Comes Naturally #41 (December 15, 1995):
Sex and the American President

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Spectator Magazine - December 15, 1995
(c) David Steinberg

Sex and the American President

The American President, Columbia Pictures's new release starring Michael Douglas and Annette Bening, is a fairy tale of a romance, but also a film that raises interesting issues about how we think of the Leader of Our Nation.

As I wrote in a column while Clinton was campaigning for the presidency, something shifts when the President of the United States is seen as a man with both recognizable sexual energy and poll-measurable sex appeal. When Clinton was elected, sexual identification with the President became a national phenomenon in a way that was completely unthinkable when George Bush or Ronald Reagan occupied the White House. Women admitted to being attracted to President Bill, even having major crushes on him. Adolescent girls asked him in press conferences whether he wore briefs or boxer shorts. Gennifer Flowers vowed that he "ate pussy like a champ." Sex was back in the White House in a way that it had not been since the Camelot days of young, dashing Jack Kennedy and his elegant wife, Jackie, not to mention his mistress of mistresses, Marilyn Monroe (although we didn't find out about that until later).

Maybe Not So Strange a Bedfellow After All

Mixing together the notions that accompany the archetype of "head of the nation" and the usually very different notions that accompany the idea of a sexual man affects how we think about both. On the one hand, acknowledging that the President of the United States is, among other things, a sexual human being, has to help us all get a little more comfortable about being sexual human beings ourselves. Thinking of the President of the United States as sexual has to help us take sex out of the realm of the unspeakable into the world of regular everyday reality. As far as I'm concerned, that's a very good thing indeed. God(dess) knows we could all do with a good solid dose of that kind of sexual normalizing. Indeed, if I were inclined to reduce all my urges to sexual proselytizing to one slogan (a terrible idea, I know), that slogan would probably be "Sex Is." Meaning: sex simply exists, people, as one vital and important aspect of life, much like working, eating, and breathing. Get it, get over it, accept it, rejoice in it, stop reacting every time you stumble across it as if it were some kind of national emergency.

The flip side, and no less significant, of how the idea of a sexual president affects our take on sex, is how it affects our take on presidency. We seem to have, as part of our national character structure or something, a deep-seated need to turn our national leaders -- not to mention celebrities of all kinds -- into larger-than-life, superhuman, heroic god-figures. Unfortunately, this requires us to forget or to deny that presidents (and movie stars) are, bottom line, simple mortals like the rest of us, full of gifts and foibles, brilliance and idiocy wisdom and psychopathology. When, inevitably, their simple humanity begins to show around the edges of the superhuman aura we have created for them (with their encouragement, to be sure), we are not only disappointed, but also betrayed, much in the way that every child feels betrayed when they realize that their parents are people rather than myths.

Personally, I like the idea of a leader who allows his (or her) imperfections and frailties to show. I believe very strongly that it is the strongest of people, not the weakest, who are willing to demythify themselves in public, to acknowledge and even celebrate the real paradoxes of being complex human beings, warts and all. These are the people I trust because I can see who they really are and that they don't need to pretend to be more than they really are.

Unfortunately, the Electorate-At-Large doesn't seem to agree with me on this one, although there are signs that the Sometimes Moral and Sometimes Immoral Majority may, at long last, be having some second thoughts about the idea of Designated Mythic Leader. Jimmy Carter still gets my vote for Best President-As-Regular-Human-Being and, as we all know, he got unceremoniously thrown out on his ear for not being heroic enough at a time when the nation desperately needed a hero figure to compensate for Richard Nixon turning out to be such a slime. And so the nation found its hero icon in Ronald Reagan, an irony from which we may never recover.

I Thought This Column Was Supposed to Be About Sex

I'm getting to that, trust me.

There's a saying in my family that if you're intimidated by someone the thing to do is to imagine them in their underwear, brushing their teeth in the morning, or imagine them sitting on the toilet. The point is that underneath all the glitz, stripped of all the emblems of status and power, we're all simple human beings with the same basic needs, tending to the same basic logistical and emotional dynamics as we live our lives until such time as the game plays itself out and we each get turned back into most equalizing dirt.

Being the sort of person I am, I have a habit of taking this humbling of the high and mighty one step further. Instead of imagining mythical people shitting or brushing their teeth, I like to imagine them having sex. I like to imagine them in that altered reality of naked vulnerability and potential embarrassment, that realm where the mask of control and direction is most likely to fall off, that territory where the parts of ourselves we like to keep most private are most likely to make themselves known, proprieties and pretenses notwithstanding.

