This has been the Age of Exposure, and Bill Clinton has been its Natural King.
Bill Clinton sold himself to us on the basis of exposure, of camera presence. He's the easy-to-get-close-to guy. We could see him biting his lower lip during speeches. He ate Burger-King Whoppers. We listened to him playing his saxophone, like admiring cousins at a family gathering.. He had a glint in his eye, like a disreputable cousin we all liked anyway. He flirted with the American people--you could see it even on TV news shows.
TV is about visual exposure of the personal. When TV became the dominant medium in this country--maybe in the mid 70s--we entered the Age of Exposure. All once hidden became fair game for display. Maybe the change actually began earlier, in 1968, when the musical "Hair" brought "full frontal nudity" onto the legitimate stage. In any case, in 1998 we are far into the Age of Exposure. Now we are indifferent to privacy issues, and even gross immodesty is acceptable.
Routinely, women who become famous in the newspapers then strip for cash in Playboy or Penthouse, and are applauded. We buy or rent hardcore video pornography--the exposure of private sexual acts--in every town and at many rural crossroads. The Internet transmits thousands of the rawest photographs of sexual intercourse. Formerly private nude snapshots of the well-known can be had too.
We can subscribe to the Jennicam--the broadcast of pictures from the private life of Jennie Someone-or-other--including what she does in bed, alone and with others. Occasional peeks are free. More frequent looks cost. Her acumen is admired. A few months back, a woman decided to "give birth live on the Internet" and people helped her do it.
As the natural king of this slack age, Clinton has rarely been embarrassed by personal questions.
"The world's dying to know," asked one Laeticia Thompson, 17, during a live MTV event in April, 1994: "Is it boxers or briefs?" Clinton had no trouble responding, "Usually briefs."
Thus, it was amazing to watch the seriously cornered Natural King during his Lewinsky confession last Monday night. He came out for privacy.
"Now this matter is between me, the two people I love most, my wife and our daughter, and our God," he said, looking grimly into the TV camera. "I must put it right.... Nothing is more important to me personally, but it is private. And I intend to reclaim my family life for my family. It's nobody's business but ours. Even Presidents have private lives."
Wow. How Ozzie-and-Harriet, how totally pre-1968. 'It was wrong,' but private the Times headline said calmly the next day.
His privacy sermon is a reach--since Americans have nearly forgotten most concepts of privacy and modesty. The difference between private matters and public matters? That's a tough one.
Right after the speech, NPR interviewed a focus group of 40-ish women from Short Hills, New Jersey. Judging from their comments, Bill and Hillary Clinton are pitiable in-laws or next-door neighbors. To them, the whole scandal was just a Bill and Hillary personal drama.
"For the first time I am angry with her," declared Joan Pearlman, a grade school teacher. "Because she so exemplified strength to me. I think she has an obligation to women not to put up with this. That's what really upsets me. That standing by him is condoning what he's done."
The other women chimed in. "A part of you would like to see her give him a good slap in the face and [say] 'Get the hell out.'" (Laughter). "In public, on television..." (Louder laughter.) "On Barbara Walters!" (Hilarity.)
In the Sudan in Africa, though, a few days later, this was not an entertaining neighborhood soap opera. Our missiles had leveled a city block of Khartoum. The Sudanese were enraged and protested. They did so in the context of global satellites and CNN, which had fully exposed the sinning, lying, lustful president in the preceding weeks.
"At one rally," reported the New York Times "pictures of President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky were on prominent display--a juxtaposition that is interpreted as the ultimate mockery in this very conservative society."
Questions about privacy confront news reporters starkly in every decade of American life. They must ask: "Do I write about this seemingly private matter? Does it bear on the way this official does his public job, meets his responsibilities to us?"
But reporters and editors alone cannot set out society's overall sense of what should be private. We as a people do that.
Every pendulum turns. Maybe Clinton's appalling, planet-wide confession last week, besides shaming him and us, will ring the curtain down on the Age of Aquarius and the Age of Exposure. Wouldn't that be great?