Our Phony Penitent-in-Chief Has Idiotic Hitler Theory

West Confederate Avenue, Gettysburg, Pa. I’ve chosen this particular Gettysburg address, so to speak, as the dateline for what may be my final thoughts on the benighted impeachment process. In part because I’ve become increasingly obsessed with the last Presidential impeachment trial, the failed impeachment of Andrew Johnson, a failure that began the surrender of the victory won here at Gettysburg. I’ve become increasingly obsessed with the way the history of that first impeachment has been rewritten so successfully, with such damaging consequences by Southern sympathizers and moral equivalencers. Obsessed with the way that distortion portends a similarly partisan interpretive civil war over Bill Clinton’s impeachment. And a similar distortion of the truth about just who Bill Clinton is and how we explain him.

But before proceeding to my Gettysburg address, let me recount some reflections prompted by a return to the scene of the crime–the Senate chamber–for the Virtual Monica testimony last week.

(1) President Claus von Bülow Explains It All.

There have been recurrent movie references in the Senate Chamber today, Saturday, Feb. 6, the day the virtual Monica Tapes were finally played. Well, recurrent Charles Laughton references. This afternoon, one pro-impeachment manager compared Representative Ed Bryant’s questioning of Monica Lewinsky to Charles Laughton in Witness for the Prosecution . Then Clinton defender Nicole Seligman tried to reverse that verdict by comparing the prosecutors of Bill Clinton to Charles Laughton as Inspector Javert in Les Misérables . But if you ask me, the most apt cinematic comparison, in any case the best cinematic parallel to Bill Clinton, is Jeremy Irons as Claus von Bülow in Reversal of Fortune .

Let me explain by reference to an illuminating encounter I had with Dominick Dunne during a recess earlier in the trial. I’d asked Mr. Dunne, the astute, indefatigable Yoda of trial reporters (who’s covering the impeachment case for Vanity Fair ) about his now-severed friendship with Lucianne Goldberg, Linda Tripp’s literary agent. It had been reported, and Mr. Dunne confirmed to me, that he’d learned about the President’s affair with a White House intern from Ms. Goldberg some time before the scandal broke. He had kept her confidence, but now will no longer speak with Ms. Goldberg because he disapproves of her role in Linda Tripp’s secret taping of a friend.

Mr. Dunne and I exchanged early Lucianne Goldberg sightings. I have a pretty vivid memory of her flamboyant presence from covering the 1972 Presidential campaign, a lingering image of Ms. Goldberg curled up chummily in the lap of one of the pilots in the cockpit of the 727 jet that served as George McGovern’s press plane, as we came in for landing. It was, to say the least, a fairly informal atmosphere on the McGovern “Zoo Plane,” as it was known, and I could be wrong about the plane being in flight at the time, although many on the plane certainly were. It was only later that it emerged, in one of the minor Watergate disclosures, that Ms. Goldberg was amassing frequent-flier miles on the McGovern plane at least in part on behalf of Richard Nixon’s “dirty tricks” squad.

I had occasion to consult Ms. Goldberg a quarter-century later, shortly before she became involved in the Monica Lewinsky matter, on a question involving an earlier President’s paramour: John F. Kennedy’s mistress Mary Meyer, the talented, beautiful woman who slept with J.F.K. three decades before Monica’s thong was a gleam in Bill Clinton’s eye. Ms. Goldberg had been the literary agent of the late Leo Damore, author of a successful if controversial Chappaquiddick exposé ( Senatorial Privilege ). Before he died, Leo Damore had gotten himself a big-bucks contract with a major publisher for a book he claimed would prove a conspiracy in the death of Mary Meyer, who was murdered in Georgetown in October 1964.

Unfounded conspiracy theories about that murder have flourished since the lone gunman arrested for the killing was acquitted in a circumstantial evidence case. (I’ve investigated and believe the lone-gunman, non-J.F.K.-related theory of the killing. Nina Burleigh’s reinvestigation of the case in her carefully reported new book on Mary Meyer, A Very Private Woman , confirms my belief.) When I called Ms. Goldberg to see just what Damore had or didn’t have (for an Observer piece–July 8, 1996) I found her quite frank and candid about her former client; she told me Damore had never come up with anything and had been driven to despair by his inability to prove a conspiracy.

And so, when Ms. Goldberg’s own quasi-conspiratorial involvement in the Monica scandal broke, despite my doubts about the propriety of the taping I had to admire Ms. Goldberg’s instinct for a window seat, sometimes even a pilot’s seat, for some of the most intriguing political-historical mysteries of our era. From Watergate to Chappaquiddick to Monicagate. From one presidential mistress to another.

