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Jewish World Review Feb. 19, 1999/ 3 Adar, 5759

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg After the storm:
Going through the debris

(JWR) --- (http://www.jewishworldreview.com) THIS ADMINISTRATION IS SO CLOSELY IDENTIFIED with scandal that when the latest and biggest finally ended, it was as if the administration itself was over, with nothing to do but recede with the century. At last it was clear what its long sought-after after legacy would be.

This story didn't end so much as dribble away. In the end, Americans couldn't agree even on what to call this mother of all bimbo eruptions: Monicagate? L'Affaire Lewinsky? Zippergate? The Lewinsky Parenthesis? In retrospect, another name comes to mind: Sordidgate.

But no one word may ever be able to tie up all these loose ends, the way Watergate stands for the decline and fall of Richard Nixon. Watergate had a beginning, a middle and an end. So did L'Affaire Lewinsky. The dates on its tombstone are clear: January 21, 1998-February 12, 1999. But it's a tombstone without a name or epitaph. And something else is missing: a sense of finality, of resolution, of conclusion. What's missing, of course, is closure.

The fat lady has sung. but it's still not over. Because nothing is settled till it's settled right. It's like a bad, unsatisfying movie with a messy plot and a not very clear ending. You can't get it out of your head, but it does no good to talk about it. The fault lies not with the audience's understanding, but the sloppy script.

Yes, even if the story is over, it lacks an epitaph, a clear lesson, a moral at the end.

Naturally enough, it was the eloquent Dale Bumpers, who supplied one. No, not in his folksy closing for the defense, but in his own valedictory to the Senate last year.

Not that you'll find the quote in the official record of his speech in the Congressional Record. One of the senator's clerks was discreet enough to airbrush the words from his speech before it was formally recorded for posterity. Luckily, his farewell address has been preserved on video.

The quote isn't original with the former senator from Arkansas, but he did have the wisdom to remember it. It's from plain-spoken Harry Truman, and this is how Dale Bumpers recollected his conversation with Mr. Truman:

"And he said -- at that time President Nixon was president -- he waved his arm, and he said, `The only time this country ever gets into trouble is when there is some so-and-so in the White House lying to the American people.'''

Case closed. Scandal buried. Epitaph supplied. Harry Truman's is about the only soul-satisfying, mind-clearing response available amid all the mental detritus floating around in the wake of this shipwreck. But for some reason, Dale Bumpers left those words of wisdom out of his closing argument before the Senate. Pity. It's the one observation that would have fit perfectly.

Runner-up honors in the epitaph department go to a Republican pollster in Atlanta. The other day he was explaining why the governor of Utah isn't going to be affected by the scandal over the way Salt Lake City managed to land the Olympics. "The Clinton thing,'' he noted, "raised the bar for the kind of scandal that's disqualifying.''

Yep, the country has a new benchmark for the disqualifying, and it's way up there. After the Nixon Years, there was talk of a new post-Watergate morality. After this mess, a new post-Clinton amorality is a-bornin'. Its outlines have been clear for some time. Modesty should forbid, but I can't think of any better way to describe this new, fast-enveloping ethos for the American elite than to quote my first sighting of it in a column back in August of '92:

"The clintonized-gored culture taking shape will blend a thoroughgoing careerism with an unexamined sentimentality. Its ideology will be anti-ideological. It will be for Us, the country's semi-intellectual elite. (The wholly intellectual need not apply; they're dangerous and, worse, they're losers.) It will be a culture resolutely against Them, those incorrigibly stodgy, unsentimental types with cast-iron Republican souls forever lost to the cultural mainstream. As for those who play by the rules, they will be praised in speeches, but it will be made clear enough that only a fool would emulate them and expect to get ahead in the Age of Clinton. ... A decade of such ironies awaits.`

This kulturkampf, this cultural divide, isn't between left and right, but between up and down. For this president has no identifiable slot on the political spectrum, no ideological commitment beyond winning elections. For all its political results, this could have been a second Bush administration. Any vestige of meaningful liberalism, or meaningful anything, has been swallowed up by the need to defend this president's personal conduct. His friends, his administration, his party hasn't had the time or energy for anything else. Bill Clinton is a high-maintenance president.

Purely politically, this administration might best be described as moderate Republican, but without the class. And of course, that has made all the difference, for style is the last and highest attainment of a leader.

For perhaps the first time in this, our farce and his ordeal, the president responded appropriately, even with grace, in his 80-second appearance after his acquittal. Brevity, it turns out, is the soul of eloquence, too. He apologized simply and stoically, and appealed for reconciliation and renewal. If this keeps up, some us will have to stop referring to him as our boy president. It was as if he'd gone from boy to old man without ever having been an adult.

Then, for a dangerous moment, the president went back to the microphone to answer a question, and we held our breath, fearing he'd mess this up yet, maybe go on forever or lash out again at the independent counsel and the rest of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. ... But no, instead he spoke about forgiveness, and briefly, too. Then he was gone. You could almost hear the sigh of relief around the country.

But all too soon, our boy Bill had to go and send that e-mail to his White House staff, knowing it would get out. Indeed, it sounded as if it had been specially written to get out, like one more piece of PR. The message to his staff began with an appropriate apology, but then veered off into the usual polispeak:

"I know you share my pride in what we have accomplished already to strengthen America at home and abroad, including over the past year, when we created the first surplus in three decades. ...''

Did you get that We? So much for the taxes and the labor and the enterprise of the American people -- not to mention that spoilsport Republican Congress and its insistence on balanced budgets. Apologies concluded, it was back to clintonspeak as usual.

Ah well, fair is fair. It was kind of satisfying to see the White House staff handed the kind of guff it's been giving the rest of us for years. Serves 'em right.

There's no doubt that this has been a partisan proceeding, certainly in the Senate, where not a single Democrat crossed the line to vote for conviction. Unlike the few Republicans who voted for acquittal. A few Democrats indulged in some elevated phrasemaking early on -- but in the end, the Moynihans and Byrds, the Liebermans and Kerreys, went along quietly. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Senate's intellectual, was particularly thoughtful as he brought everything to bear on this question except a sense of honor.

On balance, I prefer the Barbara Boxers and Bob Barrs. That way you get your partisanship straight, with no unseemly admixture of elegance, like Scotch and Coke.

The only result of this extravaganza that all may agree on is that the institution of the presidency has been weakened. To slightly alter a famous phrase of Professor Moynihan's, we have defined the presidency down. Constitutional scholars will point to the various executive privileges that, stretched beyond the breaking point, now have snapped. But something far more important has been weakened. It is the quality that undergirds legitimacy: moral authority.

Watching this scandal unfold, and seeing it through to its final, inconclusive conclusion, end-of-the-century Americans can now identify with the ancient Romans, who saw the Republic become the Empire become the Circus Maximus.


2/17/99:Where's the closure?
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