The President's 'Darkness at Noon'

George Packer is a regular contributor to Dissent and his new novel, "Central Square," will be out next month

'I feel like a character in a novel," President Bill Clinton says at one point in the Starr report, with unwitting irony, for it appears near the end of the section titled "Narrative." "I feel like somebody who is surrounded by an oppressive force that is creating a lie about me and I can't get the truth out. I feel like the character in the novel 'Darkness at Noon.' "

That would be N.S. Rubashov, the aging Bolshevik in Arthur Koestler's masterpiece about the Moscow show trials of the 1930s. Rubashov is charged with plotting against the party that he spent his whole life serving. The charges are false, but he confesses anyway, because in his commitment to the Revolution, which included betraying his mistress to the authorities, he has long since abandoned whatever ideas of morality, justice or truth he might now claim in his defense.

On one level, the president's analogy is glib, self-serving and brazenly wrong. He reportedly said it on the day in January when the Monica S. Lewinsky story broke, to an aide whom he had just assured that Lewinsky was a stalker who Clinton had rebuffed. Rubashov confessed to what he hadn't done; Clinton lied about what he had. So the analogy is a sophisticated double deception, twisting both sides of the comparison--implying baffled innocence trapped in a nightmare beyond understanding, when, in fact, neither Clinton nor Rubashov is truly innocent. (Clarence Thomas was after the same effect, but closer to cliche, when he called his Senate confirmation hearing "Kafkaesque.")

Yet when you read the Starr report, or watch the videotaped grand-jury testimony, something of Koestler's darkness begins to pervade the spectacle of prosecutorial power unleashed on human lust and its denials.

In the pseudo-literary "Narrative," Clinton appears as a prisoner of the Oval Office, where every visit and phone call is minutely clocked. "The president, for all intents and purposes, is never alone," his secretary testifies. In this atmosphere, the fumbling and groping in an adjacent hallway are a furtive relief, just as, when Rubashov is confined to his cell, the czarist officer serving a 40-year sentence in the next cell taps out on the wall, "When did you last sleep with a woman?" Begged for details, Rubashov improvises a description: "snowy breasts fitting into champagne glasses."

As for the four-hour grand-jury testimony, it might lack interrogation lamps, but the unrelenting off-camera relay of prosecutors is just as cold and implacable as Commissar Gletkin, who reminds Rubashov of "a bird of prey hacking at its victim with its beak." Under the intense scrutiny, Clinton comes to resemble Rubashov as he begins "to get lost in the labyrinth of calculated lies and dialectic pretenses, in the twilight between truth and illusion. The ultimate truth always receded a step; visible remained only the penultimate lie with which one had to serve it. And what pathetic contortions and St. Vitus's dances did it compel one to!"

But a sensitive observer of both cases feels less scorn at the dishonesty of "splitting hairs" (Rubashov's phrase) than horror at the ferocity of the system compelling it. One system justifies itself by ideological dogma ("the Party is always right"), the other by law ("As required by Section 595(c) of Title 28 of the United States Code"), but in their obsessive scrutiny, their righteous cruelty, their indifference to the individual and privacy and their disregard of proportion between means and ends, both systems seem devoted to the exercise of power for its own sake. If the old Bolshevik and the young president are accomplices in their own humiliation, to some degree creatures and even authors of the systems that want to destroy them, we can judge them accordingly and still affirm the line from Feodor Dostoevski that Koestler uses as his epigraph: "Man, man, one cannot live quite without pity."

One other classic literary work is mentioned in the Starr report, Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass," a Christmas present Clinton gave to Lewinsky. Like most of his gestures it is both tawdry and touching, "the most sentimental gift he had given me," Lewinsky remarks. In a characteristically cruel detail, the report's footnotes quote the draft of Lewinsky's thank-you note: "Like Shakespeare, Whitman's writings are so timeless. I find solace in works from the past that remain profound and somehow always poignant. Whitman is so rich that one must read him like one tastes a fine wine or good cigar--take it in, roll it in your mouth and savor it!"

"Poignant" is the right word for Whitman's sudden appearance halfway down the narrow, sordid passage of the Starr report. The poet's noon is drenched in the sunlight of the free individual, casting off burdens, opening to the universe. The mention of "Leaves of Grass" seems almost a devastating rebuke to the entire focus of the report. One imagines the central character, in his cell in the Oval Office, murmuring, "Unscrew the locks from the doors!/Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!"*

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