Among the 30 gifts Bill Clinton gave Monica Lewinsky was a copy of Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman. It did not have the media pull of the semen-stained blue dress, but it did have a moment of television glory when the journalist Barbara Walters showed it during the interview she did with the young woman in 1999. In a few hours, a classic published a century and a half before it jumped up the Amazon charts from 411 to 280.
The book has returned to the screens due to the recent premiere of Impeachment: American Crime Story, series that recalls another sexual scandal that revived the fame of those verses. It also happened in Washington, in 1865, when Whitman was working in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. One of his bosses found a copy on his desk, accused him of being “a free lover” and the poet-official ended up fired.
His popularity increased, but it was a bad pill for Whitman, raised in a family where three of his brothers were named after presidents (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson) and who ended up being called “the poet of democracy”. That is why all the presidents of the 20th century quoted it at some time. They appear in the Walt Whitman Archive Theodore Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon and, of course, Kennedy, who even organized a rally in which Marlon Brando had to read excerpts from Leaves of Grass, a task that was finally carried out by fellow actor Edward G. Robinson.
From appointment to silence
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If Obama mentioned it to make the “nation of nations” his own, George W. Bush did so to defend the fight against terrorism after 9/11, but it was Clinton who cited it the most: seven times while he governed. The last one was before his relationship with the young psychology graduate became known and took place at a dinner organized by the gay community in which he recited verses from Calamus. It is a collection of poems that some define as homoerotic and others, like the critic Harold Bloom, as an onanist, since Whitman dedicated quite a few rhymes to masturbation and oral sex, practices that appear in the report that prosecutor Kenneth Starr wrote in the caso Lewinsky.
Behind the impeachment from which he was acquitted, Clinton did not reappoint Whitman. Yes to his other favorite poets: TS Eliot and WB Yeats, whom he included in some literary recommendations that he was asked for in 2013. In that list he included the memoirs of Hillary Clinton, his wife, to whom the politician also gave Leaves of Grass. To her, on their second date; to Lewinsky, in the penultimate.
feminism or women
Whitman, who wrote four eulogies for the death of Abraham Lincoln, was a great defender of democracy, but not always of politicians: “Every trustee of the people is a traitor who seeks only his own benefit and to strengthen his party. The bunks, including the Presidency, are bought, sold, postulated, prostituted and filled with prostitutes.” You can see there the fang of the journalist that he always was and that he did not use when he reported on the impeachment by Andrew Johnson, in 1868: “He is a common man. I wouldn’t say bad, or not deliberately bad: just no brain, no conscience.” An approach similar to that of Nancy Pelosi, who in 2019 was still saying that the impeachment Clinton’s claim was because he “was stupid,” neglecting to mention the charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.
He was not the only person who defended him in such a way. In 1998, Gloria Steinem took sides by saying that feminism was losing more with that investigation than Lewinsky, “whose relations with Clinton were consensual.” I said it because the 42nd president of the United States defended abortion; signed in 1994 the law of violence against women; made child care a priority, and appointed more women to top positions (10 of 21) than any of his predecessors. Among them, Ruth Bader Ginsburg for the Supreme Court.
That Clinton concern for equal rights is in Leaves of Grass, where Whitman speaks “of men and women”; He defines himself as “the poet of women as well as of men” and demands more space for them: “Great, great, in fact, much greater than they believe, is the sphere of women.” But in the same way that when Bush appropriated it he did not take into account that his idea of freedom collided in many aspects with that of the bard, Clinton also kept the pages of Whitman that suited him. For example, he did not apply the verses in which the writer criticizes men who treat women with contempt or those who speak of avoiding humiliation, a key word when he began to question the treatment given to the former intern, whom the president He referred to the cameras as “that woman.”
After the broadcast of the series in the US, other relevant personalities (David Letterman, among them) who contributed to the ridicule of that 23-year-old intern have also reviewed their behavior. To the apologies they have added phrases such as “times have changed”, to which Lewinsky could respond with the note he sent to the president after giving him the book: “Like those of Shakespeare, Whitman’s writings are so timeless…”.