Date of this Version
“I tried it, but I didn’t inhale.” It is hard not to smile at the irony of former president Bill Clinton’s wan attempt to place himself on the right side of the law in public when disclosing his private use of marijuana. And the irony is doubly inflected for us, knowing—as we do now—about his duplicitous public admission that he never “had sex” with Monica Lewinsky. Perhaps there is no figure in American life for whom private life and public rhetoric are more intertwined than for our nation’s president. This consequence of public life in America’s most visible office is well known and well accepted.
Lately, the conflation of private life with public rhetoric has become the norm for many of us in far less visible positions, with interesting and perhaps problematic consequences. Some intrusions of public discourse into private life are legislated and involuntary: none of us who travel by air nowadays escape the public questions of a stranger about the contents of our baggage, questions often accompanied by a search of our most intimate personal belongings—including our persons!—amid a crowd of onlookers. Other such intrusions are voluntary: some of us cheerfully encourage the ubiquitous distribution of our private dalliances in public chat rooms on the Internet, for instance.