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Jewish World Review / September 23, 1998 / 3 Tishrei, 5759

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg The demolition of meaning

FOR THOSE WHO HAVE BEEN WATCHING Bill Clinton give slippery answers for decades now, his just-released video will provide no surprises. It's the same old clinton clauses refined to the point of absurdity, if not beyond. What may once have been maddening now has become simply surreal.

Lonesco has nothing on this boy. And, as in the theater of the absurd, the only appropriate response may be laughter, even delight. Indignation long ago gave way to almost a kind of admiration for this president's way with truth; he can turn it every which way but loose.

Bill Clinton's lawyer may have been in the room when he testified before the grand jury, but his long-time counselor, his alter ego, his now grizzled guide past the shoals of candor, remains our familiar old friend Slick Willie.

By now Slick has expanded the ordinary old clinton clause into an entire language. The thing has metastasized into a structure as complex and nuanced as George Orwell's carefully constructed Newspeak in 1984.

After listening to all the president's lawyers, and all the talking lawheads parse the language into meaninglessness, one appreciates anew why poor Winston Smith, after all those years at the Ministry of Truth, would conclude: If there is hope it lies in the proles. For they still speak the language that our leaders, our intellectuals, our scholars, seem to have surmounted.

Can there be any doubt who deserves this year's Doublespeak Award? Bill Clinton ought to retire it on the basis of this year's performance alone. (Define alone.)

The object of the whole, clintonesque endeavor remains the same: to lie without exactly, legally, technically lying. For can there be an adult of medium sound mind in this country who still believes that our president has told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? But does the phrase mean anything any more? For now even Bill Clinton has testified that he sought to keep his affair with Miss Lewinsky secret when he testified about it under oath. Excuse me, his inappropriate intimate contact with Miss Lewinsky.

This latest, four-hour exercise in equivocation isn't likely to have 'em lined up at the video stores. Because it's not news. Because the president's way with words is familiar by now.

But for aficionados of clintonspeak, there are some delicious moments in this video as the president outdoes even himself at verbal elasticity. Define "alone." Define "is.'' What next, define "Wednesday''?

Words tend to mean just what this witness intends them to mean when he intends them to mean it. Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty has now been incarnated as the 42nd president of the United States. Sometimes his words mean what they mean to the rest of us, as in his opening statement: "When I was alone with Ms. Lewinsky on certain occasions. ...'' At other times, he and Ms. Lewinsky were not alone because there were other people in the White House, or maybe on the planet.

At one point, our articulate president seems to be having a problem with the simplest of verbs. Indeed, he can sound like a coffee-house existentialist: "It depends on what the meaning of the word is, is.''

But on one question Bill Clinton is dead certain: He never told Monica Lewinsky to lie. Nor did he have to. Just as Richard Nixon never had to take John Dean aside and say, "John, let's you and I go out there and commit a little perjury and obstruction of justice.'' Some things were understood. The cover story had been worked out.

Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky had worked out their story, too. And it might have held if Miss Monica hadn't been impelled to talk to her friends, her mother and apparently everybody in earshot. There are some people who just can't conspire straight. Is her story more funny or sad? Mainly, it's just young. Not to say infantile.

Bill Clinton didn't tell Betty Currie to lie, either. He just called her into his office the very next day after his testimony in the Paula Jones case in order to refresh his memory. And how does he do it? By recounting a story he had to know was false. Why, sure. Isn't that how we all refresh our memory?

Here's how Betty Currie remembers that conversation: "He proceeded to make a series of statements, one right after the other: 'You were always there when she was there, right?' 'Monica came on to me, and I never touched her, right?' 'You can see and hear everything, right'?''

If all that is right, what could be wrong? And is there any difference any more?

If one takes the president's testimony seriously -- a monumental feat -- what do words like alone, is, right or wrong mean anymore? And does anybody care? How is it possible to care when the whole subject is obsessed about 24 hours a day? If only Richard Nixon could have made Watergate a meaningless bore, he might have served out his term.

Various lawyers and politicians now have just about succeeded in explaining that this is only about law and politics -- realms in which the ordinary meaning of words no longer hold. Like the ruble and the rupiah, words become another devalued currency. They can no longer be held to a single standard; their meaning has been allowed to float.

This president's language isn't just an invitation to cynicism; it's a coronation. It is language at last freed from its always tenuous moorings in thought.

Richard Weaver saw it coming. He warned us that modern man's weariness with words, his sense of moral helplessness, stems from the "failure to insist upon no compromise in definition.''

The corruption of man, as Emerson wrote, leads to the corruption of language. And the corruption of language, Orwell foresaw, would lead to the further corruption of man.

Until at last we will all find ourselves in something like the verbal bog that is Bill Clinton's sworn testimony. It is worse than a succession of lies; at least lies would be identifiable, traceable, arguable. But this hodgepodge is just a jumble without any clear purpose except to beat the rap. A simple, honest lie would be a step up.

The national discourse is now being conducted post-English. There is a Gresham's Law in these matters as bad language drives out the good.

After a decade or two of deconstruction, we seem to have reduced language to only useful signs, as the semioticians say. Their meaning, if any, depends on whatever use we wish to put them to today. Just what do the following phrases mean, if anything? "I did not have sexual relations with that woman. ... It depends on what the meaning of the word is, is. ...

Define alone?

Bill Clinton knows very well what "alone'' means; he may be the most alone of all men, for he seems to have a language all his own.


9/18/98: So help us G-d; The nature of the crisis
9/17/98: First impressions: on reading the Starr Report
9/15/98: George Wallace: All the South in one man
9/10/98: Here comes the judge
9/07/98: Toward impeachment
9/03/98: The politics of impeachment
9/01/98: The eagle can still soar
8/28/98: Boris Yeltsin's mind: a riddle pickled in an enigma
8/26/98: Clinton agonistes, or: Twisting in the wind
8/25/98: The rise of the English murder
8/24/98: Confess and attack: Slick comes semi-clean
8/19/98: Little Rock perspectives
8/14/98: Department of deja vu
8/12/98: The French would understand
8/10/98: A fable: The Rat in the Corner
8/07/98: Welcome to the roaring 90s
8/06/98: No surprises dept. -- promotion denied
8/03/98: Quotes of and for the week: take your pick
7/29/98: A subpoena for the president:
so what else is new?
7/27/98: Forget about Bubba, it's time to investigate Reno
7/23/98: Ghosts on the roof, 1998
7/21/98: The new elegance
7/16/98: In defense of manners
7/13/98: Another day, another delay: what's missing from the scandal news
7/9/98:The language-wars continue
7/7/98:The new Detente
7/2/98: Bubba in Beijing: history does occur twice
6/30/98: Hurry back, Mr. President -- to freedom
6/24/98: When Clinton follows Quayle's lead
6/22/98: Independence Day, 2002
6/18/98: Adventures in poli-speke

©1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate