The President in the Attic

Who is Bill Clinton?


In 1999, Washington discovered the politics of the insane. President Bill Clinton, fresh from procedural exoneration in a dismal impeachment trial, was credibly accused of having brutally raped a woman 21 years earlier. Then, nothing happened.

The allegation was made by Juanita Broaddrick, a wealthy Arkansas nursing home operator with no known ties to the president's enemies and no apparent agenda, and was reported in the mainstream press in February in a lengthy op-ed essay in The Wall Street Journal, in a front-page news story the next day in The Washington Post, and later in a notoriously delayed 30-minute NBC Dateline piece that offered independently discovered evidence that tended to confirm her account. But nothing happened.

Among the appalling details of Broaddrick's story was Clinton's use of his teeth in the alleged attack: Her description of his savage biting of her upper lip is described by rape cops as a known M.O.; rapists will use their teeth to terrify and subdue their victims. Broaddrick says that as a result, her lip was swelling badly even before Clinton left the hotel room where, she says, the attack occurred. She attributes to him the exit line that may yet become his rhetorical signature: "You'd better put some ice on that."

If this story is true, it has profoundly disturbing implications about the president's character. Yet the day after this scene appeared in The Washington Post, the capital's Sunday talk shows were devoted to the possibility that the president's wife might run for a Senate seat. These programs did take up the rape allegations later, after NBC finally ran its piece. And then nothing happened.

Nothing, at least, that did not indicate the lunacy to which the capital has descended under Clinton. The president declined to address directly charges that he was a brutal criminal; instead, his lawyer, David Kendall, offered a terse denial: "Any allegation that the president assaulted Mrs. Broaddrick more than 20 years ago is absolutely false."

But language and plain meaning have been assaulted repeatedly by Clinton, and Washington actually parsed this statement in search of the smug alibis of logic the president is pleased to allow himself. Let's see, 20 years ago Jimmy Carter was president, so is Clinton really denying that Carter assaulted Mrs. Broaddrick? In 1978, there was no Mrs. Broaddrick; she was then Juanita Hickey, so maybe Clinton isn't denying that he assaulted Mrs. Hickey. And anyway, who knows what advantageous meaning Clinton is assigning to the term assault?

So nothing happened, and one essential reason nothing happened is that nothing was scheduled to happen. Washington, its politicians, its interest groups, and most of its journalists, suddenly found themselves the prisoners of procedure. As NOW President Patricia Ireland said repeatedly about the allegations, "There is no forum."

That is, the criminal statute of limitations had long ago expired, so there was no legal forum in which to proceed. The impeachment trial had concluded, so there seemed to be no realistically available constitutional remedy. (Anyway, Democrats had spent months arguing a definition of high crimes that would have excluded criminal rape even if it were proved.)

As no official rape-related events were scheduled, the papers apparently concluded they had nothing to write about, so no rape follow-ups appeared in their news pages. The charge was pronounced unprovable, and Washington "moved on."

Indeed, Washington assumed a certain compulsive posture; like a mental patient who can't stop washing his hands, it could only do what it was impelled to do. And what the capital seemed impelled to do was to follow its strictly scheduled routine. Hearings, for example, were scheduled to address mail sweepstakes chicanery, so legislators showed up and righteously denounced such behavior. The press showed up and reported the hearings. But there was no scheduled forum in which to address the assault allegations–never mind their implications–so no one could conceive of a way to address them.

Of course, scrupulous adherence to routine is a well-known strategy of avoidance. The Nobel Prize-winning German novelist Heinrich Böll employed the syndrome as a parable in his powerful portrait of postwar Germany, Billiards at Half-past Nine. Böll's main character does everything according to the strictest schedule. To break the routine is to risk thinking; to think is to risk facing the moral implications of a compromised life. Rich though the material may be, no one in Washington is known to be writing Hearings at Half-past Nine.

The capital has rarely shown itself to be so unimaginative, or to conceive of itself in so mechanistic a fashion. What usually happens is that once scandalous news breaks, the press, often aided by interested parties who stand to benefit from further coverage, works to produce "second-day" stories and further follow-ups that keep an important narrative going. Indeed, if there is anything "mechanistic" about the capital, it is the so-called scandal machine of press, politicians, and interested outsiders that has so often been triggered in the past.

