The Clinton Sex Scandal

       The iron law of the conventional wisdom is that it must change. Yesterday and today, you could feel it shifting like a powerful riptide across Washington. People who spent the weekend glibly forecasting that the Clinton presidency wouldn’t last a week are now turning their skiffs around. The current spin is that it’s going to be a long ordeal, and that Clinton may well survive.
       This new line hangs from several hooks. The biggest was Clinton’s forceful denial of “sexual relations,” which he delivered at the end of a White House event on helping parents with after-school care for their kids. (No, he didn’t offer to provide it himself.) The president pursed his lips, wagged his finger, and sounded truly passionate. Even though he used nearly the same words as in interviews last Wednesday, the effect was quite different. I felt a shudder as the notion passed briefly through my mind: What if he’s telling the truth? (I should add that the last time I experienced this feeling was when Joe Klein vehemently denied writing Primary Colors.)
       Two other items, or more precisely nonitems, assisted Clinton’s defense. The first was Monica Lewinsky’s lawyer, William Ginsburg, saying Sunday that she sends all her soiled clothes directly to the dry cleaners. In other words, there is probably no DNA-enriched dress. The second was the Dallas Morning News retracting early Tuesday its report that a Secret Service agent saw Clinton mentoring his favorite intern. This story–which ABC reported in vaguer terms on Sunday morning–had an air of falsity about it from the start. Lewinsky allegedly tells Linda Tripp on the tapes that there were no witnesses to her encounters. Partisans of the president tossed out the not-implausible theory that Kenneth Starr’s office might have put this item out as misinformation. The idea would be to bluff Lewinsky into cooperating by making her think they had the goods. You’d think she would know if she had been observed with the president. Then again, maybe not.
       I don’t think the larger picture really has changed. Clinton’s denial yesterday seemed a bit like a variation on the old joke about a man caught in flagrante by his wife. “Who are you going to believe,” the husband says, “me or your own eyes?” The odds that Clinton and Lewinsky didn’t have any “sexual contact”–thanks to Jack Shafer for that useful term–remain minuscule, in my opinion. And the president, by referring to her as “that woman,” indicates that he no longer holds out much hope that she will stand by her denial affidavit out of lovesicknesses or loyalty. I do think Clinton might just survive admitting this affair if he didn’t perjure himself or obstruct justice, but not after looking at the camera and lying to the American people about it. For this reason, I think that the Clintometer, currently set at a 38-percent chance of premature ejection, is too optimistic. I’d still put it at about 75 percent.
       What is sinking in, however–and here the new conventional wisdom may be on the mark–is the realization that Bill Clinton will not go gently into the good night. I’ve gone from thinking he would eventually resign in the interests of the country to thinking he won’t let go until his vote counters tell him he no longer has 34 votes in the Senate, and maybe not even then. It’s as if the nation staged an “intervention” to confront him with his problem, and he still refused to admit to it. He simply cannot face the reality of the situation. After seeing the first lady on the Today show this morning, I have the sense that both Clintons may be suffering from an Alamo syndrome, which tells them that their honor and their place in history is bound up with their fighting to the last man. Or, to choose another metaphor, they may have seen Titanic and learned that the right thing to do is go down with the ship. I can see them handcuffing themselves to the White House gate, like crazed tax protestors, but on the inside.
       The worst of it is that Clinton has been a good president and was poised to be an even better one this year. Never again to run for office, with a huge war chest of political capital that had to be spent, he was about to exhibit more courage than we’ve seen from him to date. Today I attended a background briefing on what he’ll say in tonight’s State of the Union address. Clinton is not only prepared to take on Social Security reform, but he’s also prepared to do it directly, without hiding behind a blue-ribbon commission. Now he lacks the moral standing to ask for sacrifice from America’s senior citizens, or from anyone else.
       Already, he has begun to supplement his statesmanship with pandering designed to increase his odds of survival. For example, he decided at the very last minute to also toss out tonight a proposal to raise the minimum wage again. I’m not sure if this is a terrible idea or not, but it is clearly dictated by the political emergency he finds himself in, not by sound policy considerations. At the briefing, I asked one of the president’s senior economic advisers how long this proposal had been in the works. He made an unconvincing case that a minimum-wage increase had been under consideration since … December.
       Watergate created a national vocabulary of political euphemisms. “Clinterngate” seems sure to enlarge our storehouse of double entendres. As the briefing wore on, a senior political adviser in attendance appeared eager to depart. “I have to go suck up to the boss while he practices his speech,” the aide finally declared. A look of horror flashed across his face as he realized the deeply unfortunate sentence he had just uttered.