Clinton and Character

By turning his personal problems into a constitutional crisis, Bill Clinton has presented nothing but bad choices to Congress — and the country as a whole

US President Bill Clinton appears with First Lady Hillary Clinton to make a statement to reporters outside the oval office following his impeachment by the US House of Representatives. Credit: Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images

Events have devised this sorry legacy: Bill Clinton will be recalled, with mocking irony, as the president who introduced the legal wink of "Don't ask, don't tell" to public policy. It seemed a clever ploy back in 1993, when the new president was dodging intense political cross fire over gays in the military. Gays will not be allowed to serve in the military, Clinton decided. But — – wink! —– we'll look the other way.

When the president attempts to cover his own behavior with an equivalent version of hypocrisy before the law, it injures all of us and creates a swamp of impossible dilemmas for the nation. Shall we give him an official pass to perjure himself on questions about his sex life? Or is Congress about to impeach a president for mere sexual infidelity? Have our public values been reduced to the contentious word games of criminal-defense lawyers? Or is America conducting a moralistic plebiscite —– thumbs up, thumbs down in the overnight polling?

The dispiriting core of this crisis involves many such questions without satisfying answers. The nation would like to look away but can't. Clinton could make the distress disappear by resigning, and, if the facts get worse, it might yet come to that. But even resignation would produce a terrible precedent in politics –— an ugly new playbook for how to drive a president from office.

If character failures rose to the level of constitutional principle, Clinton would be a goner. But they don't (the founders understood our human frailties and designed a government to offset them). The impeachment saga will thunder on, perhaps for months, as blood sport for partisans. But I do not believe that the Starr report convinces us that this president's wrongs against the republic approach Richard Nixon's or justify the equivalent of regicide.

If that is so, then why is Washington so inflamed by this scandal? Political fevers always burn more intensely inside the beltway than elsewhere, but this feels different. What's striking is the anger that has swamped Clinton since his confessional moment. It's deeper than party lines and includes a surprisingly open contempt from many Democrats —– even some of the president's old friends. I do not think this is simply about the sex or about nervous politicians seeking cover.

The public may know Bill Clinton the warmhearted and captivating political star —– the comeback kid –— who dazzles with his intellect and emotive powers, but Washington insiders know Clinton better –— or at least in different terms —– than Americans at large, and many harbor a residual distrust of his word and intentions. They have been burned before by Clinton —– seduced by the earnest sincerity, betrayed by the abrupt duplicities. The Starr report reads like a soft-porn potboiler because the lawyers who wrote it stretched for smarmy legalisms to justify every last sigh and ejaculation. But my hunch is that this sordid narrative has a familiar feeling for many who deal with Clinton, including reporters. Not that they had sex in the Oval Office. But they, too, have fallen prey to his charm, been used for short-term political purposes and then been abandoned.

If you have read the prosecutor's report, you may have sensed an odd coldness about the sexual encounters. Clinton is on the phone with congressmen, chatting about the government shutdown or other issues, while Monica Lewinsky services him. Months later, she's not sure he knows her name. He arranges coded signals for their trysts – —playing hide-and-seek with the Secret Service and his own staff —– then won't allow himself an orgasm. Not sure he trusts her yet. Is this even about sex?

Lewinsky says she is in love. The president says she makes him feel young. He observes, insightfully, that she has been hurt by different men but says that he will be her friend. Help her, not hurt her. Then Lewinsky gets canned, abruptly shuffled off to the Pentagon by nervous White House administrators. Clinton breaks off their meetings but says that he will bring her back after the election. During their eleven months without secret encounters, they have phone sex.

Starr's bizarre recital of facts is so mushily formed that it allows for opposing interpretations of why Clinton actually ended the affair. There is evidence from both Clinton and Lewinsky that he was sincerely struggling to overcome his weakness, trying to correct a personal mistake in an honorable fashion.

On the other hand, the facts also suggest that Clinton got warned about the salacious gossip Lewinsky was babbling to friends and family, awoke to his jeopardy and tried belatedly to cover his tracks. Get her a job, keep her happy so she won't blab, get her out of town. Lewinsky tries to play hardball, too, a sad little parody of Fatal Attraction. Both of them are needy people.

