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Jewish World Review Feb. 17, 1999/ 1 Adar, 5759

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg Where's the closure?

(JWR) --- (http://www.jewishworldreview.com) IS IT ALL OVER NOW? Not exactly. The American people now have been given a strange and wonderful opportunity, however uncomfortable. For it is not often that a nation is allowed to rewind the spool of history and play back an alternate version. At last history-watchers will be able to see how it would have felt if somehow Richard Nixon had been able to mobilize the polls, enlist peace and prosperity on his side, and beat the rap.

The trial is over, but our long national nightmare goes fitfully on. For what word would you guess We the People will hear most often in the coming days, weeks, months? My nomination: Closure. If you hear it said again and again, relentlessly, insistently, angrily, then you will know it has not been achieved, else there would be no need to mention it. But for the moment, the air is suffocatingly thick with references to closure, like thoughts of a breath of fresh air in a smoke-filled room.

That's why there was so much talk of a nominal censure, or a finding-of-fact, or maybe a round-robin petition, or some kind of verbal formula that would clear the air and make all this go away. It's as if a lot of senators realized there was still something unsatisfying, unsettled, unresolved about this whole sad, strange, unsatisfying story that isn't ending so much as evaporating. ... It still lacks something. Closure.

Again and again, those senators who defended the president insist for the record that his actions are indefensible. They very much want to make that clear, absolutely clear, beyond question. Last week their constitutional duty was done, but they are still not satisfied. They still want to talk, explain or just say something for the record. It's as if they wanted to add a P.S. to their verdict, as if they really had wanted to vote Not Guilty But. ... It's as if they don't have the courage of their non-conviction. If this be closure, what would be gnawing doubt?

The predictable vote now has been taken, but it's as if the deliberations haven't been completed. Something seems to be bothering those who should be satisfied, magnanimous, vindicated. They won, didn't they? But they didn't act like it. They wanted to take one more step (censure? petition? a referral to the criminal justice system? another swipe at Ken Starr?), but they couldn't find that one additional thing that would clear it all up, satisfy their conscience and let them really move on.

Instead, they're still before the cameras, as if searching for one more vote or speech or petition or Declaration of Principle that would finally justify their vote. As if they realize something is missing. Closure.

At least the country has been able to avoid what would have been only a nominal censure, or some other extra-constitutional doodad, some make-do parliamentary gimcrack that would only have cosmeticized today's sense of irresolution and incompleteness. A simple, direct, unadorned acquittal at least spares all of us the spectacle of Bill Clinton as martyr.

Our defendant-in-chief now has been found not guilty, yet there is a sense that he, too, has been denied justice and a clear end to his ordeal. For he has been declared acquitted but not released from his burden. And neither has the country. Shouldn't that qualify as cruel and unusual punishment?

At least Richard Nixon was granted a quick pardon before sentencing himself to a couple of decades of self-rehabilitation. Now, wherever William Jefferson Clinton goes, even among those who want to cheer and celebrate, his character and conduct will always be the subtext of his every speech, appearance, and press conference.

And like Richard Nixon before him, Bill Clinton now faces year after year of Avoiding The Subject. Yet the past will never be so present as when he is endeavoring to talk about something else. It will hover always -- a particularly cruel fate for someone who has always so loved to live in the present.

Though acquitted, William Jefferson Clinton now has been remanded to the custody of Clio, the ever fickle, eternally revising muse of History. Some trials never end.

In the Senate, justice has rolled down not like mighty waters, but like an uncertain little trickle that satisfies no one. The people will be told this is closure and to Move On. But tinny as the verdict was, it will echo for a long time, like a wavering note still in the air.

Unlike the acquittal of Andrew Johnson, or the resignation of Richard Nixon, the Clinton impeachment will linger. It will come up whenever perjury and obstruction of justice do. And whenever witnesses swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. For a case that was an embarrassment and bother now has become a precedent. And it will be invoked without mercy. "The law must rise to our standards when we improve,'' wrote C.S. Lewis, "and sink to them when we decay.''

