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Jewish World Review / August 19, 1998 / 27 Menachem-Av, 5758

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg Little Rock perspectives

(Paul Greenberg isthe Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and coiner of the moniker "Slick Willy." A collection of his writings about the Clintons titled No Surprises was published in 1996.)

"Finally, and sadly, there is the unavoidable subject of character in a presidential candidate.... But it is not the duplicitousness in his politics that concerns so much as the polished ease, the almost habitual, casual, articulate way he bobs and weaves. He has mastered the art of equivocation. There is something almost inhuman in his smoother responses that sends a shiver up the spine. It is not the compromises he has made that trouble so much as the unavoidable suspicion that he has no great principles to compromise.'' -- Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, October 28, 1992.

Having consulted their reliable sources and tarot cards, the punditry had decided what Bill Clinton would do even before he testified to the grand jury. It was the same thing that anyone who has followed this president's agonizingly long career would have predicted: another extended equivocation, another series of clinton clauses, another hemi-semi-demi-quasi-explanation. In short, another apology that really isn't.

Most of the folks who cover Bill Clinton eventually reach a moment of truth. There comes a time -- it's usually definite and memorable -- when they stop giving him the benefit of the mounting doubt, when they just give up on him, and vow that they'll never be suckered again. The difference between a Clinton critic and a Clinton apologist is that the apologist hasn't had his moment of truth yet. A few never will.

It might be noted that some of the types now writing most skeptically, even scathingly, about this president produced some of the most favorable news coverage he ever got back in the presidential campaign of '92, before their own inevitable moment of truth struck. People hate to be fooled.

My own moment of truth came in the fall of '91, when the governor and presidential candidate casually, smoothly noted that of course he had favored George Bush's request for war powers in the Persian Gulf earlier that year. I was shaken. That wasn't the way I remembered it at all, or the way I'd been reporting it for months. I asked him if he was sure about that, and he looked at me in the calmest way and said of course he had supported the president.

Of course he hadn't. But he was so convincing, I rushed back to the office to check the clips, fearing I'd been mistaken. Actually, he had opposed the president/might have theoretically supported the president/generally waffled on the whole issue. That way, he could claim to have been right however the war turned out. And that's when he tore it with me.

Once again, now that this president has testified and the leaks have begun, a few more eyes will open -- as they did after Gennifer Flowers, or after his letter to Colonel Holmes revealing just how he'd escaped the draft, or after his abandonment of Bosnia, or after his sellout to Beijing, or after the various gates broke -- from Travel to File -- or after whatever your own moment of truth was. Or maybe yours is still to come.

And it almost surely will -- as it does in every other Southern novel. Not for the first time in these latitudes, mere history imitates great literature. One can never know just when that will happen, only that it will. And the familiar story of power and corruption, ambition and fall, honor and dishonor, will unroll once again. As it did for Jack Burden, the young reporter turned jaded hack in Robert Penn Warren's definitive study of Southern politics and life, All the King's Men.

There is no joy in that moment of truth, only a sense that the hunter has been as cheapened by the pursuit as the hunted. Which is how Kenneth Starr may feel now. To quote Jack Burden in his moment of triumph, when he never felt lower: "So I had it after all these months. For nothing is lost, nothing is ever lost. There is always the clue, the canceled check, the smear of lipstick, the footprint in the canna bed, the condom on the park path ....'' The stained dress? The appointment book? The book of poems? The single, forgotten detail that shines through the lie like a policeman's flashlight into a parked car. There are no surprises here, only inevitabilities. The truth does have this way of outing.

Most of us, like the president himself, just want to get past this thing, shrug it off, put it behind us, and get on with the national life. But that, too, is an illusion, however popular at the moment. One event flows from another. As one good deed produces another, one sin leads to another, one scandal to the next. That's why character cannot be separated from competence.

The president's remarkable ability to compartmentalize scandal, to seal it off, is not a strength, much as it might appear to be. In the end it is a weakness. It is the symptom of an unintegrated conscience when some things have to be walled off -- like Bluebeard's closet. Someday somebody is bound to open the door. If it hadn't been L'affaire Lewinsky, it would have been -- it may still be -- something else. Researchers yet unborn will pore over the dusty archives some day and find it. Character is also destiny.

I do have this ridiculous fantasy from time to time in which Bill Clinton not only testifies "completely and truthfully'' before the grand jury, but astounds the American people with a brief public statement:

"My fellow citizens: The first president to live in this house from where I now address you prayed that none but the honest and wise would rule under its roof. I am aware that other presidents have failed to live up to that standard, but that does not excuse my conduct. I have reached the conclusion that nothing would become me in office like my leaving it. Therefore I am submitting my resignation as soon as I have assured an orderly transition. Let no enemy of the United States or of freedom anywhere take any comfort in my decision; it is not a sign of weakness but of moral strength. I now have done the honorable, straightforward, clean thing; the rest I leave to the courts, to you the people, and to my God. May he always bless America. As for me, I am free, free at last.''

Fatted calves would be slain all over this land. All would welcome the prodigal, home at last. For who would not embrace and forgive him? Then his prayer would not be without sacrifice, his repentance without atonement. Our long national distraction would be over at last.

A silly daydream, I know. All those years of Clinton-watching argue against any such fancies. Why should this Clinton Scandal be different from any other? He got out of those scrapes, didn't he? Why change tactics now? Who of us ever learned not to climb Fool's Hill until we fell off?

Political viability long ago became this president's chief, if not sole, object. And it is a jealous god that will tolerate no others. America may have to mark time for a few more years before awakening -- as it awakened after Nixon and after Harding. And greatness will beckon again.

I wish it beckoned now. Instead, mediocrity does. And forgetfulness. We long for business as usual. A respect for certain human bonds -- truth, honor, the majesty of the law -- seems too much trouble for most of us just now. Me, I wish for a renascence of guilt, of shame, of forgiveness and therefore of human progress -- the real thing and not the slick substitute for it, the cheap grace that has been marketed so successfully in this clintonized culture.

Though the old greatness tarry, I know it will come again. Americans can take this sort of thing for the longest time, but eventually we get bored by recurrent sleaze. It becomes too predictable. We may choose greatness just for the sake of change. For we love adventure.


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