FEATURE

Eyes Wide Shut

PEOPLE WITH INSTITUTIONAL POWER ARE PATHETIC. We are not supposed to say it; the official story is that political power, in men at least, is glamorous, alluring, thrilling—the ultimate aphrodisiac. Yet anyone who cares to look will see the truth hanging out as plainly as an unclothed emperor’s . . . belly. When not momentarily appeased by an outrageous amount of luxury and bootlicking, aspiring kings and kingmakers prune in a bath of pettiness and paranoia that leaves them selfish, dishonest, and cruel. It is not inspiring. It is not admirable. But, like many repulsive states, it can, regrettably, exert an erotic pull.

There may be no better place to observe this ugly phenomenon than the capital of the United States, where government contractors amass garages full of sports cars they can’t be seen driving and people are so desperate to escape their self-loathing that, for years, the District has held the country’s highest percentage of “excessive,” “heavy,” and “binge” drinkers. (The CDC’s terminology shifts over time.) DC’s prominent figures usually obtain their stature through inheritance, ruthless manipulation, venality, or a combination of all three. Accordingly, they earn only a craven imitation of respect, and their dim awareness of this unsatisfying bargain sparks more sadism. The hideous, aggrieved egos of once unpopular kids who now feel that they’re part of an elite (and the equally hideous, congenitally entitled egos of pampered prep-school grads on the cusp of receiving their God-given due) thrive within Supreme Court appointees and low-level nobodies alike. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, but it turns out that even thimblefuls of power can have the same effect.

Transplants to DC pretty quickly pick up on this proprietary blend of viciousness, anxiety, and inflated self-regard. Friendly Californian Monica Lewinsky, who found her usual kindness in the workplace met with suspicion, said it seemed like “it was a crime in Washington to be nice to people.” When John Edwards staffer Andrew Young came to town, his colleagues warned him it was “miserable” because “the people here suck.” DC has long been called a fetid swamp full of bloodsuckers—most often by those campaigning manically to live and work there—but Jessica Cutler, DC’s star scandalette of 2004, put a much finer point on it in her “novel” The Washingtonienne:

Almost everyone in Washington was an insecure nerd. . . . Only a nerd would be attracted to legislative power, of all things. Nerds love the idea of ruling over people, don’t they? They truly believe that they should make all of our decisions for us.

One of the few advantages afforded to the less powerful is their uncanny ability to perceive exactly how deficient powerful people are, especially when the powerful people are trying to show off. In the words of Sherry Rowlands, the escort who in 1996 sold out Clinton’s chief strategist, Dick Morris, for less than $50,000: “I found him creepy and obnoxious. . . . I have no regrets.” Morris tried to impress Rowlands, whom he paid $200 an hour, by (allegedly) showing her advance copies of Clinton speeches and sharing “White House secrets” before they broke, like the discovery of life on Mars. During calls with Clinton, Morris even held the phone up to Rowlands’s ear so she could hear the president’s voice. These tactics did not work as intended, and he paid a tremendous price for the miscalculation; he was forced to resign immediately. “You can only get so big in the head,” Rowlands said with a shrug. “He deserved it.”

Florian Kuhlmann, This is not a Wink, 2017, spray paint on canvas, 39 3⁄8 × 27 5⁄8". Courtesy Falko Alexander Gallery

LIKE TODDLERS PLAYING HIDE-AND-SEEK, people who set themselves up for scandals behave as if they’re invisible while they operate in plain sight. Blitheness brought down Cutler, whose gossipy blog barely disguised the identities of the men she slept with, and it brought down Eliot Spitzer, who asked his bank to help him wire $5,000 anonymously (to an escort agency). Cutler was an unknown young woman with little reason to imagine she’d attract media attention, while Spitzer relied on his job title and wealth to insulate him from scrutiny. Both made reasonable assumptions: You can skate by without consequence if you’re extraordinarily low profile or if you’re too big to fail.

A man like Spitzer doesn’t rely exclusively on his class status or aura of celebrity, though; he’s further shielded by friends, employees, and family members. Politicians, like toddlers, are encouraged by the proximate adults who humor their sloppy attempts at camouflage. We can’t see you, we can’t see you, staffers sing merrily as they come up with another excuse for why their boss has a mysterious woman locked in his hotel room, or why he went missing from his bed in the middle of the night, or why he fired the last man who confronted him about his behavior. And the politician—in this example, Edwards—grins naughtily to himself and plugs away at his pregnant mistress while she films him with a handheld camera.

“The president presumed he was being properly discreet,” writes John F. Harris of the Lewinsky affair in The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House. “In fact, he was surrounded by a widening circle of people who had little doubt about what was transpiring.” Clinton’s staff, long accustomed to preempting opportunities for Bill to act on his worst impulses, immediately understood the purpose of a Lewinsky visit. (Secret Service agents placed bets on how quickly the president would head toward the West Wing after her weekend arrivals to the White House.) This support team validated and preserved Clinton’s misconception of his subterfuge’s success by making their own machinations invisible, as per the intuitive terms of an open secret.

