If H.L. Mencken returned to Earth today, he would be shocked to learn that science has discovered something dumber than the American people: the Republican Party.

It's inescapable: The Republicans have succeeded in impeaching the president for a terminological inexactitude about an act of oral-genital intimacy, while the public has done whatever it could to stop them. In Civics class we were told that the people express their will at the ballot box, and our elected officials listen. Didn't work. What is left is the opinion polls; and Clinton's rating, always high, has increased even further as the populace desperately seeks to inform the Republicans that Clinton's sex life is none of their literally fucking business.

[OK. I know. "It's the lying," as Blackadder's mother said. I actually know two people who wouldn't have wanted to punish Clinton for his sex life, but think it was an impeachable offense to lie about it. (Neither is an elected official.) But he was lying about a matter that he wouldn't have been required to say a word about, except that the Independent Inquisitor was given the power to take up another matter that should not have been his concern and bring into it evidence that had as little to do with that case as the flowers that bloom in the Spring but appealed to the prurient interests of many, including a voting majority in the House.]

The whole thing reminds me of the Fable of the Body Parts. You know the one: They all argue about which should be in charge, and the anus shuts down until the others concede, thus proving that an asshole can always win if he's stubborn enough.

That's what's done it: the persistence, the stick-to-it-iveness that goes so well with rage, envy, and fanaticism. Remember Whitewater? That's what this mess was supposed to be about, but Jeff Copeland did a computer check and found that the word "Whitewater" appears less frequently in the Starr Report than "vagina." George Santayana's second most famous quote is that the fanatic redoubles his efforts when he's lost sight of his goals, and this would seem on the surface to be an example.

But the more cynical among us would say that the real purpose was always to punish Bill Clinton. Partly for being a Democrat, but much more for being a personification of the 60s: a pot-smoking draft dodger with an overly interesting sex life. (As David Horowitz has demonstrated, the 60s counterculture was simultaneously disciplined revolutionary cadres and mind-blown hippie freaks, destroying the country by getting the lower classes into illegitimacy, sexually transmitted disease, and drug addiction, none of which they would have thought of on their own.) Not only that, but he's got a wife who's smart and strong enough that she's probably a Lesbian, he wanted to let perverts into the military, and he supported Socialized Medicine (which is to say, a system where important medical decisions are made by bean-counting government bureaucrats instead of bean-counting insurance bureaucrats).

And, God, were they persistent! When Starr turned the Whitewater Investigation into the Spermish Inquisition (thank you, Mark Blackman, for that useful term), I considered an extreme response.

I am a Discordian Pope and, as such, empowered to issue Infallible Proclamations (which all other Discordians, also being popes, are free to infallibly ignore). What I considered doing with this awesome and terrifying power was to proclaim against Starr the world's first Discordian fatwa.

It would not, of course, have involved violence; we don't play that stuff. I would simply have declared that it was every Discordian's Holy Duty to make fun of Ken Starr whenever possible.

I didn't do it; I didn't have to. The spontaneous workings of the marketplace for once acted as they were supposed to, producing everything from tabloid reports on his alleged love for shoe shining to the campaign urging women to send him their semen-stained dresses. I don't recall hearing any rap songs about him (make him weep like Niagara/'cause Bill don't need Viagra), but I'm sure there were some.

Meanwhile, those of more serious approach pointed out Starr's own high crimes and misdemeanors, from crude efforts to scare witnesses into perjuring themselves for the cause to leaking secret grand jury information (and being dumb enough to admit he'd done it).

Nothing helped. In the manner of the TV show, we killed Kenny every week, but he kept coming back, still talking nonsense. He insisted that the government endorse his fanaticism, that Clinton himself (if we accept the vendetta theory) or his testimonial imprecision (if we take the case at face value) is enough of a clear and present danger to override such Constitutional safeguards as separation of powers and attorney-client privilege; indeed, that to assert those technicalities is itself an obstruction of justice.

Starr finally produced a work that can reasonably be called pornography, if we use that term, as the Supreme Court did, to mean "appealing to a morbid and shameful interest in sex" (as opposed to getting people horny). This too was pointed out, but it apparently didn't bother him or those Republicans who are vigilant against the kind of porn that lacks the redeeming social importance of repeated reminders that what is being described so explicitly is Evil and Sinful. (Of course, the smiters of smut are not alone in this. Consider the reviewer who condemned a Susie Bright erotica anthology for insufficient display of forbiddenness, that being for him an essential element in making porn exciting.)

The fanatical Republicans loved it. They didn't even mind that the Report could be seen as an all-too-thoroughly documented refutation of a principal dogma of their sometime allies, the femdamentalist sexphobes who insist that any male employer who has sex with a female employee is forcing himself upon her, just like a rapist. They persisted to the point of impeachment by imposing party discipline. (That last word may bring some improper thoughts in the context of an already sex-drenched discussion, though Starr was unable to detect any examples of that sort of kink.)

