Prisoners of sex

Nov 17, 1999 at 12:00 am

OK, it isn’t the right thing to say, but part of you has gotta love it.

For six years, long-suffering liberals have been saddled with ’Dick’ Clinton, who has done his considerable best to live down to or exceed every right-wing stereotype of moral decay.

Now conservatives have a horrifying scandal of their own in our back yard, at Hillsdale College, long a sort of pet academic bonsai tree for snobbish conservatives of the William F. Buckley variety. Some of them even sent their younger children there, especially if they could not get them into Princeton.

Actually Hillsdale was – is – a rather decent little liberal arts college, not one of the grosser creationism/Bible-thumping academies seen as institutions of higher education by the hygienically challenged and the wackier factions of the Christian right.

What was special about Hillsdale was its refusal, on principle, to either take any federal funds or to allow its students to take any – even GI Bill benefits – since this would mean a measure of federal control. Instead, its longtime president, George Roche III, became the daddy of all fund-raisers, pulling in hundreds of millions of dollars.

Hillsdale seemed to many an island of decency, a place of learning and values. Republicans, from the sanctimonious William Bennett to Colin Powell, made pilgrimages to Hillsdale to lecture, often on morality. These worthies also paid court to its smugly charismatic president, a man who looked like he could strut sitting down.

Anyone could see that the college was deeply dedicated to the cult of his personality. Then last month this all came apart. Some sort of O-ring failure evidently happened to old George’s never-dormant hormones this last year; first, in true Newt Gingrichian fashion, he dumped his wife of 44 years, who had put him through school, had his children, and now, alas, had cancer.

Within a few weeks he was planning a new marriage, something that, by all accounts, deeply distressed his daughter-in-law, Lissa, wife of his son, George IV, known as Ivy. Purely out of coincidence, both Ivy and Lissa worked for the college (nepotism? what nepotism?), and until the new marriage, lived with Daddy.

Then, a month ago, everything exploded. In front of the entire family, in a hospital room where King George III was being treated for an insulin reaction, Lissa charged that she and her husband’s father had been having an affair for years.

Then she went home and blew her brains out. George III, initially speechless, later denied everything, and is stonewalling to this day. But Ivy believed his wife, and went to the college’s trustees, who eventually forced their lord to abdicate.

Naturally this is horrifying, and no human can get pleasure out of a talented and troubled woman’s suicide. Yet it is hard not to have vast contempt for the hypocrisy of a prig like Roche, who issued an incessant stream of smug, moralizing books, upholding family values, denouncing liberals and "feminist assaults on the family," and preaching the definition of love as "an enduring concern for the moral well-being of the beloved."

You can say this for tasteless Bill Clinton; he never pretended to be an archbishop. Yes, I know fairness demands noting no one has proven in court that George III had sex with his daughter-in-law. It is a matter of record, however, that he dumped his long-suffering wife when she was sick, and then fought like a carrion crow to pay her as little alimony as possible. That’s moral leadership, all right.

Ironically, in the aftermath of King George’s fall, commentators are starting to notice that all was, in fact, never perfect in the conservative Camelot.

National Review, Buckley’s magazine, quotes a former employee as saying "it’s a rather Stalinist kind of environment." Fact is, this George III made the one the colonists revolted against in 1776 look tolerant. For years, students and teachers who clashed with him were told to hit the highway. The American Association of University Professors censured Hillsdale in 1988 for "improper exercise of academic power." Nobody noticed, because everyone was entranced by the place’s ability to survive without being fastened to the public money tit.

Hillsdale may actually get better now. Yet what is the wider meaning of this scandal? First of all, that humbugs and hypocrites are, as always, everywhere. But beyond that, when it comes to the reporting, or "outing" of private lives we – the media, the moralists, the politicians, all of us – ought seriously to think about the policy that saved the world from nuclear destruction during the Cold War: Mutual Assured Destruction. You launch even one missile at us, each side told the other, and we will launch every one we have at you, and blow up the world.

So no one launched any, ever. MAD, it turned out, was probably the most sane thing to happen in the nuclear age. The Soviet Union and the United States, after a few tense early years, never seriously thought of taking each other on.

Now the Hillsdale follies are not an especially good example; in any era, King George’s career would have been toast once a young woman’s life was lost.

This may be a tale more about the corruption of absolute power than sex.

Yet sex is a powerful, primitive force which has forced people of all parties and persuasions to sometimes do things they wouldn’t want mummy to know.

Do we really want to continue the spiral of personal destruction? Wouldn’t it make sense for reporters, at least, to agree to a don’t-ask-don’t-tell amnesty on sex for this election and, instead, ask the candidates if they have any coherent policies on anything?

Yeah, I know. That would be work, Maynard. But it was a thought, anyway.