But Mr. Dunne trumped me with a story I’d never heard before–Lucianne Goldberg’s involvement in the Claus von Bülow case. When he was covering the von Bülow trial for Vanity Fair , Ms. Goldberg was acting as literary agent for a strange hustler who’d first claimed (conveniently for Claus von Bülow) that he’d delivered drugs to von Bülow’s wife Sunny (thus bolstering von Bülow’s defense against charges he’d administered the injection that put her in a coma). But then the hustler had turned on von Bülow and was attempting to peddle secretly recorded tapes he’d made of conversations with von Bülow’s appeal lawyer, Alan Dershowitz. He was the Claus von Bülow case’s Linda Tripp!

The uncanny parallel between the M.O.’s of Ms. Goldberg’s two would-be authors might seem to suggest that the case against Bill Clinton had its tactical precedent in the case against Claus von Bülow. But in the weeks since this conversation with Mr. Dunne I’d begun to wonder if the real parallel was not between the secret tapers, the hustler and Linda Tripp, but between the principals: between Claus von Bülow and Bill Clinton.

I know: It may seem a bit of a stretch, a little mean-spirited and disproportionate to compare Bill Clinton to Claus von Bülow. “Elvis for liberals,” the comparison drawn by a Clinton supporter quoted in a Feb. 8 Washington Post piece (by Michael Powell) on liberals disaffected with Mr. Clinton, may be the more charitable linkage. But the piece on anti-Clinton liberals (which quotes from one of my previous impeachment dispatches to The Observer on the centrality of the Paula Jones allegation to the question of who Bill Clinton really is ) suggests that I am not alone among liberals in thinking that there’s something darker than Fat Elvis beneath the Slick Willie surface.

Bill Clinton and Claus von Bülow: Both are charming seducers with a dark side, both sought to smear the women at the heart of the case against them: Sunny von Bülow was a drunk and a drug addict, according to Claus; Monica was “a stalker,” according to Bill. Both Bill and Claus got away, or will get away with problematic acquittals that leave an aura of doubt shadowing them ever after.

By the way, I’ve been stunned by the virtually unanimous adoption of the word “acquittal” in the media and on the Senate floor to describe the projected outcome of Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial. Let’s look at this a little more closely. If you’re put on trial for murder and the jury votes 7 to 5 for conviction you are not acquitted . An acquittal is when a unanimous jury votes 12 to 0 that you are not guilty. If the Senate votes by a narrow majority to convict Bill Clinton of one of the Impeachment charges he is not “acquitted,” in the most commonly used sense of the word, the one used from trial jury practice. There are some differences in a Senate impeachment trial, obviously: Unlike a 7-to-5 hung jury, there’s no chance of retrial in a Senate vote that falls short of a two-thirds majority for conviction. It’s true, in other words, that Bill Clinton will walk , but it’s not quite true to say he’s acquitted . Or maybe he’s acquitted in the classic Clintonian–didn’t inhale, didn’t have “sexual relations,” depends on what “is” is–way.

But to return to the Bill Clinton-Claus von Bülow comparison, in some ways it may seem unfair to Bill Clinton, but in at least one way it’s unfair to Claus von Bülow. The one thing Claus von Bülow never did was adopt a tone of self-righteous religiosity, the grand-standing penitent posture Bill Clinton has adopted in his endless succession of weepy confessions at an endless series of prayer breakfasts. The most damaging legacy Bill Clinton may have left us is the further erosion of any secular, sanctimony-free zone in our culture, the further pietizing of the Presidency that will ultimately redound in favor of the intolerant religious right. He will have made the mouthing of the right pious formulas the standard by which public officials are absolved, “acquitted” of responsibility for whatever secular abuses they’ve inflicted.

It’s such a scam, Bill Clinton’s religiosity. And yet he seems to have gotten even skeptical liberals to take this aspect of his con-artistry seriously. A scam we now know–courtesy of Sidney Blumenthal–that he used on his own wife when the Monica Lewinsky allegations first surfaced a year ago. As Mr. Blumenthal relates in his Senate testimony, the First Lady came to him on the day the scandal broke and told him the Clinton line on the Lewinsky allegation: It was all just a terrible misunderstanding growing out of Bill’s need to ” minister to troubled people.” That it was “something he did out of religious conviction.” Talk about the last refuge of a scoundrel: It’s a refuge Claus von Bülow, to his credit, never sunk to.

