What the Word “State” States

One of the things I loved most about Bill Clinton was that, like any good diva, he was adept at telling his enemies to go fuck themselves.

During the Paula Jones case, when trying to establish that Clinton had a pattern of sleeping around, her lawyers settled on using the term sexual relations to get to the bottom of things. The term was defined (as only lawyers can define something) as “contact with the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, or buttocks of any person with an intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person.” When asked whether he had ever had “sexual relations” with Monica Lewinsky, Clinton said no. He was parsing his words, of course (he’s a lawyer, too): assuming that the person making contact was the person responding to the question (Clinton) and that the referent for “any person” was Lewinsky, the answer was, legally, no.

If only the plaintiff’s attorneys weren’t so locked in by their own skittishness to discuss sex, they might actually have gotten somewhere. A simple follow-up question would have sufficed: “Did Monica Lewinsky give you a blowjob?” If Clinton had said yes, their case would have scored a point. If he’d said no, the subsequent impeachment would have succeeded.

During the impeachment process, Clinton made a remark that will go down in history as his “ask not what your country can do for you.” When asked whether he had lied when he told the grand jury “there’s nothing going on between us [himself and Lewinsky],” he said quite simply, “It depends on what the meaning of the word is is.”

This time the lawyers were stymied by a confusion of tense rather than sexual positions. Is and was are two very different things. And, as Bette Midler would say, “Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.”

I was reminded of this story when reading about the Obamacare case argued at the Supreme Court this week. It all seems to hinge on what the meaning of the word state is. When the law refers to exchanges “established by the State,” does the word state literally mean one of the 50 states of the union, or is it a more generic term—state simply referring to government (as in statecraft or statesmanship), as opposed to the private sector? What about Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia? They aren’t states at all; does the law intentionally deny them the right to healthcare subsidies?

The Republicans are the ones parsing words this time, but they’re not quite as skillful at it as Slick Willie. They’re just grasping at straws to attack the Affordable Care Act any way they can, five years into their sore loser status. And to them, I will say what Bill Clinton said to Monica Lewinsky and what he should have said to Ken Starr and his posse of uptight reactionaries:

Suck my dick.