I particularly like doing this with public figures who claim to all sorts of asexual niceness, because just as certainly as they shit and brush their teeth, they do have sex, one way or another -- all of them, over and over again -- Bill Clinton, George Bush, Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole, Pat Robertson, Dianne Feinstein, Shimon Peres, Yasir Arafat, Fidel Castro, Barbara Boxer, Bill Gates, Donald Trump, Pope John, the Dalai Lama, Dianne Feinstein, Mother Teresa.

So try this as a little exercise in creative sexual imagination with possible political repercussions: Try imagining Bill Clinton, your president and mine, being sexual. Imagine him being sexual with Hillary, not with Gennifer Flowers, just to leave the non-monogamy distraction out of the picture for the moment. Take the time to imagine this actuality in enough detail that you can feel it, smell it, taste it.

Are they wearing any clothing or are they naked? Are they perfumed and cologned? Is the room lit brightly or dimly, or is it dark? Do they do anything as romantic as lighting candles? How large is their bed (if they're in bed)? How soft is the mattress? What color are the sheets? Are they cotton, flannel, or satin? What (if anything) do they say to each other as they begin the transition into the sexual world? Do they look each other in the eye? If so, what are kind of look passes between them? Loving appreciation? Resentment? Superficial pleasantry? Boredom?

What does Bill Clinton's cock look like when it is soft, and when it is hard? How does it feel to Hillary when she takes it in her hand? How does she touch him? How does her touch feel to him? Does Bill like his cock? Is he proud of it, or ashamed? Does he have trouble getting erect when he wants to? Does he come faster than he wants to? Does Hillary like his cock? Does she like that she knows how to get the most powerful man in the world excited? Does she know how to get him excited? Does she like sucking his cock? Does she look at him while she does it? Do they laugh?

Does Bill know how to get Hillary excited? What does he think of the texture of her skin, the shape of her breasts, the way her ass feels in his hand, the particular shape and feel of her cunt lips? How does he open her with his fingers? How does he stroke her thigh? How does he touch or suck her nipples? Does she like her nipples to be pulled? Does he like his cock to be slapped? How do they kiss each other, and where?

What sexual noises do they make as they're getting excited, and when they come? Can the Secret Service agents outside their door hear them? Does Hillary get wet easily? Does she have trouble coming? Does she ever come when his cock is inside her? What is most likely to get her off? Does Bill know what is most likely to get her off? What does Bill think of the taste of her pussy? Does she like him to suck her clit? Does she tell him what she wants him to do? Do her lips and clit get red and swollen when he sucks or licks her or puts his tongue inside her? Does this turn him on?

Does Hillary like it best when they fuck long and slow, or does she like being thrust into fast and hard? Does she like fucking at all? Does Bill? How does Hillary move her hips when Bill is inside her? How does Bill move his? Do they look at each other while they fuck or do they close their eyes? Is he usually on top of her? Does she like to straddle him? Does she turn over and offer herself to him with her ass high in the air because she loves how it makes her feel so vulnerable? Does he offer this sort of vulnerability to her? Do they play with each other's assholes? Tenderly or fiercely? Do they tell each other their fantasies? Do they ever play them out? Does he fall asleep right after he comes? Does she?

Take some time to think all this through, to conjure up a detailed, intimate picture of the President and the First Lady doing First Sex. Then remember as much of this picture as you can the next time you watch President Bill Clinton address the nation on why we need to send troops to Bosnia, or to not compromise people's social security benefits.

My guess is that thinking of Bill Clinton as a sexual person with (probably) the same kinds of sexual questions and pleasures as the rest of us will change how you think of him in his presidential role. Maybe it will make you friendlier to him, maybe it will make you more upset with him than ever; I'm really not campaigning for or against him, just trying to bring him (and everyone) down to earth a little.

About that Film...

Which is why I'm pleased that a film like The American President has come out of Hollywood, and why I'm pleased to know that it is being watched, enthusiastically it seems, by millions of people. (The American President grossed a respectable $12.9 million its first week in limited release. The gross grew to $13.1 million the second week, as the film became more widely distributed. To get a little perspective, this puts The American President on a par with the very popular Get Shorty, an excellent film with much more predictable appeal. Get Shorty has grossed $62 million in its first six weeks in release.)