But low as he sunk in his phony religiosity, there was nothing lower–well, nothing dumber –than Bill Clinton’s remarks about God and Hitler at his most recent tear-stained appearance at a national prayer breakfast in the capital just a few days before the virtual Monica tapes were shown in the Senate chamber. In this appearance, in those remarks on God and Hitler the habitual piety of the First Penitent was taken to an almost unbearable level of moral idiocy.

It’s true, some might say, the intensity of my reaction might be due to the special sensitivity I’ve developed to ill-considered Hitler explanations in the course of 10 years’ work on a book on that subject. But Bill Clinton’s remarks surpassed in oblivious toxicity almost anything else I’d come across in the decade I spent working on Explaining Hitler .

Did you catch Mr. Clinton’s quote? It first attracted attention because some Christians found it offensive, although I think Jews should have found it far more repugnant. Here is what Bill Clinton–in his smarmy desire to suck up to the prayer-breakfast pieties, said: “Even though Adolf Hitler practiced a perverted form of Christianity, God did not want him to prevail.”

Oh, I see, things really worked out for the best, in the best of all possible worlds in the Hitler era: It’s a really heartwarming story, isn’t it, the way it all worked out. Hitler didn’t “prevail,” because “God didn’t want him to.” We should be grateful . It just showed how darned perfect God’s plan was. In fact Hitler did prevail for far too long: Six million Jews and 40 million others were slaughtered in the war, but, hey, it allows Bill Clinton to score brownie points at a prayer breakfast, to declare this a heartwarming victory for God and man. A shamefully simplistic way of looking at a question that has tormented intelligent believers ever after, those to whom Hitler’s success –in murdering 6 million of his enemies–raises fairly troubling questions of theodicy. Questions (such as, Why did God permit Hitler to “prevail” for so long?) that Hitler’s “failure” at the bitter end does not resolve.

Christians are I think justly upset that Mr. Clinton portrays Nazism as any “form of Christianity,” however perverted. Nazism was primarily a racial rather than religious hatred–perverted Darwinism rather than a perverted Christianity–although this does not absolve non-“perverted,” normative Christianity for tolerating, if not always encouraging, the 19 centuries of anti-Semitism that paved the way, helped create the climate, for Hitler’s 20th. But for Jews (for this one, anyway) it’s deeply offensive for the Holocaust to be exploited by Bill Clinton for some cheap feel-good moral about God. Bill Clinton ought to be impeached for this idiocy alone.

(2) Jane Doe Number 5, “The Vanilla Story” and Bill Clinton’s Reversal of Fortune.

The real Claus von Bülow comparison is to be found less in life than in cinema. In the most telling exchange between Jeremy Irons as Claus and Ron Silver playing his defender (and later Bill Clinton’s) Alan Dershowitz. “You are strange, aren’t you?” Dershowitz asks Claus. In his wonderfully plummy mock aristo voice Jeremy Irons’ Claus replies, “you have no idea .”

You have no idea : It suggests depths of possible decadence, depravity and weirdness utterly beyond the ken of a Cambridge-bound liberal. And I think that line– You have no idea –pretty much sums up the position Bill Clinton’s liberal defenders find themselves in. They’ve gone out on a limb for a guy they really have no real idea about. Nor do any of us. When The Washington Post ‘s Michael Powell called to interview me as a liberal skeptical of Mr. Clinton he was working on the “beaten dog” theory of Mr. Clinton’s liberal defenders: Liberals have been beaten down and left for losers for so long that when they find a winner like Bill Clinton whose poll numbers and electoral triumphs are like a sudden infusion of Alpo in their feed bowl they just can’t help but fawn over him without asking too many questions about his behavior with others. Claus von Bülow was said to be quite well loved by his dogs.

No, I’m not comparing Bill Clinton’s behavior to the gravity of the crime (attempted murder) Claus von Bülow was charged with. But remember, Claus von Bülow was acquitted (in his second trial)–even more definitively acquitted than Bill Clinton’s imminent equivocal “acquittal.” No, I’m not comparing the crimes they were acquitted for, I’m comparing the two men as enigmas , as figures whom we may just never know , about whom we have no idea .

