Presume not that I am the thing I was;
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn’d away my former self;
So will I those that kept me company.
And with these words, from the concluding scene of Henry IV, Part II, Shakespeare’s Prince Hal bids a brutally abrupt farewell to Falstaff, his comrade-in-debauchery, and to his own raucous youth. His father has just died, he is now King Henry V, and — on a dime, on tenpence — has turned away his former self.
This is not, I’ve realized over the past week, one of the Bard’s more convincing psychological transformations. Nine times out of 10, Prince Hal doesn’t become sober King Henry but just good old King Hal, hauling his flaws and obsessions with him to the throne. In democracies, however, winning office sometimes requires a pledge of transformation. It is now widely, and understandably, forgotten that Richard Nixon actually marketed himself in 1968 as “the new Nixon,” purged of the ethical deficiencies and seething rage he’d displayed in earlier years.
Bill Clinton never took a specific pledge; he didn’t have to. But the tacit commitment he made to the public in New Hampshire back in 1992 was that his sex life — his sex life as president — would not be an issue. Hillary and he had had their rough stretches, he told the press corps, but that was over — and if it was over between them, it stood to reason it would be over between us, between Bill and the American people.
If one thing is clear from the last week, it’s that the American people devoutly wish it had remained over. Asked whether the public should be informed of the president’s private lives and affairs, respondents to a Time poll last weekend opted proudly and decisively — by a 60 percent to 36 percent margin — for staying uninformed. And yet, a legal culture run amok and a journalistic culture gone mad are now rushing the American people to consider actually dumping their president, albeit a president quite probably still in the thrall of the Hot Springs big-hair waitress quickies of his youth.
But the president’s aren’t the only obsessions that have brought us to this ludicrous impasse. Assuming, as I do, that there is at least some truth to the Lewinsky tapes, two people seem to have been drawn obsessively to Monica Lewinsky, and, if anything, Linda Tripp’s obsession seems a whole lot stronger than Bill Clinton’s. Tripp had already talked about a book on White House dirt with her right-wing scandalmonger agent, Lucianne Goldberg, a few years earlier. Surely, she did not cultivate Monica Lewinsky accidentally or record her for 20 hours in a spasm of fear or fit of pique at Clinton attorney Bob Bennett. To the contrary, Linda Tripp must have stalked Monica relentlessly. Lewinsky was at once her ticket to a book deal and a vehicle for Republican revenge. This was a setup at a level of government where we’re not accustomed to setups, more a demand-side scandal than a supply-side one.
And it wasn’t just Tripp and Goldberg who were demanding a scandal; it was special prosecutor Kenneth Starr as well. After three years of floundering in Whitewater, Starr had nothing to show for his efforts. He had failed at his job; he had even failed at quitting his job. He was quickly becoming the Sisyphus of the nut-case wing of the American right, and only a desperation born of that realization can explain his manic response to the Lewinsky tapes. In short order, he offered Lewinsky immunity if she could carry out a sting on Vernon Jordan or Clinton secretary Betty Currie or the president himself within the next 24 hours — secretly taping on Starr’s behalf. That ploy was shot down by Lewinsky’s lawyer, but in recent days Starr’s office has plainly been casting about for witnesses — even among Secret Service agents — to West Wing assignations.
Now here’s an instance where the conservatives are clearly right: Sometimes, government action is worse than the situation it is supposed to remedy. Whatever Clinton’s sins, they pale alongside the notion of a government prosecutor secretly taping the president, or of turning the Secret Service against him. These are actions that presuppose the criminality of the president, which has long been an article of faith on the far right. But if Starr is acting for the nation rather than for a political faction, it should require an issue of greater moment than adultery or covering up adultery to enlist the president’s bodyguards in snooping on their boss.
The problem with the independent-counsel law, though, is that it doesn’t require such issues at all. Former Clinton HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros was recently indicted by yet another independent counsel for understating in testimony the amount of money he had paid a former mistress. Like Starr, the special prosecutor assigned to investigate Cisneros had been unable to come up with anything of substance on his target — so he settled for a perjury indictment just as the statute of limitations on Cisneros’ testimony was about to kick in. Whatever the original intent behind the independent-counsel laws, they have become just another way of waging political attacks.
