The Washington Post, Tuesday, September 22, 1998; Page A17
Watching our soon-to-be-ex-president obfuscate, prevaricate, smirk, split hairs and outright lie in his videotaped testimony yesterday was a pretty miserable experience -- though definitely conclusive for anyone with the slightest doubt about his fitness for office.
"Just go," says the headline on the cover of the Economist this week. "Perjury before a grand jury, as exhaustively described by Mr. Starr, is worthy of impeachment." Of course, but now we know it's worse than that.
Take, for example, the exchange in which President Clinton first contended that, since he had no sexual intercourse with Monica Lewinsky, he had no "sexual relations" with her.
He was reminded that, during the deposition, his lawyer, Robert Bennett, referring to Lewinksy's affidavit, said, "There is absolutely no sex of any manner, shape or form." Oh, well, said Clinton, he was too preoccupied to correct Bennett.
Anyway, Clinton argued, Bennett was speaking in the present tense. "It all depends," said the president, "on what the meaning of the word 'is' is. If the -- if he -- if 'is' means is and never has been, that is not -- that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement. . . .
"Now if someone had asked me on that day, 'Are you having sexual relations with Ms. Lewinksy?' That is, asked me a question in the present tense, I would have said, 'No.' And it would have been completely true."
"Do you mean today," the incredulous prosecutor asked, "that because you are not engaging in sexual activity with Ms. Lewinsky during the deposition that the statement of Mr. Bennett might literally be true?"
But believe it or not, some good could come from this sordid mess. The scandal may serve to reinforce three key principles of government: openness, accountability and character.
First, Congress set an excellent precedent in deciding to dump practically all the evidence into the public's lap, allowing citizens to figure out for themselves what they think of the president's conduct.
Politicians (like the press) generally have a low opinion of the average person's intelligence. They normally prefer to think for their constituents -- to decide what's proper for them to hear or see, often using the protection of children (as though it were the duty of government, rather than parents, to bring up kids) as an excuse.
But by opting for openness and by using the Internet to distribute the material quickly and democratically, Congress has established a standard that Congress itself will have a tough time ignoring, especially with investigations of its own members.
Second, we may have more accountability in public life. In this scandal, it has been a joy to watch a politician held to account for his deeds. Both the press and the political opposition have the bad habit of backing off when slick officials weasel their way out of the blame for poor policy decisions. That will certainly be more difficult in the future.
Third and most important, more attention in the future will be paid to behavior and the character that underlies it. During the 1992 election campaign, a debate raged over whether character counted in government. Who today can doubt the answer to that question?
Clinton's character has destroyed his legacy and made it impossible to achieve even the modest liberal agenda he promised his followers. But worse is the effect his character has had on the very children he talks so interminably about protecting and nurturing.
Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), one of my heroes, knows about character. First, he has plenty of it himself, having grown up desperately poor in a bleak coal valley and risen to serve 46 admirable years in Congress. Second, he is the Senate's great historian and has studied character and seen it in action.
In a brilliant speech to his peers last week, Byrd talked about "the duty beyond our duties," which is "the duty to inspire others . . . through personal example. . . . On that score, we politicians, as a group, generally miss the mark."
Then, he added, "In the real world, exemplary personal conduct can sometimes achieve much more than any political agenda."
That is the precise lesson of this scandal.
I wrote on Jan. 27 that Clinton should resign with his State of the Union address. He should say, I suggested, that "to stay in office will be to trivialize the importance of moral behavior in our society" and that he "cannot urge personal responsibility on the rest of the nation without adhering to it myself."
Is there still time for the president, uttering similar words, to leave gracefully, even inspirationally? Yes, just barely.