It is here that the “Jane Doe Number 5” story comes in. It is in this context we must regard the apparent suppression of the Jane Doe Number 5 story NBC’s Lisa Meyers has prepared, but which, as of this writing, has been held back for reasons which, if not sinister, have not been adequately explained by NBC News. The Jane Doe Number 5 allegations are just as irrelevant to the articles of impeachment being considered by the Senate as the substance of the Paula Jones sexual harassment allegations (as opposed to the obstruction of justice and perjury the President may have committed in trying to dispose of her sexual harassment-and-civil rights case.) But the Jane Doe Number 5 allegations are material–if true–to what I believe is a more important and more lasting question than whether Bill Clinton deserves acquittal on the impeachment charges–the question of just who Bill Clinton is and whether we’ll ever know.

I don’t know whether the Jane Doe allegations–that Bill Clinton sexually assaulted a woman thus identified in a hotel room back in 1978–are true. I hope they’re not. The woman in question has apparently made and withdrawn the allegation in conflicting statements. NBC News ran a story on the allegations last spring, then for months pursued Jane Doe Number 5 for an interview. Finally last month she relented and gave one to respected correspondent Lisa Meyers in which she is said to have affirmed the allegations once again. It now looks like NBC is withholding the interview for politically sensitive reasons until after the impeachment vote, perhaps forever.

But the appearance of playing politics with something as explosive as this subject (it’s possible that it’s being withheld for valid journalistic reasons, but critics have pointed out that NBC ran with Anita Hill’s allegations before thoroughly corroborating them) is just the kind of thing that gives rise to conspiracy theories and bitterness about the media’s playing favorites, playing politics–it gives rise to the feeling that the truth is subordinate to power in the media.

If NBC is taking a kind of paternalistic stance–that the timing might look wrong in releasing it now in the final week of the impeachment trial, that the public or the Senators might not be able to “handle” the allegation, keep it in perspective, I would urge the network to reconsider its position. You just can’t win if you try to “time the market” for political appropriateness. I would join my esteemed colleague Nat Hentoff at The Village Voice , who has been very strong on Jane Doe Number 5, in urging NBC: Release the Lisa Meyers story now! Release it for the sake of historical clarity so that conspiracy theorists are unable to say a vast Clintonian conspiracy suppressed it until the trial was over. Not because it’s relevant to the articles of impeachment. But because it might be relevant to the larger, less easily resolved question: who Bill Clinton really is.

Who he is and whether we believe “the vanilla story” about Bill Clinton. By now you’re probably familiar with the term “vanilla story,” a locution which Monica Lewinsky may have succeeded in adding to the American slang lexicon through repeated usage in her memorably sharp and dignified Senate deposition testimony. The “vanilla story” was the innocuous cover-up story she told in her original Paula Jones case affidavit: She only met the President to deliver papers and pizza.

The vanilla story about Bill Clinton is that he’s a bit of a womanizer, yes, but he’s being persecuted by intolerant puritans for an illicit but not illegal episode of “consensual sex.” But the Paula Jones and Jane Doe Number 5 allegations raise the question of whether, beneath the vanilla story about Bill Clinton his defenders propagate there’s something darker than vanilla, darker than vanilla fudge. Nonconsensual sex in at least two flavors, so to speak, neither one palatable. And if we don’t know whether Bill Clinton is as reckless and unscrupulous and criminally contemptuous of women in private as these allegations suggest, then we won’t know how to judge his character in some other defining public acts. When he raced home to Arkansas during the 1992 New Hampshire primary to execute a brain-damaged black man, was it an act of principled belief in capital punishment or political grandstanding over the brain-damaged body of a prisoner incapable of defending himself? Or when, the week the House impeachment proceedings began, he ordered the bombing of a Third World pharmaceutical factory on apparently inadequate evidence of nerve gas production: Was he acting solely for national security reasons, or did innocent strangers in Africa die in part to save Bill Clinton’s skin?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I think the questions are important. And I fear that, with Bill Clinton’s acquittal (as with the resignation of Richard Nixon and the failure to resolve such basic allegations as his role in the original Watergate break-in order) there will soon come a similar disposition to sweep all the loose ends under the rug and leave them unresolved. And the truth about who Bill Clinton is–like the truth about Claus von Bülow and Richard Nixon–is something we’ll never know , we’ll just have no idea about.

Which brings me to the Gettysburg battlefield. I’m really not one for battlefield tours of any kind, and somehow have never found myself stirred by the whole civil war re-enactment craze, and (terrible confession) never sat through more than a tiny percentage of the Ken Burns Civil War documentary.

