Bill Clinton: All the President's Women

How could it have come to this? President Clinton's in as tough a spot as he has ever been, teetering on the abyss since Monday August 17, when he became the first sitting US president to testify to a grand jury in a criminal proceeding in which he was the target.

That was the day he told the jury of his sexual dealings with Monica Lewinsky. (The imprecision of “ sexual dealings” is apt, since the consequences of Mr Clinton's admission might well hinge on semantics about the mechanics of sex.) The day after the president's testimony his principal attorney, David Kendall said, “ I don't know if the country is happier or if I'm happier that yesterday is over.”

Yesterday is not over. The pity for Bill Clinton is that yesterday (and all its troubles) are never far away. Yesterday is bearing down the pike, chasing the man from Hope, Arkansas. Until now he has famously eluded any harm.

When running for election in 1992 he was written off because of revelations that he had dodged the draft for the Vietnam War, and had smoked marijuana but “ didn't inhale.” His aggressive election staff managed to bat away the many ‘bimbo eruptions' that threatened his candidacy. Gennifer Flowers—the most serious—claimed that she and the Governor of Arkansas had had a twelve-year relationship. Mr Clinton went on television to deny the affair. Hilary Rodham Clinton, saved the day and arguably his future by her forceful support.

Years later, Clinton would admit to a one-time fling with Flowers. He made the admission in January, in a deposition for a civil case of sexual harassment taken against him by Paula Jones. She said then that Governor Clinton had made an unwelcome sexual advance in 1991. Although the case was thrown out, President Clinton was damaged beyond his own worst imaginings.

It became the means by which the man who had become his nemesis, Kenneth Starr, moved onto an examination of the president's private conduct—this, after years of probing pre-presidential dealings and post-election decisions.

One thing lead to another. Paula Jones' attorneys had pursued rumours of women who might have dallied with, or been preyed upon by the former governor. Lewinsky's name came up. Starr took up the chase and never let go.

White House sex talk is nothing new. Clinton sex talk is something else. On January 26, the president jabbed his finger at the cameras and made a statement that will follow him into history: “ But I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time—never. These allegations are false. And I need to go back to work for the American people.”

Hours after his August 17 grand jury appearance, he was back in front of the cameras. “Indeed, I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate….In fact, it was wrong…my public comments and my silence about the matter gave a false impression. I misled people, including even my wife. I deeply regret it.”

Clintonspeak is in a class of its own. The man has always dipped his words in grease, all the better for them to glide down easy. Sometimes they mesmerise, even as they slipslide into ether. If he is finally running out of luck, will it be his words about his actions—rather than the actions themselves—that will cause him to fry? Once more, America puzzles over his lingo, knowing that the fundamental questions of the Clinton/Lewinsky Thang lie elsewhere.

The questions are; can Bill Clinton survive as President? Has the institution of the presidency been damaged, or changed by recent events? Is the president—as he suggests—the victim of an out-of-control Kenneth Starr? If Clinton does survive, what are the implications for his foreign and domestic policy?

And will the effect on his legacy of these sordid days be lasting? Republican Congressman Bill McCollum remarked: “This is a very momentous question if the president lied under oath…to let him off the hook of history is something we'd all probably regret down the road in history. If the president is above the law, is he like a king? How can we treat him differently to anyone else?”

Among the few to rally to the President's cause was New York Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez. “The main difference between Clinton and some of his predecessors,” wrote Gonzalez, “is that his lies haven't killed anybody—at least not yet. Measured against Johnson, Reagan and Nixon, his Lewinsky lies are so inconsequential that pursuing them with an army of investigators is a farce that has made us the laughing stock of the world.”

The one thing that no president or Capitol Hill politician ever laughs at, is a poll. An August 18 CNN/Time magazine poll found that six out of ten people agreed the president should have said outright he was sorry. And most did not believe his assertion that he did not commit perjury in his Paula Jones deposition. At the same time, most still thought the relationship with Lewinsky was a private matter.

Moreover, his job approval rating remained high, at 61 percent, although his personal approval rating dropped ten points to about 50 percent. Those numbers deflated Clinton's critics just a little, as if America was saying: “He's a jerk, but he's our jerk.”

With Congressional elections set for November, Republicans do not want to risk the sting of a pro-Clinton backlash. But if the polls swing against him the president doesn't have enough allies among Democrats on the Hill to expect much support there. For those reasons—and because Starr's final judgement is still to come—Clinton still swings in the wind.

What now? The president could be removed from office if he is impeached “for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanours.” Mr Starr's job is to report “substantial and credible” information that “may constitute grounds for impeachment” to the House of Representatives, which could then decide to impeach. In that case, the Senate would then conduct a trial, after which a two-thirds vote would be needed to convict.

No president has ever been impeached. Andrew Johnson came close in 1868. Nixon resigned in 1974, days after the House Judiciary Committee voted to impeach him for obstructing justice. The chances of impeachment depend on politics. As then Congressman Gerald Ford explained in 1970, an impeachable offence is “whatever a majority of the House…considers it to be at a given moment in history.”

If Starr's report deals only with the president's mendacious statements on his relationship with Ms Lewinsky (in his Jones' deposition) impeachment is unlikely. That's simply because of public resistance. However, if the report concludes that Mr Clinton lied in his August 17 testimony or that he attempted to obstruct justice—by trying to get Ms Lewinsky or others to cover up their affair—he is in far greater peril.
Quite simply, the public might then change its mind about impeachment.

At this point, the most likely result is that the president will avoid impeachment, but that Congress will pass a resolution censuring him for his conduct.

Even if Clinton survives Starr, his presidency will be severely wounded. Robert Reich, who served as Secretary of Labour in the first Clinton administration, wrote recently in The Nation, “…We have learned never to count Bill Clinton out. But the swirl of meanness and pettiness will last, I'm afraid, unless or until he fills the public arena with something larger and nobler, on the scale of the true challenges facing the nation…At the close of his confessional, Bill Clinton asked us to put Monica behind us because ‘we have more important work to do.” That is precisely the issue. The failure on his part to chart any such bold course, leaving the public arena to be filled instead by debris and distraction, would be the most tragic legacy of all.”

Could this be the end for a man who pledged so much when he first sought the Oval Office in 1992? Clinton has been happy to take credit for a strong economy of which he might not altogether be the author. He has engineered small successes, such as a modest increase in the minimum wage, but it's hard to think of any major domestic achievement. It's easier to remember how many of his promises remain unfulfilled: reform of health care has not happened, nor has massive reinvestment in education. His dialogue on race relations petered out in a TV instant. Yet, he pushed through tough welfare “reform,” while aides whispered that he would amend its harshest aspects in his second term.

His promises of campaign finance reform collapsed even as he set about shaking the money trees with unprecedented vigour. Finally, while he showed a tendency to walk away from his promises when the going got tough, even more striking is how quickly he walked away from many of his own nominees to public office, as soon as their nominations ran into trouble with Republicans.
When Bill Clinton was seeking office, his foreign policies included pushing China into human rights reforms and acting quickly on Bosnia. The first never happened. Speed was not his watchword on Bosnia. And the president has admitted he was too long blind to the slaughter in Rwanda.

Two days after his damaging sojourn in front of the grand jury, Clinton ordered the missile attacks on suspected terrorist sites in Afghanistan and Sudan. Democrats and Republicans alike rallied around, in the American tradition. Be it noted, however, that more than one third of the American people believe he ordered those strikes to draw attention away from the Lewinsky affair.

Mr Clinton's engagement in the Irish peace process represents a rare foreign policy bright spot. Congressman Peter King says the potential for collateral damage is great. “It's very important that at moments of crisis people have faith in the integrity of the president. During Desert Storm people questioned Bush's policies, but absolutely nobody questioned his motives. My office got a lot of calls after the strikes in Africa, from people saying ‘he's doing this for political reasons,'.”

However Congressman King, who will accompany the president on his trip to Russia and Ireland, says Mr Clinton's Irish involvement is not the sort of issue that American voters will second guess. “Ireland is not a contentious issue…If this had been four years ago, when Gerry Adams' visa was controversial, and the president's relations with John Major were not good, it could have been a different story.”

If anyone has cause for second guessing, it's Clinton himself. How different might things have been if he had followed the advice of those who urged him to settle the Paula Jones suit? And what if the Supreme Court had decided differently?

One of the oddities of this débâcle is that among the few to escape unscathed are the justices of the Supreme Court. It was they who ruled unanimously last year that the Jones case could be heard while Mr Clinton held office. They said it would cause only minimal distraction. We are waiting for word that they realise how spectacularly wrong they were.

You could say that all the trouble started with Paula Jones. Or that it all started with Whitewater, whch the Clintons were involved in when Monica Lewinsky was still in diapers. Newspaper investigation of Whitewater provoked the appointment of Robert Fiske Jr, as an Independent Counsel to investigate that deal. The fateful turn came in August 1994, when Fiske was replaced by Kenneth Starr—a controversial appointment because of the latter's Republican partisanship and his reputed hostility to the president; Starr served as solicitor general under President Bush.

The years went by, with Starr occasionally signalling that crucial stages of investigation had been reached. Clintonites shouted that he had spent millions and found nothing. In January, Starr sought permission to expand his investigation. His goal was to discover if the president lied in his Paula Jones' deposition, and if he and/or others, had encouraged Lewinsky to lie under oath.
Hillary Rodham Clinton contends that Starr is the official face of a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” In her view, the Starr files amount to a jigsaw of calumny. But Starr says there are legitimate questions about whether the Clinton modus operandi is to silence people who might have proof of presidential misdeeds. And Starr's supporters point out that he has secured convictions against a number of Clinton associates along the way.

It's a very long way from Whitewater to Monica Lewinsky. Mr Starr never ran out of energy. In fact it was just the opposite. He seemed to become energised as he overrode Secret Service objections to agents giving evidence about the president's movements, as he called Ms Lewinsky's mother to the stand to give evidence about her daughter and finally, as he sought and received a sample of the president's DNA, presumably to compare with material on a dress said to be stained with Mr Clinton's semen. Since the president had already confessed to “ inappropriate” behaviour, the DNA saga underlined how Starr is working with ‘gloves off'.

It's bare knuckles all ‘round. Now Starr's office is being investigated for allegedly leaking grand jury testimony—a federal offence. One can surmise some of the outcome: the powers of any future Kenneth Starrs will be scaled back.

The Independent Counsel Act grew out of Watergate. Specifically, it was designed to prevent abuses such as Nixon's firing of Watergate prosecutor, Archibald Cox. A Daily News editorial of August 23 suggested: “Problem is, the (independent counsel) law gives carte blanche for open-ended witch hunts. A target is designated, and then the Independent Counsel looks for a crime. Starr is proof positive of what's wrong…it is obvious that the reasons for appointing one must be more clearly defined and the focus of the probes narrowed.”
Time limits will probably be placed on future Independent Counsel investigations and a right of appeal given to people targeted by them.

But it did not take a Kenneth Starr to turn President Clinton reckless in his private life, at a time when he knew that the patterns of his sexual dealings were under scrutiny. And it did not take a Kenneth Starr to keep the president silent for months, while people who work for him racked up personal legal bills defending what has turned out to be his lie.

There might be poetic justice in the vision of Kenneth Starr and Bill Clinton lashed together eternally, mocked by their complementary excesses. The memory of January 20, 1993, when William Jefferson Clinton was first inaugurated, is still fresh. Maya Angelou read out her poem, On the Pulse of Morning:

“…But seek no haven in my shadow / I will give you no hiding place down here / You, created only a little lower than / The angels, have crouched too long in / The bruising darkness / Have lain too long / Face down in ignorance / Your mouths spilling words/ Armed for slaughter.”
It seems like only yesterday.