The speech Bill Clinton delivered on Aug. 17 didn’t answer the most important question about his disgraceful conduct during the past eight months: Why did he continue to lie when he saw the damage he was doing to his family, his aides, his office and his country? The only plausible explanation is one that he dared not make. He must have persuaded himself that he could escape responsibility, no matter the cost to others-a selfish calculation that only compounded the awful idiocy of a liaison with Monica Lewinsky.
For recklessly risking everything that others, above all his wife, have sacrificed to make possible, and for then failing to lead the way out when he could have made that choice himself, he should have offered a stronger apology. His anger at the gross intrusion into his private life is justified, but not as justified, at this late date, as the anger his friends and associates feel toward him.
Inevitably, his stubborn concealment of the truth undermines the presumption of innocence about accusations that he engaged in an illegal coverup. He says he did not, and the evidence available so far doesn’t prove otherwise. But he would be unwise to expect his pursuers, especially Kenneth Starr, to take him at his word. They are as resolved as ever to remove him from an office they believe is not legitimately his. It must be hoped that if his able attorneys believed he had committed any such crime, they would have counseled resignation, or resigned themselves.
Should the President resign anyway? His authority is permanently diminished; indeed, his capacity to accomplish anything in domestic or foreign policy may vanish in the months ahead. Unless the voting population miraculously ousts the Republican majority in Congress, he faces the prospect of continued distraction and possible impeachment at a time when his attention should be focused on an increasingly dangerous and unstable world. His best revenge against his partisan adversaries might well be to quit, and leave them to cope with a furious public and a newly empowered President Gore.
Still, Mr. Clinton has two powerful reasons to hang onto his Presidency. The first is the continued support of the voters, who have shown a truly remarkable ability to distinguish between his achievements in office and his private misbehavior. If he is to remain, he must do everything in his power to maintain their indulgent faith.
Although he certainly is not the first President to lie to the nation-far more consequential falsehoods have been uttered by his predecessors-he is the first to have done so and then be forced to confess on television. Yet at first blush, the overwhelming majority want him to stay and redeem himself. Since January, surveys have indicated that more and more Americans believe he did the stupid thing he had denied doing-and against the wishful prediction of many a pundit, the popular endorsement of him grew stronger.
Why do Mr. Clinton’s approval ratings stay so strong, even among many who never voted for him? When people ignored Whitewater and the other “scandals” ginned up since he took office, his critics wearily insisted that his offenses were too complex and tedious for the unwashed masses to comprehend. If there was ever any substance to that condescending notion-and, personally, I doubt it-the saturation coverage and high ratings of this year’s media spectacular have effectively refuted it. The details of the Lewinsky investigation, however unappetizing, have been literally inescapable without leaving the country. Salacious and often slanted, the reportage of Mr. Clinton’s crisis by a mostly hostile press corps has spared him nothing. Everyone knows the story.
Until lately, the President’s buoyancy was considered a side effect of an ever-inflating stock market. But his numbers remained steady or climbed higher as the Dow Jones declined. The real reason for his survival is more likely to be found in the polling charts: As Mr. Clinton’s ratings went up, Mr. Starr’s ratings went down. People seem to have realized, intuitively or analytically, that the independent counsel is seeking to dethrone the President. They question his methods. They believe his motivations are more political than judicial. They may even suspect that Mr. Starr is the spearhead of an ideological minority that seeks to undo the results of the last two Presidential elections. They resent that effort and are resisting it.
There lies the second reason for Mr. Clinton to fight back for as long as the public will support him. He knows that he has been engaged for many years in a struggle against the hard right, where resentment of him has nothing to do with adultery or lying (both sins that can be found abundantly in right-wing ranks, exceeded only by hypocrisy). His enemies on the right have searched high and low, and then lower still, for material with which to smear him ever since he first displayed Presidential ambitions.
From Capitol Hill to a bait shop in Hot Springs, Ark., they have spent millions trying to prove the most outlandish charges. They have accused Bill and Hillary Clinton of every conceivable crime, from drug-smuggling and multiple murders to financial fraud and obstruction of justice. In every case, a lack of evidence has meant only that it was time to move on to the next episode. And Mr. Starr, while shying away from the wilder fringes of Clinton hatred, has followed much the same pattern. That is how the independent counsel has made his way from an old land deal in the Ozarks to a tawdry affair in the Oval Office.
So it is possible to understand the President’s fury as well as to deplore his shame. In the face of implacable and unscrupulous enemies, he failed himself as well as the rest of us. Whether he can expunge that failure and salvage his Presidency remains to be seen.
But he must try to do so if he can, though not to preserve his tarnished legacy or his personal pride. Otherwise, American politics will never be free of political pornography. If a twice-elected President is innocent of high crimes and misdemeanors, then he shouldn’t be driven from office by a partisan prosecutor and a right-wing claque. He may or may not be able to fulfill the role of leadership, but the people have not withdrawn their mandate. They still say that his personal failings do not negate their democratic prerogative. One need no longer admire Bill Clinton to defend their right to the President they elected.