But unless we learn more facts later, I can't see that Starr actually proves the case for obstruction of justice, especially since the president's own motivations seem ambiguous. He wanted to end the relationship months before any threat of Lewinsky's testifying in the Paula Jones case surfaced. Sure, his defensive actions can be construed as having been designed to silence a witness, but pinning obstruction charges on him requires lots of malign inferences that Lewinsky herself won't explicitly confirm.

If the Starr report falls short as an indictment, it makes a devastating character study of the president: a man who can be wonderfully warm and empathetic but also ruthlessly cold and deceitful. It doesn't seem exactly arrogance, since Clinton makes himself easily intimate and vulnerable. Yet one also glimpses how callously he uses people, including his closest staff and long-held friends. He charms the people he needs, then sacrifices them to tactical necessities, then pleads for forgiveness or, at least, a neutral silence. I am not naive about politicians, but I was chilled by a pattern that became visible at the start of his presidency —– how he uses up his own troops when it seems to offer him short-term gain.

This pattern became visible almost from the start of his presidency. The first obvious sign was Clinton's slick solution for gays in the armed services —– "Don't ask, don't tell." I was taken aback further by the cruel ease with which he sacrificed his old law-school friend Lani Guinier, nominated for the Justice Department's top civil-rights post to right-wing howls. It was not that he decided that the opposition required him to drop her but the way he did it. He looked her in the eye in the Oval Office and reassured her, while the media were being informed that she was toast. Then he self-righteously claimed in public that he was upset to discover her radical views on democracy.

If that's how he stiffs a friend, I wondered, what might he do with others? The subsequent record reveals many large and small examples of the same pattern, from broken promises on NAFTA to the cave-in on welfare reform to numerous moments when allies accused him of deceit or double-cross. Consider how he got Cabinet officers and White House staff to walk the plank for him on Lewinsky. Defenders would argue that Clinton has had to steer through treacherous waters. What I saw was self-gratification trumping loyalty and principle.

The public may not believe it, but there is private honor among politicians, and, once it has been soiled, a leader's power to lead is undermined. That is the one sure consequence of this scandal. While Democrats defend him, they also worry about other surprises ahead; they wonder what issues Clinton may decide to sacrifice to appease Republicans. His party will fight impeachment, but many Democrats are already thinking that it would be easier if this man just went away.

A Common Response –— What I Felt Reading through the sordid details of the Starr report – is a profound sadness for the country (some sadness also for the participants and what is revealed about them). Sympathy is followed by anger, an infuriating recognition that the country cannot easily turn away from this sorry mess, not without doing some unintended damage to the shared beliefs we claim as a democracy.

What Clinton's recklessness has done (abetted by Kenneth Starr as a mad accomplice) is to pull us all into the muck. If anyone has been victimized by smallminded scandal, it is not just Clinton or Lewinsky or Starr. Everybody loses in intangible ways, stuck with what they dumped on us. The higher challenge for politics now is not whether to hang Bill Clinton or to absolve him but how to devise remedial resolutions (including fit punishment) that repair the wounded public spirit by defending public principle. Or at least don't do more harm. This will be very difficult to work out, given the bitter cycle of accusations and denials that led to this point. A stench of "payback time" hangs over Congress and skews attitudes on everything.

The Democrats are correct: The right-wingers have been stalking Bill Clinton since his first days in office, hating him with an ideological fury that always seemed puzzling to me, given the president's readiness to compromise, to sell out even his own party's liberal beliefs. Trying to bag the president, Starr became a frustrated Captain Queeg, crazed by his own inquiry into who stole the strawberries.

The attackers hate Clinton sincerely, but they are also trying to settle scores that are twenty-five years old. They would insist that the moralistic style of launching criminal allegations as a form of political combat began when the Democrats targeted their guys, from Richard Nixon to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Sen. Robert Packwood. Democrats who are old enough to remember should point out that the muck work actually started in the Sixties, with the right-wing impeachment crusades against liberal Justices Earl Warren and William O. Douglas.

