Getting tired of people taking Donald Trump to task on his philosophy? Think that's like criticizing him for not being able to stand on his toes in ballet slippers? Yeah. Me, too. He never promised us a philosophy garden.
But the things the man says also do point inevitably to certain moral, ethical and philosophical questions. He is running for president, after all.
And ever since he began ginning the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky story again, I have been struck by a certain moral philosophical puzzle this theme poses for those of us who live in North Texas, where one of the most famous partisans of the Monica wars has been back in the headlines again, quite independently of Trump.
I speak of Kenneth Starr, who was the special prosecutor who sought but failed to have then President Clinton convicted of a crime and removed from office in 1998. Since 2013, Starr has been president and chancellor of Baylor University in Waco, 80 miles south of Dallas, a school rocked last February by a report on ESPN’s Outside the Lines of a serial campus rape crisis. The ESPN report, echoed in newspaper editorials around Texas, painted Baylor in general and Starr in particular as callous and irresponsible, hiding behind their own institutional claims to privacy against a public clamor for transparency.
And, yes, there is more than a little irony there for those of us who remember Starr in his starring role as the ultra-conservative Texas Christian who spent five years in the late 1990s producing the 445-page “Starr Report.” That report — presented to the House of Representatives sitting as a court of impeachment — sought to strip from the president of the United States every last thread, fig leaf or shadow of privacy he could ever possibly have claimed for himself, as either a president or a human being.
For the benefit of the youth and as a shameless ploy to keep them reading, I will remind everybody at this point that the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinksy saga, now ancient history, was about a topic I believe is still top of the mind with many young Americans, some who may not remember much at all about Bill Clinton — fellatio.
And, yes, yes, of course, the people who defended Starr’s half-decade-long campaign to get Clinton tossed out of office will say it was never about fellatio. It was about lying about fellatio.
OK. But, fellatio. You can’t lie about fellatio without fellatio.
There is a certain ancient principle in most people’s minds — probably more common sense than common law — which says that even in court and even under oath if someone asks you to name persons with whom you have engaged in fellatio, you should be able to answer, “Go screw yourself.”
Not always. If the full question is, “Did you or did you not engage in fellatio at gunpoint with Person X and then tie an anvil to her ankles and dump her in the river?” you should be held accountable for the honesty of your answer. But frog-walking somebody into court, president or not, and asking under oath about consensual fellatio seems to most people a far uglier and dirtier trick than the sex itself could ever be. And that person, so asked, should be able to say, “Go screw yourself.”
Clinton sort of did. The House of Representatives, the country and history itself all seem to have endorsed that sentiment, maybe even with an added, “Yeah, no kidding.”
But now Trump — for reasons that are philosophically unclear — is bringing it all up again as a counter-punch, apparently, against Hillary Clinton: “She can't talk about me because nobody respects women more than Donald Trump,” Trump said late last week. “I will be better for women, by a big factor, than Hillary Clinton, who frankly, I don't even think will be good to women.”
Trump called Hillary Clinton, a “total enabler” of her husband's alleged sexual liaisons. He told a rally: “She would go after these women and destroy their lives. She was an unbelievably nasty, mean enabler, and what she did to a lot of those women is disgraceful.”
I think we agreed at the top here — I hope we agreed — that we were not going to try to a attempt a meta-analysis of the moral philosophy of Trump, but, if we had to, I think we could pretty well polish it off with three words: “No, you are!”
What’s more interesting is the moral philosophy of Starr, who wanted to make fellatio a national issue in the first place. Well, privacy and perjury, too, yes, both of those things to be sure, but … fellatio. And now that Starr is president of a Baptist university, he and the regents of his school are cloaking themselves in legalisms and claims of privacy on the arguably much more urgent question of serial campus rape.
The Starr Report, published in 1998, gave no quarter to the president on the fellatio question, listing a series of “limits” on any privacy the president could claim: “The first limit was imposed when the president was sued in federal court for alleged sexual harassment,” the report said.
