Cheney's boy, isn't he?)." Pointing to the Bush administration's exclusion of queers, she finds herself feeling more than a little nostalgic. W. is enough, says Duggan, to make "ole 'don't ask, don't tell' Billy Boy look good."

Kate Julian

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