The Two Faces of Bill Clinton

Is the personal political?


It has been the year's great mystery: How is it that Bill Clinton is holding at about 60 percent support in public opinion polls–a lot better than he has ever done in a presidential election–while the political establishment sees him as an utter disgrace, a problem that needs to be purged from American political life?

The "utter disgrace" view is by no means confined to Republicans. After the videotape of Clinton's grand jury testimony was released, The Washington Post editorialized: "By just about any standard but, apparently, his own, the President pretty plainly lied under oath in a court proceeding and repeatedly in public and private thereafter….Our position continues to be that Congress needs to open a formal impeachment inquiry and decide as that unfolds what course to take."

After Clinton's petulant pseudo-apology speech in August, David Broder, the dean of Washington political reporters, wrote in the Post that "in one respect what Clinton has done is every bit as bad as what Richard Nixon did….Instead of owning up and taking `complete responsibility' as he said Monday night he was finally willing to do, he lied. He not only lied to Paula Jones's lawyers, he lied to the public and to his closest political associates and implicated the leaders of his party and his government in the deception. The selfishness of that act is staggering….[Clinton] acted–and still, even in his supposed mea culpa, acts–as if he does not recognize what it means to be President of the United States."

The general public also knows Clinton lies, and it is none too keen on his sexual shenanigans. Yet those polls remain high, all the better since the release of the videotape that Clinton's partisans fought so hard to keep secret. His personal approval ratings have dropped precipitously, but outside the political establishment and die-hard Clinton haters, there is no clamor for his impeachment or resignation. Why such double standards?

The difference lies in whom you see in Bill Clinton: the man, or the president. The public sees the man, a citizen pursued by the power of the state and put in a frightening and humiliating position. Without approving his perjury, ordinary Americans excuse it. They see Clinton's sexual misdeeds as private matters, just as the president and his defenders claim, because they regard sex as inherently private–not an appropriate matter for government prying. They nod when Rep. John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, opines that "Even worse than an extramarital relationship is the use of federal prosecutors and federal agents to expose an extramarital relationship."

Clinton, in this reading, represents Everyman–not in his actions, which people deem immature, sinful, or sick, but in his relationship to government power. Lawyer-filled Washington forgets how frightening the legal process is to nonlawyers, and how easy it is to get Americans to root for the underdog–even when that underdog is the president of the United States.

The public is right about this much: Bill Clinton the man has indeed become embroiled in a scary and fundamentally unjust process. It is wrong to let prosecutors loose to pursue individuals, rather than crimes, until they find something that sticks. It is also wrong, except in extreme cases, to force people to testify about the intimate details of their private lives. Both practices severely erode the protections citizens expect to enjoy in a free society.

But Washington is also right. Clinton is not just a man. He is president of the United States. As I've noted in an earlier editorial, Clinton the president actively supported the very laws and procedures from which he now demands exemption. (See "License to Grill," April.) In all his appeals for sympathy, the man who cruised into office hailing "the year of the woman" and condemning Clarence Thomas has never suggested that what has happened to him should never happen to another American. He has not even suggested that we dump the independent counsel law. His defense has been completely self-centered; his selfishness is, as Broder notes, "staggering."

For the Washingtonians who must decide his fate, however, the issue isn't whether Clinton the man is a disgusting hypocrite, publicly sanctimonious and privately wicked. It's whether he has abused or undermined his office. As long as Clinton's private activities are truly private, then even perjury to cover them up does not rise to the level of an impeachable offense. The resulting perjury is a personal crime, not a political wrong. The distinction is important because impeachment and removal not only punish the wrongdoer; they rebuke the voters who put him in office. (This does not mean that removing the president would, as his defenders claim, "reverse the election," since the vice president, for whom the same voters cast their ballots, would take office.)

The question before Congress, then, is whether Clinton the man has subverted the powers of Clinton the president to serve his private purposes. And of that high crime he does indeed appear to be guilty.

In what many readers, including me, thought its weakest section, the Starr report suggested one way Clinton has abused his powers: by claiming bogus executive privileges to protect conversations with White House lawyers and other public employees, thereby delaying the grand jury process. Since most people think of "abuse of office" as using presidential powers offensively against citizens, not defensively against prosecutors, the charge didn't appear to stick.

If, however, the question is whether Clinton the man subverted the powers of the presidency to his private benefit, this charge makes perfect sense. The conversations Clinton was trying to protect were, by his own definition, about his private business, not the nation's. Going to court to shield them was a form of deliberate deception–and a tactic not open to ordinary citizens engaged in defending their private affairs. It was an abuse of office.

That abuse is legally an impeachable offense–an offense for which Congress might legitimately under the Constitution impeach the president–but it probably is not, by itself, politically an impeachable offense. And the political test is crucial: The public must easily understand how the president's alleged wrongdoing violates his office in a grave way. Impeachment cannot bear the taint of partisan charges. The process is supposed to protect the legitimacy of the constitutional regime, not undermine it.

But there is at least some evidence, to which the Judiciary Committee should turn serious attention, that Clinton the president has used more than esoteric legal tactics to serve Clinton the man. The most Nixonian allegations involve using the IRS to harass political enemies, including various conservative think tanks and Billy Dale, the career employee fired from the White House Travel Office; illegally leaking confidential personnel records and FBI files on such figures as Linda Tripp and Republican consultant Ed Rollins; using material from FBI files for personal political purposes; and maintaining a "secret police" of private detectives and others to bribe, threaten, or intimidate people who might talk negatively to the grand jury or the press about Clinton's actions.

The first three allegations directly involve the misuse of presidential power; the third involves it indirectly, both as an extra measure of intimidation and a fund-raising mechanism (none of these people appears to be paid from the Clintons' personal checking account). And running a witness-intimidation squad on behalf of the president, whatever the funding, undermines the rule of law far more than even repeated acts of perjury. It smacks of absolutism and tyranny. There may be legitimate, disinterested reasons behind some of these actions–some tax-exempt organizations do skate awfully close to the IRS line–but the charges are serious, and they bear examination in a public forum.

Finally, the Judiciary Committee, and perhaps other committees in Congress, should look into the gravest allegation against Bill Clinton: that he engaged the nation in war to save his political hide, deliberately excluding from the process knowledgeable officials who might challenge the information on which that action was sold.

Wag the Dog concerned a "war" faked with special effects. The attacks in Afghanistan and Sudan were real. If the president directed the armed forces to fire on foreign targets primarily to distract the public and press from his scandal, knowing full well that conservative Republicans in Congress would reflexively defer to the commander-in-chief, he has come perilously close to treason. That, we know from the plain text of the Constitution, is indeed a "high crime."