But I must admit I found myself deeply stirred and disturbed by Gettysburg. Stirred in part because, as I related in my first Senate trial dispatch [Jan. 25] I’d found myself incensed by the presence of the Confederate flag (embedded in the state flags of Georgia and Mississippi) in the Senate subway tunnel, incensed by the ties of pro-impeachment partisans like Bob Barr and Trent Lott to white supremacist organizations like the Council of Conservative Citizens–and wondering whether the nation had ever really assimilated the moral inequivalence of the two sides to the Civil War. (Memo to Senator Charles Schumer, your press secretary appears to be stonewalling my attempt to get an answer to this question: Now that I’ve gotten Henry Hyde’s pledge to support a joint resolution condemning the racism of the C.C.C., will you introduce such a resolution in the Senate, and if not, why not?)

We’ve adopted a kind of vanilla story about the Civil War, and you can see it at Gettysburg. A battle, you’ll recall, which could easily have been the breakthrough that won for the Confederate states the right to continue enslaving, breeding, raping and murdering millions of black people. You see the vanilla story of the Civil War here at Gettysburg in the cozy nonjudgmental juxtaposition of monuments to both North and South that line roads here like the one called West Confederate Avenue, monuments like the one to the North Carolina Confederate troops which speaks of their “glorious” role in the battle.

I don’t know. I don’t think so. They may have been brave individually, those soldiers. They may have been “just following orders” with great skill and determination. But a “glorious” role? Serving the cause of the enslavement, murder, rape and commercial breeding of human beings cannot be, in any strict construction of the word, “glorious.” It reminds me of the attempts that have been made by post-war nationalist historians in Germany, to separate the role of Hitler’s SS from the “ordinary German soldiers” of the Wehrmacht. Who were supposedly dedicated to fighting for their country and not for racist extermination and mass enslavement as the SS explicitly was. It is hard for me to stomach calling the Wehrmacht war a “glorious” one (and there is plenty of evidence emerging that “ordinary German soldiers” facilitated the mass murders Hitler’s SS was committing).

Is it unfair to compare the army of the Confederacy to that of the Wehrmacht? I’ve argued that the two racist regimes they served were different in degree, not in kind. But we have been raised and inculcated with a kind of vanilla story about the Civil War, that it was a war of (well meaning) brother against (well meaning) brother. Moral equivalence between blue and gray equals vanilla.

It’s a story that, as Tim Noah pointed out in a thought-provoking piece in Slate magazine (“Dump Johnson!” posted Dec. 31, 1998) may have had its origin in the “acquittal” (actually, failure of conviction, by one vote) of Andrew Johnson in 1868–and the distorted story about that first impeachment which confederate-sympathizing historians have foisted on posterity.

Mr. Noah makes a well-grounded case that the vanilla story about Andrew Johnson’s impeachment is all wrong. That it was not an unprincipled partisan attempt by “Radical” Republicans to unseat a weak Democrat on trumped-up charges as most of us were taught in school. That, in fact, the drive to impeach Johnson arose from a principled antiracist opposition to a white supremacist President who was acting in a way that would deny newly freed slaves in the former confederacy their civil rights or hope for equality.

“Johnson really was advancing bad policies by impeding the extension of basic freedoms to black people,” Mr. Noah argues. “This country is still suffering from the devastating after effects of this ‘policy’ failure.” A policy which in fact did (when ratified by the corrupt Electoral College bargain of 1876) enable the ultimate triumph of legal segregation and racist discrimination in the South for a century to come.

Mr. Noah goes on to point out that in the most influential account of the Johnson impeachment (the chapter in Profiles in Courage about Republican dissenter Edmund Ross who crossed his party to save Johnson from conviction by one vote) John F. Kennedy parrots the pro-South historiography of the early 20th century which turns a genuine question of black and white into a moral equivalence vanilla. I found Mr. Noah’s thesis about the misapprehension of the first impeachment (followed by David Greenberg’s retrospective impeachment of Edmund Ross, also in Slate on Jan. 20), quite persuasive. And somewhat alarming: If we still get the first impeachment all wrong after more than a century, is it likely we’ll come close to a true assessment of this one?

I don’t in any way compare the personal sins of Bill Clinton with the gravity of the civil rights questions raised by the first impeachment. But this process, Bill Clinton’s Senate trial has been so bastardized, truncated, pre-scripted, poll-crippled, Tripped-up and Starr-crossed, that it’s likely we’ll never know anything more, anything deeper than the vanilla story. Bill Clinton will light up a victory cigar and ride off to limo and memoir land. And we’ll be left with that image of Claus von Bülow telling the man who would later become Bill Clinton’s most forceful legal defender on TV: You have no idea . Our Phony Penitent-in-Chief Has Idiotic Hitler Theory