“The evidence in such litigation is often personal. At times, that evidence is highly embarrassing for both plaintiff and defendant … To excuse a party who lied or concealed evidence on the ground that the evidence covered only ‘personal’ or ‘private’ behavior would frustrate the goals that Congress and the courts have sought to achieve…
“That is particularly true when the conduct that is being concealed — sexual relations in the workplace between a high official and a young subordinate employee — itself conflicts with those goals.”
I remember at the time that it was that last line — about fellatio, high officials and the lofty goals of office — that excited a certain fever pitch among ultra-conservatives here in Dallas, where, by the way, a lot of the money and strategy for the get-Clinton-on-sex campaign came from. Especially in the wealthy white enclaves of the Park Cities here, people just couldn’t stop saying, “They did it in the Oval Office! The Oval Office!”
The fellatio. I remember that fellatio was a truly awkward theme to try to discuss socially with people you did not know well, hence the time-honored principal of not, which was not honored at all in the Park Cities at the time.
On the tip of my tongue back then the question was always, “Well, assuming the curtains are pulled, is the Oval Office known to be an especially fellatio-free zone, compared to the rest of the planet?” But I always knew I couldn’t really ask that, because, well … fellatio.
Really I just couldn’t wait for the fellatio story to die, and I was always made physically uneasy by the Park Cities people, especially the women for some reason, who kept bringing it up. I worried, “Am I missing some very complicated Baptist signal here? [Yikes.]”
Since the ESPN special, I’m sure Starr would say he has made many public statements about the crisis of rape that has erupted around his winning football team and the university’s Greek system. But as Sue Ambrose and David Tarrant reported recently in The Dallas Morning News, the things Starr has said publicly have been the minimal boilerplate talking-point spin that a CEO must make in these kinds of circumstances just to get the reporters off his porch.
“Let me be clear.” Starr said in a letter to alumni. “Sexual violence emphatically has no place whatsoever at Baylor University.”
Guess that’s wrong. Starr, whose main claim to fame at Baylor has been beefing up the football team and building a new stadium, now has two star players in prison for rape, a third about to be tried, another player expelled, a fraternity president arrested and charged. This occurs against a backdrop of foot-dragging on federally mandated anti-rape measures and a pattern of stony silence roundly decried by national and Texas media including even the university’s hometown newspaper, The Waco Tribune.
Nothing about rape is funny. We can agree on that. And even though I did start out here talking about irony, nothing about rape itself is ironic.
But Starr’s moral and ethical pronouncements about privacy are ironic – maybe even just on the edge of funny – when we compare what he says now in his own defense with what he said 18 years ago when he was trying to put Clinton’s head on his big-game trophy wall.
Starr has off-shored his own responsibility for investigating rape at Baylor to a law firm, Pepper Hamilton. Now he uses the law firm and privacy issues as his foil when asked why he can’t be more transparent. He told Mac Engel of The Fort Worth Star-Telegram last month, “That’s coming from Pepper Hamilton’s advice. That is both FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) related and ... experts in the field. You have to be very careful about the timeline and what you say publicly about specific cases.”
Yeah, I bet you do.
The Ambrose and Tarrant piece, “Silence of Ken Starr,” in the Morning News led with an especially pathetic scene — hundreds of students massed outside the university president’s mansion to vent their anger and confusion, and Starr didn’t even show up.
It reminded me of my own days at the University of Michigan in the '60s when we massed outside the mansion of President Harlan Hatcher to protest the Vietnam War. He invited us in, all of us. Mrs. Hatcher came downstairs and served us tea and cookies. It had an amazing calming effect, like the warm hand of a grandparent on the shoulder.
Starr doesn’t have that depth or warmth. He’s a partisan only. Anytime he talks about privacy or anything else, you have to ask what day of the week it is. And what was my point? Something about a difference between him and Trump? Well, clearly, Starr has the higher I.Q.