A new, fuzzier standard has been set-in politics, in law, and in ethics. It is a new, unsettling standard in terms of what we expect of presidents, of the Senate of the United States, and of ourselves. Friday's inchoate verdict (call it Not Guilty With an Explanation) may say more about the times than about the defendant. Pundits used to write about a revolution of rising expectations. In some ways, we now live in an era of lowered expectations.

Analysis abounds, as usual. But we have all grown sick of this trial by now, and sick of trying to find some significance in it. Now all we want to do is change the channel. But as soon as we do, it pops up again. And the reception still isn't clear.

Still, as the film rolls on again and again without conclusion, there is a kind of peace to it, a kind of conciliation. For there on the screen are our times and our values. And the truth still sets us free. Even an unsatisfying story can be instructive. And the mind will keep coming back to it, like the tongue to a chipped tooth.


2/12/99: Hussein the Hashemite: The wiliest player on the board
2/09/99: The social security game
2/04/99: Our own Inspector Clouseau
2/01/99: Night scene, night thoughts
1/28/99: The decay of the art of lying
1/26/99:Impeachment: Short subjects
1/22/99:Bounce, glitz and tedium: The State of the Disunion
1/20/99: Destructive engagement: How to encourage tyranny
1/18/99: Martin Luther King: The radical as conservative?
1/11/99: Why America is apathetic about Bill's date with destiny
1/06/99:The year of Moronica
1/04/99:Clinton’s janitorial crew of two
12/29/98:The Senate will be on trial, too
12/29/98:A look down the avenue
12/22/98: The surreal impeachment
12/17/98: Another moment of truth approaches
12/15/98: The President's defenders: witnesses for the prosecution
12/10/98:The latest miracle cure: CensurePlus
12/03/98: Sentences at an airport Sentences at an airport
12/03/98: Games lawyers play
12/01/98: Ms. Magoo strikes again, or: Janet Reno and the law
11/26/98: The most American holiday
11/23/98: Same game, another round
11/18/98: Guide to the perplexed
11/09/98: A vote for apathy
11/03/98: Global village goes Clintonesque
11/02/98: Farewell to all that
10/30/98: New budget, same swollen government
10/26/98: Of life on the old plantation -- and death in the Middle East
10/22/98: Starr Wars (CONT'D)
10/19/98:Another retreat: weakness invites aggression
10/16/98: Profile in courage
10/14/98: A new voice out of Arkansas
10/09/98: Gerald Ford, Mr. Fix-It?
10/07/98: Impeachment Journal: Dept. of Doublespeak
10/01/98: The new tradition
9/25/98: Mr. President, PLEASE don't resign
9/23/98: The demolition of meaning
9/18/98: So help us G-d; The nature of the crisis
9/17/98: First impressions: on reading the Starr Report
9/15/98: George Wallace: All the South in one man
9/10/98: Here comes the judge
9/07/98: Toward impeachment
9/03/98: The politics of impeachment
9/01/98: The eagle can still soar
8/28/98: Boris Yeltsin's mind: a riddle pickled in an enigma
8/26/98: Clinton agonistes, or: Twisting in the wind
8/25/98: The rise of the English murder
8/24/98: Confess and attack: Slick comes semi-clean
8/19/98: Little Rock perspectives
8/14/98: Department of deja vu
8/12/98: The French would understand
8/10/98: A fable: The Rat in the Corner
8/07/98: Welcome to the roaring 90s
8/06/98: No surprises dept. -- promotion denied
8/03/98: Quotes of and for the week: take your pick
7/29/98: A subpoena for the president:
so what else is new?
7/27/98: Forget about Bubba, it's time to investigate Reno
7/23/98: Ghosts on the roof, 1998
7/21/98: The new elegance
7/16/98: In defense of manners
7/13/98: Another day, another delay: what's missing from the scandal news
7/9/98:The language-wars continue
7/7/98:The new Detente
7/2/98: Bubba in Beijing: history does occur twice
6/30/98: Hurry back, Mr. President -- to freedom
6/24/98: When Clinton follows Quayle's lead
6/22/98: Independence Day, 2002
6/18/98: Adventures in poli-speke

©1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate