FIRST CAME the cagey nondenial denials ("There is not a sexual relationship"). Then came the blunt falsehoods ("I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky"). After that, the long months of evasion ("This investigation is going on. And . . . I just think as long as it's going on, I should not comment on the specific questions"), coupled with the aggrieved appeals for sympathy ("I'm the only guy in the history of the country they've spent $40 million investigating.")
Again and again, Bill Clinton lied.
At the end of July there was jaunty bravado ("I am looking forward to the opportunity, in the next few days, of testifying"). On Aug. 17 came the surly, grudging confession ("I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate. . . . It's nobody's business but ours.") All the while, a noisy chorus supplied a drumbeat of accusation ("this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband") and character-assassination ("Mr. Starr . . . is a sex-obsessed person who's out to get the president").
Only now — when his repertoire of verbal acrobatics is exhausted, when his ingratiating manner and lawyerly smoothness have failed, for once, to charm the public into indulging him yet again — are there unadorned apologies. Only now, when nothing else has worked, does the president plead for forgiveness. Only now is he sorry.
But sorry in Bill Clinton is like sorry in a wife-beater. Today he shows contrition and humbleness, tomorrow he hurts her again. How many more times is Clinton going to be allowed to hurt the public that put him in the White House?
The president's supporters have argued from the outset that his sexual indiscipline is not a legitimate political issue. Voters knew about his zipper problem and elected him anyway. Titillating details aside, they demand, what does the independent counsel's report tell us about him that we didn't already know?
Answer: It tells us just how far gone in degeneracy — sexual, ethical, and legal — this president is. It tells us that the Lewinsky scandal is not about a zipper problem. It is about a recklessness problem. An exploitation problem. A dishonesty problem. A degradation problem.
"Let's agree that adultery ought not automatically disqualify a person from seeking high public office," writes Bill Bennett in "The Death of Outrage" (Free Press), an eloquent new book on the sophistry of Clinton's defenders. "But let's agree, too, that at some point adultery will often reveal to us something important about a person's (and a president's) character and judgment; his prudence and judiciousness; his honor and trustworthiness; his governing ability and stability."
For one instant last week, Clinton's mask of contrition slipped, revealing just how irremediable his corruption is. As part of his apology offensive, he met with his Cabinet secretaries and asked to be forgiven for having deceived them in January. But when Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala disputed his implication that policies and programs matter more than decency, the true Clinton slipped out.
This is from The Washington Post: "She said something like, 'I can't believe that is what you're telling us, that is what you believe, that you don't have an obligation to provide moral leadership,'" one participant recalled.
"She said something like: 'I don't care about the lying, but I'm appalled at the behavior.' And frankly, he whacked her, let her have it . . . . The president told Shalala that if her logic had prevailed in 1960, Richard M. Nixon would have been elected president instead of John F. Kennedy. . . . After that, no other Cabinet member had anything critical to say."
Such is the caliber of this president.
Starr's report sets Clinton's antics with Lewinsky in a context of crimes and misdemeanors: perjury, obstruction of justice, witness tampering, and so on. But the American people are not bound by the terminology of the criminal code in judging their president. When they voted for Clinton, it was on the understanding that he had repented his sexual betrayals and would sin no more. A bargain was struck; Clinton went on "60 Minutes" and promised, in essence, that what he had done in the past he would not do in the future.
But he did do it in the future. And he did it not once, not discreetly, but repeatedly and egregiously. In the Oval Office, no less. With a 22-year-old intern, no less. This was no momentary lapse. It was aggressive, reckless philandering — exactly the behavior he had sworn would never recur. Clinton's breach of faith was not just with his family. He betrayed the nation, and disgraced his office in the process.
A lot of people trusted Clinton. They believed him when he said Gennifer Flowers was a liar. When he said Paula Jones was a liar. When he said the Arkansas state troopers were liars. When he said Kathleen Willey was a liar.
But no one except his most purblind fans believed that Monica Lewinsky was a liar. She made it clear, finally, to all those who had given him the benefit of every doubt: He was the liar, and had been all along.
Nothing Clinton says now — certainly not his frantic apologies — can restore his moral authority. The true nature of his character is public knowledge. Everyone knows what history's verdict will be: that he was a moral nihilist who couldn't be trusted, whose crudest appetites led him into corruption and scandal, who became, in the end, a national dirty joke.
By his own contemptible deeds, not the least of which is the vicious smearing of his critics, Clinton has forfeited the public's trust. And when, in John Adams's words, that "trust is insidiously betrayed or wantonly trifled away, the people have a right to revoke the authority that they themselves have deputed."
Clinton is unfit for office. All that remains to be decided is the time and manner of his departure.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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