The phrase “open secret” is an oxymoron, a label for information that can’t be explicitly acknowledged but is deferred to nonetheless—which, paradoxically, requires familiarity with what’s supposed to remain unknown. It’s a conspiracy of obfuscation and avoidance, an edifice of silent accommodation erected to protect someone from himself. It’s harm reduction on behalf of the fragile and the powerful.

Incentives for cooperation in this sad ruse are straightforward. Edwards’s and Clinton’s crews may have acted out of loyalty to party, love for the bosses themselves, or allegiance to the oft-referenced “dignity of the office.” They also didn’t want to lose their jobs. Direct confrontation wasn’t an option; such reckless men are neither reasoned with nor held accountable by their underlings. In The Politician, Young writes that Edwards would flatly deny knowledge of situations Young had just covered up: “I could tell from his tone of voice that he truly believed what he was saying. . . . He was either the best liar in the world or he was having some sort of psychological episode.” But why choose only one?

Young’s passage reminded me of a scene in neuroscientist David Eagleman’s book Incognito, in which Eagleman writes about a medical symptom known as anosognosia, “a total lack of awareness about an impairment.” Sufferers can’t accurately describe a situation, despite their obvious participation in it. (More precisely, they can’t accurately report the behavior of their own bodies.) For example, one of Eagleman’s subjects has an affliction that makes it impossible to close both her eyes. Eagleman asks her to do so while she’s facing a mirror.

“Are both your eyes closed?” he asks.
“Yes,” she answers, with only one closed.
“Can you see yourself?” he asks.
“Yes,” she replies.
“Does it seem possible to see yourself in the mirror if both your eyes are closed?” he asks. “Does it look to you like one eye is closed or that both are closed?”

She is silent, “not because she is embarrassed, but because she is simply locked up on the issue.” The question’s answer points to a reality her mind cannot grasp, so her brain gives up on incorporating the inconceivable information. Eagleman explains that “what would have been a checkmate in a normal brain proved to be a quickly forgotten game in hers.” (Remind you of anyone holding office right now?) Edwards believed he was superior—like, fully superior: someone categorically above reproach who deserved to have and do whatever he wanted. Of course he responded like a glitching robot when this core conviction was challenged or merely brushed up against.

Though more sophisticated in his narcissism, Clinton was also incapable of reconsidering his distorted self-image. (Judging from recent comments about whether he owes Lewinsky an apology and where he ranks as a moral leader, he still is.) On one infamous occasion, he vehemently lied to his lawyers shortly after he’d been with Lewinsky: “do you think I’m fucking crazy? . . . I know the press is watching me every minute. . . . It didn’t happen.” Throughout the Ken Starr investigation, he lied because he didn’t want to tell the truth and resented the suggestion that he should have to. But he also lied because coming clean would concede a more destabilizing fact than his infidelity: that even the most powerful man in the United States can’t keep others from seeing something about himself he wishes to hide.

POLITICAL SEX SCANDALS ARE HIGHLY EFFECTIVE at sorting participants into two camps: the hopelessly deluded, and those with a modicum of perspective. The former, by definition, mistake themselves for the latter, which compounds the problem, and in the case of the Clinton impeachment, almost everyone acted like they’d glued their eyes shut. Lewinsky distinguished herself as the fiasco’s only hero because she evinced more self-awareness than the purported public servants who had ten times her income and were three times her age—an unsurprising situation given that whiteness, wealth, upper-class status, and maleness all lend themselves to hubris, which makes honest reflection impossible.

Character flaws are the ultimate open secret. They’re disconcertingly public but rarely remarked upon, because the people who like us want to be kind and everyone else doesn’t care enough to pick a fight. Reading someone for filth is the nuclear option, reserved for extreme interpersonal conflict or commenting about strangers on social media. (Besides, deploying a dressing-down too early or too often would diffuse its impact.) Attempts to conceal the most sensitive parts of ourselves only make them more discernible, but we persist in believing we’re pulling it off because the alternative is too horrible to contemplate. “No mortal can keep a secret,” said Freud. “Betrayal oozes out of him at every pore.” And the biggest secret worth keeping is our humiliating, insufficient selves. Sometimes we’re cognizant of our shared state and have compassion for fellow self-sufferers. But we more regularly meet others’ failings with judgment, correction, and self-congratulation.

