COVER

Why Clinton should survive as president

Richard Nixon really was a crook; Clinton is just a man with a zipper problem and a slippery hold on the truth

Bob Levin September 21 1998
COVER

Why Clinton should survive as president

Richard Nixon really was a crook; Clinton is just a man with a zipper problem and a slippery hold on the truth

Bob Levin September 21 1998

Why Clinton should survive as president

Richard Nixon really was a crook; Clinton is just a man with a zipper problem and a slippery hold on the truth

COVER

COLUMN

Bob Levin

You could tell this was going to be a different sort of presidency when, even as Bill Clinton was first elected in November, 1992, his former lover Gennifer Flowers was not only baring all in a skin magazine but revealing, in the lewdest of language, that the new Leader of the Free World performed oral sex “like a champ.” Not that Americans were terribly shocked; they had already gotten a whiff of Clinton’s extracurricular activities and voted him in anyway. And four years later they re-elected him, by a giddy landslide, even as another big-haired Arkansas lass was suing him for sexual harassment and, to prove her point, threatening to describe “distinguishing characteristics” of his genitals.

Big deal. Same old stuff.

Never mind how we got to this place. Never mind what salacious stories have altered the public discourse, from the slashing Bobbitts (who made the world safe for the word “penis”) to the Clarence Thomas hearings (pubic hair, Long Dong Silver) and even to the most sober AIDS warnings (condom, anal sex).

Never mind how downright weird it still seems, just a generation removed from a time when reporters studiously ignored that the president was slipping hookers into the White House (and two generations since the press corps concealed that the president was in a wheelchair). Now the public has heard it all, seen it all, and what they haven’t they’ll see tomorrow on Jerry Springer. The White House is just another set, a backdrop for reporters’ stand-ups; half the time it doesn’t even look real, but like those scale models they keep blowing up in action movies.

And for all this Bill Clinton can be thankful.

Because if his presidency is going to survive, even in some wheezing, halting form, the public’s jadedness will help supply the respirator.

Yes, most Americans are disgusted with Clinton’s conduct, and are becoming more so as the sticky-sweaty details pour out from Ken Starr’s voluminous scribblings. But they may not be quite disgusted enough—or tired enough of meticulously separating private from public acts—to bring down a sitting president presiding over a surging economy that dominates a more-or-less peaceful world. Even if that president is a fool and maybe a sick puppy to boot.

It’s become fashionable to say that the Lewinsky scandal isn’t about sex, it’s about suborning peijury, abuse of office, obstruction of justice and other weighty-sounding phrases. Which is true enough, legally speaking. But in the larger sense—the personal sense—the Lewinsky scandal is about suborning perjury the way Hustler magazine is about First Amendment rights, the way Baywatch is about swimming safety. Of course it’s about sex, and about what sort of man—what sort of husband and father—gets downand-dirty with an ambitious, fawning, vacant-eyed kid less than half his age. As for the lying—well, who can’t understand that? What was

he supposed to do, book TV time to announce, beaming before the Stars and Stripes, that he’d scored in the Oval Office?

So he lied, finger wagging, and was caught lying, and sort of apologized but it wasn’t enough. So last week he tried again, embarking on his Abject Apology Tour in which he not only uttered the S-word but added that he’s really, really sorry, like a naughty boy desperately trying to persuade his parents to let him watch TV again. Except he couldn’t quite erase the slight smirk that seemed to lurk behind the chastened front. As if this were a game and he knew it and we knew it. As if the president who’d made an art of tele-ready sincerity—the ’90s man who felt everyone’s pain and offered a great heartfelt hug—had lost the power of belief in his own performance. Who wants to hug Clinton now?

But for all his personal folly, he should survive as president. He should survive because, credibility issues aside, he has succeeded not only in keeping the economy humming but in eliminating the deficit, reforming welfare, tightening gun control, helping broker the Northern Ireland peace deal. And despite the knee-jerk comparisons, the Lewinsky mess is not Watergate, not even in the same bathroom; no one here broke into a party headquarters or launched elaborate schemes of political espionage against perceived “enemies.” Richard Nixon really was a crook; Bill Clinton is just a man with a zipper problem and, yes, a slippery hold on the truth.

Besides, as much as Americans disapprove of Clinton, they can’t stand Starr, the moralistic Ahab who has been pursuing his whale for more than four years. And, apparently failing to harpoon him for Whitewater or Filegate or Travelgate, he followed him clear into the bedroom, into Monica’s closet, where he finally struck flesh.

But the question is: do Americans want special prosecutors peeking under politicians’ sheets (and then making sure the cameras record the delivery of the bulging boxes, as if the weight of evidence were measured in pounds)? Certainly congressmen, who are not all saints, seem queasy, and they’re the ones who will decide Clinton’s fate. They’re the ones who’ll probe the lurid stories that Americans may not want to hear again (well, maybe they will), who’ll decide whether lying about sex constitutes “high crimes and misdemeanors.” (And heck, if lying were such a federal offense, why didn’t they impeach Ronald Reagan—who lied about his arms-for-hostages deal—instead of naming a Washington airport after him?)

No, the good congressmen—most of whom are Republicans, remember—will not impeach Bill Clinton (or so it says here, with no small dose of wishful thinking). They will censure him—very sternly—and then watch him limp to the end of his second term, a moral and political cripple who will hobble his party in the 2000 election. And maybe by then—just maybe—they will look back on all the impeachment talk and plead temporary insanity.