For example, Republicans (or even a principled Democrat) might reasonably have called on the president to respond more fully to this serious charge. An interest group–say, NOW–might have staged a photographable demonstration in defense of a woman's dignity, as it has been wont to do in other situations involving years-old, unresolvable charges. Someone–a Cabinet member? a women's rights advocate?–might even have asked the president for a meeting to discuss the matter.

Reporters might have written about Capitol Hill reactions, or interviewed credentialed rape experts about Broaddrick's account and memory, or tried to ferret out the 40 questions posed by NBC that the president wouldn't answer, or profiled dissident feminists (a Virginia chapter of NOW has long demanded Clinton's resignation; the feminist e-zine Merge regularly refers to Clinton as an "asshole"). There were polls to be taken, other public charges of threats and harassment against women to re-examine, possible leads in Arkansas, where the Broaddrick story has been circulating for years–a whole world of unwritten, unreported stories.

Instead, the Broaddrick story moved immediately to the opinion pages, the discussion shows, and Web sites. Opinion is vital to keeping a story going, but it can rarely drive a story on its own. Only news can do that. (That's especially true in an administration as impervious as this one is to mere judgment.) No follow-ups appeared on the major news pages. No major interest groups went beyond an immediate and usually ambiguous press release. And as for the behavior of senators and members of Congress, it approached the indescribable.

Republicans had just launched an effort to push their "positive agenda" and to repair their battered post-impeachment image. They wanted nothing to do with the story. Rep. John Kasich (R-Ohio) told an interviewer that he hadn't paid attention to the charges. Sen. James Jeffords (R-Vt.) asserted on Vermont radio that rape was "a private matter." Democrats, who stood to look like criminal enablers in the wake of their partisan impeachment defense, remained mute. Only Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) allowed that perhaps the president should address the charges, and he did so in a subordinate clause.

A single periodical made a concerted effort to squeeze reaction from the Hill. Human Events, the right-wing weekly, published an account of senatorial reaction that is a portrait in cowardice. While a few senators thought Broaddrick was "credible," and her story "troubling," none of them could think of anything that could or should happen as a result.

Other responses deserve to be etched in the capital's marble. Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) told the weekly that "I've heard smatterings" about the charges, but "I really haven't paid attention" to them. Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) said, "I guess Starr didn't think she was [credible]….I tend to be guided by Starr's judgment." Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) offered only, "I have no comment." Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.) confessed that "I just haven't paid attention to it. There are certain things I just shut out."

Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R.-Ill.) said, "I don't see it as anything that is relevant at this moment to my job in the United States Senate." Sen. Charles Schumer (D.-N.Y.) said, "I haven't looked at that….I'm working on Social Security and health care." Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) said, "I'm beyond that, we've been through that."

Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) was asked about Broaddrick's charges while on a Washington escalator. Kennedy "made no verbal response after the question was posed to him directly," according to Human Events. "He stared forward impassively until the escalator he was riding carried him beyond the questions of Human Events." It is picture of determined avoidance, comic despite the circumstances; disturbing because of them.

Does Washington have something significant to avoid? It may. David Gergen, the U.S. News editor who worked for Clinton (as well as for Nixon and Reagan), has termed it the "nausea factor." Brit Hume, who covered Clinton for ABC and is now with the Fox News Channel, has been asking for some time, "What kind of man is the president?" Richard Cohen, the Washington Post columnist who long defended Clinton, now wants to know, "Who is this guy?"

The question haunts Washington, though the city's press corps has evolved an ideal of objectivity that appears to stymie any effort to answer it. The way that the press's fairness mechanism operates, somebody has to tell it the answer before it can find a way to print it.

That may in fact be happening. The president's own former associates are, one by one, addressing the question of who Bill Clinton is. Thus far, former press secretary Mike McCurry and former advisers Dick Morris and George Stephanopolous have all questioned the president's fitness and character. While this has led to a momentary debate about "loyalty," the historical record is nonetheless being clarified by the very people who succeeded in obfuscating the journalistic record. Think of it as a kind of talking cure. After all, one Washington community is waiting to do its work after the lawyers and spinners and reporters are done: its historians.