They persisted. I don't think I'm cynical enough to believe that the latest Iraq adventure was intended as a distraction, or at least I'll concede that there were reasons to do it then. (Only two bombing days till Ramadan.) In any event, it did not distract the Republicans, which suggests that, like lab rats ignoring food and sex to keep pressing the button to stimulate their pleasure centers, they have found that impeachment gives them more of a buzz than their usual pleasures.

It looks as if impeachment cannot win in the Senate, and one might think it was like continuing the war in Vietnam when everyone knew we couldn't win, but quitting would be an admission that it shouldn't have been started. I've also heard the theory that the Impeachers want to gross out the electorate so as to turn them away from the political process. There's probably more to it than that. Mullah Nasruddin, condemned to execution, asked for a year's stay in which he would teach the shah's horse to fly: He would try to escape; the shah might change his mind; the shah might not live out the year; he might not live out the year; and maybe the damned horse can fly. The Republicans may be pursuing that sort of mixed strategy: Maybe they will win by sheer persistence and disgustingness; maybe Clinton will get caught again putting his little president somewhere it doesn't belong (not, I fear, an impossibility); maybe they'll get the votes somewhere; and hey, we've got a Millennium coming; maybe the world will end. (Though I imagine they would expect the Rapture to take more troops from their side than from Clinton's.)

But even if it isn't a Republican strategy, we're hearing a lot about politics and politicians being inherently nasty. In reply, Kathy Routliffe wrote an eloquent and compassionate essay reminding us that politicians are just folks doing stuff; that many of them are good people and much of what they do is good.

But I'm still grossed out. It's not the discussion of cigars and similarly shaped objects; it's the evidence, once again, that in politics the assholes win by being stubborn. I have always considered persistence an overrated virtue, and not just because I lack it. (I do not consider courage an overrated virtue.) It is, however, one that politics rewards, often more than compassion or intelligence.

It has, for instance, long been noted that elected office requires a willingness to submit to powerful interests, whether corporations, unions, or ethnic constituencies. More of this sort of thing is required, the higher on the greasy pole one climbs, and we have evidence from those who have reached the top of the difficulties that await there. Harry Truman noticed the problem. With his usual awareness of himself as an ordinary guy suddenly and almost randomly thrust into a position of great and scary power, he said, "One word from me, and everyone goes on doing as he pleases." Richard Nixon learned that the office was greatly overrated as an opportunity to screw his political enemies and that the power of the Presidency brought with it an alarming vulnerability to errors (such as a botched burglary) several layers down the organizational chart. Now we are setting out to ensure that the president doesn't get any outside nookie. With those roadblocks and those rewards, who but a fanatic could get the job?

As Sir Thomas Browne said, obstinacy in a bad cause is but constancy in a good. I would love to see politicians driven to the same sort of stubbornness by revulsion at the lack of decent (if one may use that word in a nonsexual context) food, housing, and medical care for too many Americans. I'm sure there are some, but not enough, in Congress. [It occurs to me that the best example of constancy (stubbornness on my side), combined with compassion and intelligence, that we've seen in this half century, Martin Luther King, also did not have a sex life acceptable to the Bible Belt.] And it seems that persistence most easily comes from fanaticism, from envy, from hatred, from the frenzy to punish.

Perhaps the main element of cheer in all this is that it is possible to be too fanatical. There are signs that the wowsers may kill the Republican Party before they can kill the government. The sacrifice of Bob Livingston is a step in that direction. I feel sorry for the poor guy, but that's what he gets for fooling around with the wrong people. (I refer of course to the likes of Steve Largent, whose parlaying of his gridiron success into a career as a Sex Enforcer makes me ashamed to be a jock sniffer.)

Still, it's a nasty business. I have always loved the Constitution (and especially the Bill of Rights), but I must admit that its approach to government is that of a bunch of rich white guys hiring servants to take care of the messy details, with added provisions to make sure that the servants didn't get uppity and try to take away their books or guns.

There is part of me that is still a sensawonder 50s sf reader thinking that, some day, scientists will figure out enough about the world to enable us all to live like rich white guys. But we certainly aren't there yet, and there are two problems that didn't get mentioned in 50s sf.

One, which we've certainly heard about since, is that we live in an environment, and that's a constraint. Earth has its limits, and I'm not sure that we could get a significant number of people living elsewhere even if we had the will to go out into space.

The other is the white guys who strive to be not only rich but richER. One reason we actually seem further from "having enough" than we did thirty years ago is all those guys in business going after more than their share with all the energy of Republicans pursuing sinners. (I am no longer able to believe that the goodole free market would stop this even if we had one.) The part I find least tolerable is that they don't merely want wealth, luxury, and hedonism. No, showing all too much of their male-animal heritage, they revel in the competition for dominance and position; each is willing to destroy anything in his path to be the one who gets to place his urinary autograph highest on that big virtual tree we call the economy. And I cannot see any way to restrain these beasts except politics.

As Maurice Chevalier said about old age, government is preferable to the alternative. Maybe it all comes down to my favorite image of politics, from Robert A. Heinlein: Man, as a social being, can no more escape government than the individual can escape bondage to his bowels.