There are few temptations stronger or more profoundly doomed than trying to make someone concede something about themselves they aren’t ready to recognize. And thanks to the therapy-glossed culture of self-help, we now have a go-to excuse when we indulge in the pleasure: It’s a modern-day truism that we’re only as sick as our secrets, which means people on both sides of the aisle pretend rituals of public exposure are a form of compassionate care, executed on behalf of the exposed rather than the exposers. Linda Tripp, a true ghoul, unconvincingly maintains that her actions—recording phone conversations with Lewinsky that she steered into humiliatingly intimate territory, dissuading her from cleaning the stained dress, and cooperating with the FBI to ambush Lewinsky at the Pentagon City mall just for a start—were meant to help her much younger colleague, for whom she felt maternal concern. (Tripp has repeatedly claimed that had she not sought the involvement of the FBI and Starr in Monica’s private life, Lewinsky would have killed herself over unrequited love.) Meanwhile, in a ’90s version of “I’m not owned!,” the (then) freshly unemployed Morris suggested with affected sagacity that “the same public that lets [Clinton] serve in office without demanding that he change assures that he never will. . . . He will dwell forever in the private hell of compulsive and self-destructive behavior.”

In Contempt: A Memoir of the Clinton Investigation, Starr frames his demented obsession as a matter of pure juridical integrity but still echoes the theme of forcing a personal reckoning in the process of administering the law. Throughout the book, Starr further confirms what has long been apparent. He despises the Clintons, especially Hillary, and once he lost his chance at a Supreme Court nomination, his ultimate dream became forcing the pair to admit their foulness and be broken by it. The entire impeachment ordeal was a near-endless shouting match of “Look in the mirror!”—Republicans screamed it at Clinton, Democrats screamed it at Republicans, and the majority of civilians screamed it at the entire pitiful establishment. Predictably, everyone limped away from the fracas bitter, hoarse, and none the wiser.

Imagine an anthropomorphized American flag, sitting politely in Eagleman’s clinic like an animation from Schoolhouse Rock!:

Are both your eyes closed? Yes.
And can you see yourself in the mirror? Oh, yes. Very clearly.

WHAT’S ACTUALLY SPILLED when the uncorked vessel of the open secret tips over, as it inevitably does? It’s not “personal” revelations about the elected official, their boring affairs and expensive escorts. It’s not the spectacular hypocrisy, though it’s hard to keep from marveling at the shamelessness. (As governor of New York, Spitzer signed an antiprostitution law, and as state attorney general, he prosecuted a group accused of promoting prostitution. While in office, Clinton endorsed “profamily” policies that harmed poor women, single mothers, and gay people in order to promote traditional marriage. Edwards, notoriously, reaped the rewards of hedge fund investments while private-jetting around the country to campaign on his status as “antipoverty.”) Instead, it’s what the hypocrisy points to: a fragmented worldview that lets the oligarchy hold themselves apart from everyone they rule.

In Domination and the Arts of Resistance, anthropologist James C. Scott links this attitude to “the public transcript,” a story that justifies inequality by maintaining that the powerful have their power because of their intrinsic merits, while the less powerful are inherently less worthy. This narrative is “the self-portrait of dominant elites as they would have themselves seen,” which means elites are the most eager consumers of the myth, and don’t like to have it ruptured by public confrontations even as, privately, they violate it as a matter of course. Though it pains me to say, the Republicans were being truthful, in a way, when they insisted Clinton deserved punishment for public lying as opposed to private (sexual and familial) deception. Whatever occurs offstage poses no threat. But the moment a politician’s mendacity erupts into the public record is the moment it must be accounted for.

In the exhaustive anthology Our Monica, Ourselves: The Clinton Affair and the National Interest, academic Janet R. Jakobsen diagrams how this dynamic plays out during sex scandals. “Patriarchal sexual morality,” she declares, “works on the basis of an open secret. Everyone knows that the double standard is in operation, but also denies it.” The “it” is the fact that sexual expectations grounded in prohibition—demands that sex be heterosexual, monogamous, procreative, confined to marriage, and so on—exist against “the acceptance, if not incitement, of sexual encounters of powerful persons with various ‘subordinates.’” According to the official/public transcript, infidelity, so-called locker room talk, sexual harassment, and paying for sex are “inexplicable.” But “in the world of powerful masculinity,” inside the realm of the open secret, they are “requisite.”

Open secrets don’t exist to protect those who are cast as ignorant and innocent: wives, voters, children who learn about blow jobs from the news. They exist to protect those who benefit the most from double standards and the flattering, utterly false self-image they afford. But the complicity of the American populace—and our indulgence, ultimately, of the amateurish production—suggests a profound unwillingness to disrupt the status quo. For it’s not only the emperor’s vanity that the truth endangers, it is the very nature of political power itself and, by extension, the structure of society. We benefit, too, from letting these transparently dishonest dramas play out and not assuming a more assertive role than that of a mistreated and world-weary peanut gallery. Such passivity allows us to decline the challenge of radical revision and remaking. It’s never enough for an eye to be open; we must be able, and willing, to fully admit what the eye sees.

Charlotte Shane is a frequent contributor to Bookforum and the cofounder of TigerBee Press.