Call the whole thing off

by Jeffrey Rosen | October 18, 1998

Last weekend was the hundredth anniversary of George Gershwin's birth, and, to commemorate the event, while seeking refuge from the obscene cd-rom containing the appendices of the Starr report, I put on the Brooklyn Academy of Music's terrific recording of Gershwin's greatest political operetta, Of Thee I Sing. Far from providing an escape from President Clinton's difficulties, however, the musical eerily managed to predict them.

Written as a satire of presidential scandals in the Hoover era, Of Thee I Sing, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1932, begins at the convention of the National Party. A journalist named Matt Fulton, who is a cross between Michael Isikoff and Matt Drudge, suggests that the best way to excite the voters and to raise newspaper circulation is to orchestrate a campaign drama that combines sex and politics. Accordingly, the party leaders persuade John P. Wintergreen, the bachelor candidate, to preside over a beauty contest in Atlantic City. Wintergreen promises to propose to the winner in every state in the Union and to marry her at his inauguration. At the moment of truth, however, Wintergreen can't bring himself to wed the winner of the contest, a whiny belle from Louisiana named Diana Devereaux, who is the spitting image of Paula Jones. Instead, he confesses, he has fallen in love with Mary Turner, a young campaign intern, who has a special talent for making corn muffins without corn. "Who cares about corn muffins?" Diana declares.

"All I demand is justice." She asks Wintergreen for a public apology: "This jilting me/It cannot be!/This lousy action/ Calls for retraction." Wintergreen recklessly ignores her, and, after reenacting his courtship with Mary in each of the 48 states, he is swept into office by a love-crazed electorate.

Here's where the Clinton parallels become increasingly uncanny. At Wintergreen's inauguration, the chief justice administers the oath of office and the marriage vows at the same time. The new president sings a fond farewell to all the other Jane Does he used to know, and, in a foreshadowing of Clinton's "60 Minutes" interview in 1992, he promises to remain faithful to Mary. His inaugural address is interrupted by Diana Devereaux, who bursts in to serve Wintergreen with a summons for breach of promise of marriage. "I couldn't see/His jilting me/And so I'm doing/A bit of suing." The chorus of citizens is outraged by Wintergreen's caddishness. "If it's true she has a claim/You should be called a dirty name!" But the Supreme Court justices who have assembled for the inauguration dismiss Diana's suit on the grounds that corn muffins are more important than justice. As the curtain falls on Act I, Diana vows to appeal. "See you in court, y'all!"

At the beginning of Act II, Wintergreen finds that his administration is paralyzed by the Devereaux scandal, because reporters refuse to ask him about anything else: "Here's the one thing that the people of America/Are beside themselves to know:/They would like to know what's doing/On the lady who is suing you/ Diana Devereaux," the hacks sing. As the effects of the scandal are felt around the globe, the French ambassador announces that France is ready to go to war to vindicate Devereaux's honor because "she's the illegitimate daughter of an illegitimate son of an illegitimate nephew of Napoleon." (If Paula Jones were French, would Jack Lang do any less?) At this point, party leaders in Congress fear that Wintergreen's marriage scandal is threatening their chances for reelection, and they demand his resignation. When he refuses, they vow to remove him from office: "You decline to resign/So we'll teach you/We'll impeach you!"

The finale is Wintergreen's trial in the Senate. The majority leader reads an impeachment resolution that looks very much like Kenneth Starr's referral to Congress: Wintergreen is to be impeached for lying to Devereaux. Diana herself is called to testify before the Senate, and her song of woe--"Jilted, jilted/I'm a flow'r that's wilted... Broken, broken/By a man soft-spoken"-- brings tears to the lawmakers' eyes. Wintergreen is maddeningly uncontrite: " Impeach me, fine me, jail me, sue me/My Mary's love means much more to me." The senators begin a roll call vote on impeachment, and all seems lost, until Mary suddenly arrives on the scene. Before the vote continues, she wants the Senate to know that she and the president are about to have a baby. " Gentlemen," Vice President Alexander Throttlebottom points out, "the Senate has never impeached an expectant father. What do you say?" "Not guilty!" the weeping senators reply. After the Supreme Court decides the sex of the infant, the French ambassador repeats his threat of war. Suddenly, Wintergreen remembers that, when the president is unable to fulfill his duties, the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution says that his obligations are to be assumed by the vice president. Throttlebottom happily agrees to marry Diana, and everyone joins in for the final reprise: "Of thee I sing, baby." Rather than relying on Barney Frank to save his presidency, in other words, perhaps Clinton should consider the George and Ira Gershwin strategy. He could confess that he did, in fact, have sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, and that she is now pregnant with his child. (This can be confirmed by an FBI test.) The president and Monica can follow the announcement with a triumphant 50-state tour, accompanied by the Gershwins' inspired chorus: "Posterity is just around the corner." Everyone will then live happily ever after, as long as Al Gore can figure out what to do with Paula Jones.

Please forgive me for collapsing before the finish line, but it's hard to sustain much relish for satire after scrolling through the Starr appendices, a chilling enumeration of surveillance technologies in the post-privacy state. By pointing and clicking at the cd-rom, I examined, with growing discomfort, Monica's phone records, her credit card receipts, her e-mail messages, and the records of the toll plaza that she passed through on her way to a job interview at the United Nations. But the dark realities of Depression-era politics defeated even the Gershwins. After reading a description of the Annie Lennox CD that Clinton gave to Monica (Starr misspelled it "Lenox"), I put on the sequel to Of Thee I Sing, which opened in 1933. Entitled Let 'Em Eat Cake, it closed after only 46 performances, largely because its grim subject matter--a right-wing coup that deposes President Wintergreen's successor, culminating in a global depression and an armed march on Washington led by the Army--wasn't really the stuff of comic opera. Come to think of it, Paula Jones may be the least of Al Gore's troubles.

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