Lessons from the 'Scarlet Letter'


AS THE Senate formally begins the impeachment trial of President Clinton, a re-reading of "The Scarlet Letter" might help lawmakers and the public put this neo-Puritan drama of our own time into perspective.

After all, Mr. Clinton's impeachment by the House of Representatives seems straight out of Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 novel, set in Puritan Boston 300 years ago.

Since this affair has dominated our national discourse for a year, it's worth taking a look at how the Hawthorne classic contains timeless truths. The resemblance between the charactors on the page and in real life is strangely exact, an echo across the ages.

Hester Prynne, the seamstress sentenced to the public shame of wearing a scarlet "A" (for adultery) on her chest, is a dead ringer for Monica Lewinsky. Roger Chillingworth, the doctor determined to discover her secret and wreak vengeance upon her fellow sinner, could be an ancestor of independent counsel Kenneth Starr. And Arthur Dimmesdale, the popular preacher who keeps his hand over his heart as if hiding his true nature, is none other than Mr. Clinton himself.

The media, the Washington establishment and partisan House Republicans, such as House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde of Illinois, also play parts that fit nicely into the novel's framework as Puritan background players: gossips, scolds and governors.

Let's start with the fair and unfortunate Prynne, described by Hawthorne as having "dark and abundant hair, so glossy it threw off the sunshine with a gleam."

Caught in the act of having a child out of wedlock (her husband is presumed lost at sea), Prynne is pilloried: marched from the town jail through the marketplace and then forced to face the angry citizenry from the scaffold.

Below, the gossiping "goodwives" remark on the brightly embroidered "A" on her gown in a surreal echo of a certain stain left on a blue Gap dress: "But she -- the naughty baggage -- little will she care what they put upon the bodice of her gown!"

The A, like the stain, is a mark that has lasting consequences; it is Hester's destiny to wear it forever. Even as she grows old, Ms. Lewinsky will never live down her infamous place in history.

Also, the two are both put under a form of house arrest: Ms. Lewinsky at the Watergate with her mother, locked in by the prying media, and Hester in a small thatched cottage on the outskirts of the settlement. Nobody comes to see her there; she has no company save her baby, Pearl. The price they paid for their crimes was social isolation.

The zealous prosecutor in each case makes it his business to pursue the most private of matters. Chillingworth's reason is fair enough: He is the husband thought lost at sea, and when he finally arrives two years later, he finds his wife on a pillory. He demands to know the identity of her lover, but she will not speak.

So, Hawthorne writes, he begins a sinister "investigation," not unlike that of his 20th-century counterpart, Mr. Starr: "Old Roger Chillingworth had begun an investigation, as he imagined, with the severe and equal integrity of a judge, desirous only of truth . . . But as he proceeded, a terrible fascination . . . seized the old man." When the path leads to Dimmesdale, "He dug into the clergyman's heart, like a miner searching for gold."

However, the man Chillingworth makes it his mission to torment is loved by the populace: "The Rev. Mr. Dimmesdale had achieved a brilliant popularity in his sacred office."

Like Mr. Clinton, Dimmesdale had it all -- except for a "black secret of his soul." Educated at Oxford, Dimmesdale knows how to talk to people from a bully pulpit, indeed how to address "the whole human brotherhood in the heart's native language."

Even when he tries to confess his sins, public opinion of Dimmesdale doesn't waver: "They heard it all and did but reverence him the more."

There are some Washington insiders who will never understand why the public continues to support Mr. Clinton. Media pundits like columnist George Will, who makes sport of attacking the Clintons, are wondering where all their words have gone.

Yes, there are some Clinton-haters who would like to see him pay the political equivalent of the Puritan penalty for adultery: death.

Yet the Puritan magistrates were merciful; they allowed Prynne to live. Then and now, the American people are more forgiving of good but flawed people than a few in the minority would have us believe.

So maybe the Senate should take a page from Hawthorne and show some mercy on the president.

Jamie Stiehm is a Sun staff writer.

Pub Date: 1/07/99

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