October 14, 1998
Terence Smith has a conversation with Calvin Trillin about the issues raised by the conduct and investigation of President Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky matter. This is the last in a series. You may listen to this segment in RealAudio.
JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, the last - for a while at least - in our series of conversations about the issues raised by the conduct and the investigation of President Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky matter. We have talked to Stephen Carter, Orlando Patterson, William F. Buckley, Deborah Tannen, and Shelby Steele. Terence Smith has tonight's.
TERENCE SMITH: With me now is Calvin Trillin, also known as "Bud," staff writer for the New Yorker and a columnist for Time Magazine. He's also the author of several books, the most recent entitled "Family Man." Bud Trillin, welcome. I believe you made a recent discovery that you and your wife, Alice, are not, after all, members of the Eastern elite but, in fact, the American people, in caps.
CALVIN TRILLIN, Author: That's absolutely right. We reflect perfectly the survey showing what the American people believe about the Lewinsky affair, and so we no longer wait for the polls. I just Alice, what do you think of that, and if I think the same thing, that's it.
TERENCE SMITH: And what are the American people thinking these days?
CALVIN TRILLIN: Well, they're thinking probably something separate from and different from the people I call the "Sabbath Gas Bags," the commentators on Sunday morning, and the rest of the press. I think they're thinking that - well, you can see the survey - although in our house, of course, you don't need a survey - that all of this is deplorable, but now we'd like to go on and talk about something else.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, now, as I understand it, the "Sabbath Gas Bags" as you call them are not very happy with you, the American people and your reaction to the Lewinsky scandal.
CALVIN TRILLIN: They're horrified with us, Terry. In fact, I'm afraid to come to Washington, because I'm afraid that one of the "Gas Bags" will recognize me in an elevator as the American people and grab me by the lapels and start shouting at me, "How dare you not believe what we say you're supposed to believe!"
TERENCE SMITH: Now, some people are calling this the umbrage gap. What's that?
CALVIN TRILLIN: Well, I think the umbrage gap is something between the press and "the" American people, that is Alice and me. And I think it's partly because, well, there's always - there's always a certain kind of gap in these situations. There was in Watergate. I wrote something in Watergate that I found myself quoting a lot lately, and that is that people in our trade are so enamored of tumult that they find it difficult to understand how ordinary people dread it. And so there's always more excitement in these events in the press, and also they have the spirit of the case. I mean, the "Gas Bags" and the rest of the press are sort of like someone riding in a fox hunt, and he's on the horse, and he's focused on the fox, and he really thinks it's the most exciting thing in the world, and people who are observing the fox hunt might just see him as an overweight man in a silly costume on a horse who doesn't seem to be having a terribly good time, and they also tend to sympathize after a while with the fox, even if the fox looks like the same sort of fox that took away some of their chickens.
TERENCE SMITH: Have the "Sabbath Gas Bags" reached a consensus, do you think, on whether the President should go?
CALVIN TRILLIN: Well, I think they've reached a consensus on the level of outrage because I think they're invested in the story. There are a couple of ways of looking at any event in this. The facts really aren't much in dispute, but if you look at the President's testimony in the Jones deposition, for instance, you can either think oh, my goodness, he perjured himself, and he's the chief law enforcement officer of the land, and that's terrible, we can't stand for that, or you can think this is sort of a divorce action thing that happens every day and it's very difficult apparently to find anybody who's ever been indicted for it. And either one of those are defensible. But if you're a person who said at the beginning he's not telling the truth about this, he'll be out in a matter of days, which side are you going down on? I mean, they're invested in this, and one thing we know in this society is you have to protect your investment. I don't mean it's a bias or a wicked evilness or anything. It's just a normal human way of looking at things.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, there is a sense that a sort of consensus or critical mass has been reached among especially those reporters/pundits on Sunday mornings, that this is very serious stuff, and you, the American people are not taking it seriously enough. That's you and Alice.
CALVIN TRILLIN: Yes. It's amazing. Almost everything they say - and I've actually written that when the "Gas Bags" mentioned a phrase, the American people, it would be a good time to hit the mute button, because they keep saying things that I don't recognize. One of them at the beginning was saying almost as a mantra that the American people and Bill Clinton had an implicit contract, but all that kind of thing was behind him, and I asked Alice, do you remember signing some kind of contract with Bill Clinton? She said, no. I said, me neither, I don't know what he's telling me about. So I think, yes, they've decided it's very serious business, and it is serious business. I mean, I think that, as many people have written, there are really two streams of the story. One of them is what happened, that is, what the president did? The second one is how it was discovered and what's being done about it. And I think most people - certainly myself included - because I am the American people after all - were greatly offended by the first part, what the president did. But I think that we're even more offended by the second part. And I have to say that I hate the second part. I hate the release of grand jury testimony and the document dump and Monica Lewinsky's psychiatric - I don't think that anybody's sexual activity is very uplifting in transcript form, and I don't see what we're doing in all of this.
TERENCE SMITH: That's probably part of what you were talking about when you wrote about the maniacally legalistic society. Is that what you see?
CALVIN TRILLIN: Yes. In a way. I mean, I think that we've pulled these huge machines up in order to deal with this, and, of course, as it turns out, as we're told weekly by the pundits, the people who were interested in pursuing this are mainly interested in the process. They don't actually want Bill Clinton out. They want the process, and you know, I think it's something like maybe the tulip lunacy in 16th century Holland or something. I don't think - I mean, I think that most people - judging from my house - can really distinguish between what was done and what's happening now. And I think most of us now are somewhat offended at being told that because we're also offended by what's happening now and lack any sort of moral values, and the only people who have moral values are either the "Gas Bags" or the congressmen, and I don't really want to go down this road.
I mean, I mentioned once that there's nobody perfect around here, and when one of those congressmen gets on television and says, it's getting so you can't watch the news with your kids anymore, the reason he can't watch the news with his kids is those aren't his kids. His kids are back in the district with his first wife, and if you look very closely at the divorce trial, maybe there was something about when the affair started with the lobbyist that wasn't - was he lying to the American people? I just think that we all think - that is, Alice and I - that means the American people - think that we've gotten into an area that's not exactly our business and I think - I don't think it's surprising that we feel this way. I think there was a hint even in '92, when people - when the Republicans had to back off the family value business after that convention. I think that people have an innate feeling that - at least Alice and I do - that we were raised to think that this stuff was none of our business.
TERENCE SMITH: And you also have your friend, Hobart, the conspiracy theorist, and he - he obviously thinks this is all a plot to -
CALVIN TRILLIN: Yes.
TERENCE SMITH: -- to help out Al Gore, whom you describe -
CALVIN TRILLIN: That's right.
TERENCE SMITH: -- as a man-like object.
CALVIN TRILLIN: Yes. I have described Gore as a man-like object, but I do think that Hobart originally said - that was when Hillary Clinton said it was a vast right wing conspiracy and Hobart said maybe not a vast right wing conspiracy but if you change that to creepy little cabal, maybe he'd go for it, and I recently in the spirit of a columnist making sure that all their columns were correct, checked that out, and I can't find that I had a friend named Hobart but I do find the creepy little cabal is still around.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Well, I want to thank you and Alice, which is to say the American people.
CALVIN TRILLIN: The American people thanks you too.