The film, as you probably know by now, is about a president (Andrew Shepherd, played by Michael Douglas) who is both politically and personally very much like Bill Clinton. He is relatively young, dynamic, and liberal. He has a 12-year-old daughter. His main political advisor is unmistakably George Stephanopoulos. For the purpose of supporting the plot's love story, he is a widower, which is to say he is appropriately available to a new romantic and sexual involvement without raising the distracting bugaboos of martial infidelity. He becomes intrigued with a young woman lobbyist (Sydney Wade, played by Annette Bening), which raises for himself, his staff, his political allies and opponents, and the nation as a whole, all the questions about what it means for the President of the United States to deal with the same sexual and emotional questions as every other middleaged man who opens himself to a new relationship once an old one has ended.

Columbia Pictures makes no bones about the issues the film raises. "Will the media, the public and his advisors allow Andrew Shepherd to be the President of the country and a single adult man at the same time?" they ask in their press release. Director Rob Reiner's answer: "The public doesn't want the President to be a regular man. They want him to be a kind of king, an omnipotent father figure. But he has the same needs as any normal man." Reiner's goal is to force the audience to see that simple fact.

In the film -- WARNING: PLOT REVELATION IS ABOUT TO BE NECESSARY; SKIP THE REST OF THIS PARAGRAPH IF YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS -- the Clinton figure deals with his relational and sexual dilemma cautiously but assertively. He romances the object of his desire deliberately and respectfully, insisting to his worried spin doctors that he is a single man and has the right to date a single woman he is attracted to. What's more, in rather short order he is also sexual with her, without trying to hid this from the scandal-hungry media. By the end of the film we are being asked to believe that by forthrightly proclaiming his right to love and be sexual with the woman he loves, a president can, by dint of emotional and political integrity, overcome the doubts of the electorate and the inevitable distortions of dirt-dealing political opponents -- kind of a flashback to Martin Luther King proclaiming "the truth shall make you free."

A fairy tale for our times, I suppose. And yet James Carville, real President Clinton's real and realistic campaign manager from 1992, says that he finds the film's message is very much on the money. "If there were a single president who dated somebody and then fell in love," says Carville, "I think the country would be very touched and very encouraging. The only people who pull against romance are people in Washington. Everybody else in the world thinks it's a great thing."

I wonder whether Carville would extend his sense of public approval from a president dating and falling in love to a president being sexual with a woman after three dates. Unfortunately, as a nation, we don't seem to feel as rosy about sexual fulfillment outside the institution of marriage as we do about falling in love. But even if the majority of Americans may not be ready to tolerate a married leader who is sexual with someone other than his wife, it's hard to believe that most people would still expect an unmarried public adult to put off being sexual until marriage. When it comes to this level of sexual tolerance, I think the Christian Right simply loses most of the rest of us and becomes fringe rather than mainstream, much as it does on the question of abortion choice. Sexual ethics have undoubtedly slipped backwards as the moralists rattle their rhetorical and financial chains, but we haven't slipped all the way back to sexual prehistory (meaning the 50's).

Whether Carville is right or wrong in his evaluation of the American mood, it is interesting that he chooses to identify publicly with the emotional and sexual acceptance that is at the heart of The American President. It is also interesting that, while the film was in production, President Clinton took a similarly friendly posture toward it, inviting director Rob Reiner, scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin, and the film's entire the cast and production design team to the White House several times so they could make the film as realistic as possible. Clinton seems to have decided that, all in all, it is to his advantage to be identified as a regular, emotional, sexual guy by the people at large when they go to the polls in '96.

I can see the bumper stickers now: "Keep Sexual Pleasure in the White House -- Vote for Bill Clinton."

I See London, I see France...

This may or may not be the same sort of thing, but did you happen to catch the evening news the night the international press corps went to town looking up Hillary Clinton's skirt as she sat, knees untogether, at some public function? I about dropped my teeth to see the entire nation reduced (or elevated) to the level of nine-year-old boys, as commentators oohed and aahed and the best camera lenses in the world zoomed in to get a generous eyeful of Hillary's (white) panties. Clip that shot and blow it up into a poster for college dorm walls! Maybe Bill's not the only White House resident that's up for a little national sexual infatuation.

Will seeing Hillary's panties help us imagine her being sexual with President Bill? Did Bill and Hillary use that clip for added spice when they went to bed that night? "Let's pretend that I'm a tv cameraman and you've decided to make the reception interesting by being naughty and not wearing panties. I can't believe it when I see that your legs are apart, and then when I zoom in I see these beautiful lips. Somehow you sense that you're being seen, but you decide not to worry about it. In fact, you open your legs a little wider...."

[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]

David Steinberg
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