Parthenon On The Potomac
By Arianna Huffington
November 23, 1998
When you gaze at Ken Starr, as I did for hours during his testimony to Congress, the god Apollo doesn't immediately spring to mind. But in the battle between the White House and the Independent Counsel, the prosecutor represents society's Apollonian forces of law, order and "nothing in excess" pitted against the Dionysian forces of lawless exuberance -- embodied, it need hardly be noted, in the president.
Forced to choose, the people have chosen Dionysus and proven themselves willing to overlook the dark side of the god. This was by no means a foregone conclusion. In fact, it occurred to me while reading Ken Starr's opening statement that the course of the Clinton presidency would have been dramatically different if this statement -- in an expanded form -- had been the Starr Report. No cigars, no Easter Sunday trysts, no references to the first lady's whereabouts, no thong underwear, no phone sex -- in fact, not a single reference to the private Dionysian realm of sexuality.
"The propriety of a relationship is not the concern of our office," Starr said in his opening statement. "The referral is instead about obstruction of justice, lying under oath, tampering with witnesses and misuse of power." All very Apollonian and very appropriate. But instead the public was asked to deliberate on page after page of sexual detail. Perhaps the $30,000 Starr wasted on a psychological evaluation of Vince Foster's state of mind would have been better spent on an assessment of the public's state of mind when the rigor of the law is overwhelmed by a boundless profusion of sexuality.
In myth as in life, elemental forces always prevail against unadulterated rationality. At some point between the president's sexually charged testimony before the grand jury (including relentless questioning about whether he had kissed Monica's breasts or used a cigar as a sexual aid) and the subsequent release of the sexually drenched Starr Report, the public decided that Apollo was being too strait-laced and schoolmarmish. "There but for the grace of God go I," they thought. Legal argument was powerless against the fear that some instinctual, vital life force was being choked off. And the clash of the titans was over.
In ancient Greece it was women who became Dionysus' most enthusiastic worshipers, ripped loose from their humdrum, orderly life and transformed into enraptured dancers. In contemporary America, it is women once again who most enthusiastically support the president. The same soccer moms who turned Jerry Springer's carnival of cracker carnality into a ratings bonanza were in no mood to impeach Clinton for essentially the same behavior. Why begrudge a god his fun?
The most powerful symbol of Dionysus was the mask. The wearer of the mask is himself -- and yet he is not. So while the president was playing peek-a-boo with reality, Starr was asserting in his mild-mannered monotone: "We are officers of the court, who live in the world of the law." He was pasty-white when he said it, as though his disciplined pursuit of the law had left no time for sun rays. Meanwhile, the ruddy president's representative, David Kendall, sat on his briefcase during the interrogation to add stature and authority to his client's Dionysian cause. And, 7,000 miles away in Tokyo, the president acted as though he were already exonerated. History does not record whether he repeated his triumph dance replete with bongo drum and cigar as he did when he got the news in Africa that the Paula Jones case was dismissed. But the next night he did join on stage his brother and his band just after Roger had belted out "What I Wouldn't Do for Love." He received a rock-star standing ovation from the packed crowd.
But hold the celebration. Getting away with something is not the same as being vindicated. Ask O.J. Once the perceived threat to the Dionysian forces is averted, the pendulum may swing, and we may suddenly find ourselves in the grip of another fear, powerfully expressed by Sir Thomas More: "This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast, and if you cut them down, d'you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?"
Civilization has always been about this pull between Apollo and Dionysus -- between order and impulse. But let's not forget that in Greek mythology Apollo, the god of logic, clarity and moderation, and Dionysus, the intoxicated leader of the choral dance, were brothers. Reverence for the law cannot be allowed to become self-righteousness and smugness. At the same time, flouting the law with impunity can lead to chaos.Dionysus may have won, but before we can move beyond this collision, Apollo has to be paid his dues, too.
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