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The Whore Principle

By Daniel M. Suleiman

You can bet Lincoln was a whore before he was president.

This is what presidential candidate Jack Stanton tells his protege Henry Burton at the end of Primary Colors, a new film adapted from the best-selling novel by journalist Joe Klein; and it's the message we're left with after what amounts to an entertaining embellishment of the 1992 Clinton campaign.

Burton, Stanton's campaign director (the George Stephanopolous character), learns this lesson the hard way but does finally accept it in all of its cynicism; and the idea is that we should, too. In fact, the message at the end of "Primary Colors" seems to be intended as a universal principle: in order to do good, you also have to be a whore or a hypocrite.

Well, what kind of lesson is that, especially for impressionable young college students? and is it true?

It's possible that the greatest presidents in American history have been just as morally lax as Clinton appears to be when it comes to women and money, and that the only difference in the 1990s is that we find out about the undersides of our presidents immediately, instead of decades after the fact. Yet this analysis is too simple; it is equally fair to say that the demands put upon politicians today, particularly in the area of fundraising, beckon increasing levels of whoredom.

But whatever the reason and despite the fact that it may not be universal across both space and time, the Whore Principle does seem to be well adhered to in presidential politics today. The question is whether or not this principle is also applicable to other current political arenas, and by extension, to other aspects of life.

The feminist struggle seems to be a good place to start looking for an answer, in part because we expect worthy causes to have equally noble proponents, in part because feminists are currently caught up in presidential politics. In the wake of the Clinton-Jones-Lewinsky-Willey debacle, feminists have been charged with crawling into bed with the President (metaphorically, of course), and with being reluctant to get out as long as their interests are being served. In response to the claim that feminists have been hypocritical for continuing to support Clinton through these scandal-ridden months, the founder of Ms. magazine, Gloria Steinem, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times (March 22) called "Feminists and the Clinton Question." In it, she defended herself and the rest of the feminist movement.

For some reason, conservative pundits seem delighted to accuse feminists of hypocrisy in this case. Yet, while there may be some truth to these charges, there is an inherent hypocrisy in the leveling of them in the first place. The same conservatives who are eager to condemn Clinton and who will no doubt support impeachment charges if they ever do arise, were not nearly so eager to condemn Bob Packwood or Clarence Thomas several years ago for equally if not more offensive behavior.

Gloria Steinem did not address this issue. Instead, she bent over backwards to exonerate Clinton--going so far as to claim, as so many naysayers of sexual harassment do, that the "power imbalance" was insignificant. She also drew sharp distinctions between the sexual harassment committed by Packwood and Thomas and Clinton's improprieties, because, she writes, Clinton has respected the "no means no; yes means yes" principle. He may have made "a gross, dumb and reckless pass at a supporter during a low point in her life," Steinem concludes, but he is not guilty of sexual harassment because he accepted rejection--and that's what counts. But if a woman comes out of the woodwork tomorrow, alleging that Clinton was inappropriate to her more than once, a) no one will be surprised and b) this part of Steinem's argument will become useless.

But Steinem also makes a more convincing argument, although one that it is considerably harder to accept--at least for the young, inexperienced and idealistic--and one that she therefore spends less time developing. The real crux of Steinem's argument and the only persuasive aspect of it is simply an echo of the message of Jack Stanton: you've got to be a whore in order to change the world.

She didn't say it that way, of course. Instead she writes in the second paragraph, "[I]f the President had behaved with comparable insensitivity toward environmentalists, and at the same time remained their most crucial champion and bulwark against an anti-environmental Congress, would they be expected to desert him? I don't think so."

So if even Gloria Steinem is a proponent of the Whore Principle, then is it something I and other young people should accept? The answer to that one still has to be, no. It's pragmatic, it's effective and it may damn well be true, but it's an insidious principle to believe in because it is capable of justifying just about anything in the name of social change.

If Lincoln was a whore before he was president, then maybe the real lesson is that it's better to stay out politics--at least as long as fellatio presides in the Oval Office.

Daniel M. Suleiman '99 is a junior social studies concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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