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  • Publicizing the President’s Privates
  • Loren Glass

For me an audience interminable.

—Walt Whitman

And I will make a song for the ears of the President.

—Walt Whitman

On Monday, August 17, 1998, a day that seemed to have gone down in history before it even arrived, President Bill Clinton made the obviously poll-driven and eminently quotable claim: “Even presidents have private lives.” Clinton was assuming that his national television audience distinguished between his public office and his private life, and that he could consequently convince them that his blowjobs were his business. The plethora of public opinion polls that preceded his appearance did seem to reflect a national belief that some sort of commonly understood and juridically established division between public and private is crucial not only to a healthy presidency, but to a healthy society. Clinton seemed safe in assuming that the American public would agree to let him resolve the affair privately.

And yet The Starr Report, certainly the most widely distributed public document in the history of the Republic, appears to have proven him wrong. Bill Clinton’s private life and personality became a vital center of public discussion in the United States and the world. The tragicomic narrative of his doomed affair with Monica Lewinsky was followed avidly by millions, if not billions, of readers. The explicit sexual details of their furtive encounters are now universally known. Never before has something so private become public so rapidly and spectacularly. In fact, I would like to claim that the explicit content and democratic distribution of The Starr Report indicate a significant transformation in the structure of the American public sphere.

The scandal exposed a schizophrenic split in American public subjectivity: While the polls repeatedly revealed that Americans claim to respect Clinton’s right to privacy, the intense media scrutiny clearly solicited public curiosity about how he exercises that right. The prudery of America’s public conscience collided with the prurience of its public libido.1 Such contradictions in public subjectivity tend to have concrete symptoms, and the symptom of the Clinton Crisis couldn’t be clearer: it is the President’s penis. Not the phallus, not the symbol of his office, but his actual anatomical penis: The palpable specificity of Clinton’s penis has stood at the center of this crisis, from Jones’s allegation that she could identify its physical idiosyncrasies to Kenneth Starr’s irrefutable scientific claim that only one penis out of 7.87 trillion could have spilled the semen onto Monica Lewinsky’s dress.

Slavoj Zizek defines the symptom as “a particular element which subverts its own universal foundation.” This particular element is both “a point of breakdown heterogeneous to a given ideological field and at the same time necessary for the field to achieve its closure” (21). Thus “freedom” as a “universal notion” is enabled by a symptomatic exception: the worker’s freedom to sell his labor, which is really the opposite of freedom. The American presidency occupies a similar relation to the ideological field of bourgeois law, which is supposedly based on impersonal norms. In a constitutional republic conceived as a “government of laws, not of men,” the President is the one man who must in turn embody the Law. In this sense, the Presidency is the enabling symptom of republican government. His personal power is the exception that proves the rule of bourgeois democracy.2

However, the explicit acknowledgment of the president’s anatomical masculinity pushes the logic of the symptom past the threshold of the enabling exception, threatening to generate a crisis in the ideological field of American patriarchal authority itself. As a symptom of a symptom, a concrete positivity that gives the lie to the foundational symbolic anchor of the Law, Clinton’s penis stands for an unprecedented breakdown in both the intelligibility and effectivity of that Law. In Lacanian terms, the entire edifice of male entitlement to power under the Law of the Father depends upon the ideologically crucial yet admittedly vulnerable equation between the phallus as the transcendent signifier and the penis as its anatomical referent.3 One of the principal strategies for reinforcing this equation is simply to conceal the penis. In fact...

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