Still, the lawyers haven’t acquitted themselves any worse than the journalists. This has been the week when any remaining scruples the mainstream media used to have about sourcing seem to have collapsed. Numerous media outlets, for instance, ran the story that a witness had seen Clinton and Lewinsky carrying on — their source being an ABC story from unnamed sources, which ABC later toned down to a story that Starr was investigating these charges. Journalism frequently traffics in hearsay, but hearsay of hearsay should at least raise some eyebrows.
But what’s truly been stunning this week has been the rush to judgment that now seems the norm in journalism. By the end of the day that the story first broke, network reporters and commentators were talking glibly about impeachment, with no consideration, apparently, of how difficult it would be to prove any of the allegations against the president, and how uneasy the American public might feel about removing a president for lying about extramarital sex. How exactly did they think subornation of perjury could be proved? Did they think Vernon Jordan would turn on Bill Clinton? Did they think there was a witness to corroborate the incidents on the Lewinsky tapes? No matter: While reporting was falling to the level of Matt Drudge, commentary was reduced to the insta-punditry of the McLaughlin Group. Curiously, instantaneous judgment seemed to produce prophecies of instantaneous action. (Impeachment looms! Resignation impends!) Anyone suggesting that tragedy takes five acts will be gently escorted from the room.
Read between the lines in the polling, and you see an American public that feels trapped by this awful collision of legal machinery, media hysteria and presidential id. In the CNN/USA Today poll over the weekend, respondents were evenly divided as to whether the president should be impeached if he lied under oath (a 48-percent-to-48-percent split) or conspired to get Lewinsky to lie (48-to-47). In the same poll, though, fully 71 percent said they wanted the president to remain in office. Other polls over the last week show Clinton’s performance ratings — particularly on the economy and foreign policy — actually moving up. Clearly, the scandal is dragging the electorate to a place it quite properly does not wish to go.
The exception, of course, is the Clinton haters, who have so warped the doctrine of the-personal-is-political that it may no longer be remotely serviceable. The most wonderful example of the right’s new concern for private rectitude appeared on the editorial page of Monday’s Wall Street Journal, where onetime Communist and now Gingrich-guru Marvin Olasky actually argued that “Faithlessness is generally a leading indicator of trouble” in American presidents. Wilson’s concealment of an affair, Olasky contended, prefigured his deceptive anti-war campaign of 1916, when he really was planning to lead us into war. Roosevelt’s concealed affair in the 1910s led to his discarding his pledge to balance the budget when he became president in the ’30s. Grover Cleveland, by contrast, manfully admitted his youthful indiscretions (of course, he had sired an illegitimate child), and, throughout his term, “he was respected for his honesty.”
But for those Americans who don’t believe the Cleveland presidency towers over Roosevelt’s, the line between the personal and the political is a good deal less straight. Richard Nixon (a paragon of marital fidelity, by the way) had to resign for crimes committed as part of his conduct in office, among them enlisting the FBI and CIA in a cover-up of his campaign’s plan to destabilize the opposition party. Andrew Johnson was almost impeached because of major policy differences with Congress over Reconstruction policy. Having phone sex with an intern and attempting to conceal it (if either of these acts can be proved) are not likely the way to win a place on Mount Rushmore, but they’re a far cry from the clearly governmental-policy offenses for which presidents have hitherto lost or nearly lost their office. Only if Clinton is caught in a series of irrefutable lies to the American people is public opinion likely to shift toward seeking his removal. But not getting nailed is what Bill Clinton does best.
The Clinton scandal hits American politics at the moment when, for the first time in five years, the Democrats have regained the offensive. With welfare already slashed and the budget in balance, the days when Clinton fought his own party are largely gone. And with the Republicans bereft of agenda and unable to invoke the deficit as an excuse to slash government, the days when the Democrats defined themselves simply as the anti-Newts are also over. Clinton spent the last two months evolving a modestly activist program that has united his party, while dividing and further marginalizing the Republicans.