Either way, the spiral of malice has been bipartisan. What it reflects, I think, is not just ideological conflict but also the emptiness of both major parties. As they decay further, losing their authentic connections with the people, they turn increasingly to extracurricular forms of combat. It's like a splatter-film series, where each sequel gets bloodier than the last.

When Starr's Bombshell Hit The Internet, I was far away from Washington, in the Vermont countryside. A neighbor and friend, the mother of two teenage boys, described the fallout in her living room. Her son's young pals were yukking it up over the presidential sex. One exclaimed, "I say, if Clinton can get all that, go for it." The mother unloaded on him. That is not how I expect my boys to turn out, she reminded them.

The personal is political. The unequal power relationships between men and women in their private lives helps to explain the inequalities of power everywhere else, from politics to the job market. When feminists taught us that insight a generation ago, it helped generate profound changes in social behavior, business and politics. But the reverse is also true when the president is involved: The political becomes personal.

Ever since George Washington chopped down the cherry tree, presidents have served as moral teachers. It is silly to pretend that Clinton's example has no impact on anyone other than his family. Arguments are under way now in millions of homes, not to mention offices, barrooms and barracks. In this story, Clinton is the reactionary. Never mind his progressive advocacy of women's rights. His behavior reveals a twisted sense of dehumanized relationships that is an ugly throwback (he's as selfish in his sex life as in politics). The president is seen using a young woman as a disposable sex toy. As my daughter remarked, "It could have been the family dog."

Clinton has damaged the country's social assumptions. That is a real setback to progress toward equal rights, and I think many feminists are skipping past the implications too easily. Social expectations —– the fabric of what people want in their relations with one another —– can be more powerful than politics. Yes, we could decide as a nation that this forlorn liaison at the White House is none of our business, two consenting adults, etc. But, next, we will have to decide whether we think this sort of thing is OK for our sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, parents, friends.

If only he had told the whole truth to the grand jury. If only he had settled the lawsuit with Paula Jones. If only he had not wagged his finger righteously at the American public. The if-onlys are numerous and now irrelevant.

Leave aside the partisan tactics and forget public opinion. The core question now is what sort of punishment might be appropriate to the offense without further damaging public values and the constitutional order. A censure resolution sounds plausible, but it's an empty gesture if there is no real penalty attached. From what we know so far, the president did appear to commit perjury under oath. That's way beyond any official wink. Yet impeachment on that charge sounds like overkill.

Are there any grown-ups left in Washington? Despite the Republicans pious talk, their real strategy is to bleed Clinton until they've coaxed maximum political gain from his disgrace or he quits. Wiser heads must step in and negotiate prompt, proper punishment. We don't have time for this stately waltz. The global economy is unraveling; a disabled president loses the ability to act swiftly on that or any other important issue.

The president could act boldly and go on offense by focusing public pressure on the Republicans for speedy resolution. Duke law professor James E. Coleman, an experienced criminal-defense lawyer who seems wiser than anyone on the president's own team, proposes this brilliant tactic: Clinton enters a demurrer to the prosecutor's facts –— that is, he accepts all of Star's factual assertions as if true and agrees not to contest them –— so the House Judiciary Committee can have a quick debate and accelerated judgment. The president's side will argue that these facts do not justify impeachment, even if they are true. That eliminates the need for the salacious hearings that right-wingers wish to exploit —– no Lewinsky before the microphones, no more public sleaze.

Let the House vote right now, up or down, on articles of impeachment. If House Republicans do vote to impeach, a Senate trial could follow swiftly. This would call the Republicans' bluff and spoil their fun: Do they want to uphold constitutional process or simply play in the muck awhile longer? I think it's unlikely that two-thirds of the too senators will convict on these facts.

Alas, I doubt Clinton will take any bold action, and it seems this nasty business will drag on. In that event, though I am leery of the dangerous precedent resignation would set, I, too, think it would be good for the country if he decides to go away.