The results were apparent in Tuesday’s State of the Union address. In one stroke, the president’s proposal to dedicate the budget surplus to shoring up the Social Security Trust Fund should take the Republican call for tax cuts off the table, and nearly out of the debate. His call for an HMO Consumer Bill of Rights has already split the congressional GOP down the middle, with 91 House Republicans supporting it against the wishes of their leaders. The Republicans, by contrast, have virtually no program at all, as anyone who heard Trent Lott’s response to the State of the Union can attest. A party that in 1998 calls for a missile defense system not only does not know what it believes, it may not know what planet it is on.
In a sense, Clinton’s program marks a modest return to the best part of his presidency — his pre-presidency, the 1992 campaign. In those days, he pledged to fix not just America’s budget deficit but its investment deficit, with major outlays for health care, schools and so on. Now, with the budget in order and tax increases apparently unthinkable, he has turned again to investment programs, but small ones. More than 45 million Americans have no health insurance, and Clinton’s Medicare expansion, though a step in the right direction, will cover no more than an additional 300,000.
And that’s if he still has the capacity in the midst of the scandal to promote his programs. Certainly, his administration is filled with people who fear not just for him, but for their collective agenda. Last Friday, two days after the scandal broke, the health-care group Families USA convened a conference in Washington to mobilize support for the president’s Medicare expansion. Chris Jennings, the administration official who’d painstakingly developed the program, was effusively introduced for a major address. He came to the podium, obviously touched by the generous introduction, acknowledged the applause and started to cry. It was some time before he could compose himself enough to speak.
Jennings is not alone in what I will perhaps unfairly presume to be his appreciation of, and anger and bewilderment at, a president who has worked brilliantly to put this scaled-down version of activist government back on the national agenda, only to give new and undeserved life to those forces that would take it off. Perhaps the proposals have been crafted so cleverly that not even Clinton’s self-immolation will doom them. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll taken after the scandal burst still showed a stratospheric 79 percent support for Clinton’s Medicare and child-care proposals; they had two-thirds backing from Republicans. But it’s hard to envision anything of substance moving through Congress so long as the scandal dominates all political discourse.
Which is one reason why the Republicans have no interest in impeaching him. Henry Hyde, who as chair of the House Judiciary Committee would preside over any impeachment proceedings, has all but said he can’t imagine holding hearings: Either the evidence would be so incontrovertible that Clinton would be forced to resign, or so murky that hearings would be futile.
A wounded Clinton, of course, is the answer to Republicans’ prayers. A continuing national obsession with the scandal obscures their lack of program, indeed obviates their need to develop one. It could freeze their opponents’ agenda without their having to block such popular particulars as raising the minimum wage or expanding Medicare. It takes the Democrats’ best campaigner out of the game.
No wonder the Democrats are nervous — even if no bimbos erupt over the next fortnight. 1998 may not be a total disaster, a rerun-in-reverse of 1974, when Republicans stayed away from the polls in revulsion over Watergate and the Democrats picked up 43 House seats. Nonetheless, so long as the Lewinsky accusations seem plausible, each Democrat must find some way to delicately sidestep the president when he’s passing through town. A Clinton tour of the hustings may look a good deal like a road show of Oedipus at Colonus: Come meet the once-great leader who arrogantly destroyed himself with his horrible acts! Not the kind of gig for which your typical congressman wants to be the warm-up act.
And if Clinton is rendered an untouchable, how does the party raise money? “Clinton’s scheduled to come in for a fund-raiser late this spring,” one consultant to a small-state senator told me last week. “We were planning on raising 400 grand. What do we do now?” Laments like the consultant’s are being sounded all over Washington these days. Which is why, if the accusations are not dispelled and the frenzy continues into the spring, some Democrats are likely to start mumbling that it’s time for Clinton to go, and why a delegation of party elders would be dispatched to Clinton to deliver that message, if the Democrats had any elders worth dispatching.
My guess is that it would come to naught in any case. Barring something on the order of a DNA match even Johnnie Cochran couldn’t contest, it seems most unlikely that Clinton will jump, or that the Republicans will push him. What’s more uncertain is the fate of his program — whether he can make himself heard over the din to nudge it to passage, or whether he subsides, like Reagan after Iran-Contra, into utter irrelevance (or what the Weekly’s Manohla Dargis has called a “lame-dick presidency”). If Clintonism is indeed dead, seldom has so cautious a program been undone by so reckless a life.