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Jewish World Review / August 26, 1998 / 4 Elul, 5758

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg Clinton agonistes, or: Twisting in the wind

THE CLEAREST GUIDE to the agony of Bill Clinton remains the travail of Richard Nixon in what should have been his year of triumph. The surreal political atmosphere of 1973-74 returned like a flashback Thursday as the news spread that Bill Clinton was making another command performance before the television cameras.

This time he was breaking off his vacation in cool, green Martha's Vineyard to address the country from the Oval Office about war and peace. Yet he could not leave the aura of scandal behind, any more than Richard Nixon could. The shadow of Watergate hung over that president even when he was ordering a nuclear alert, for now every sentence and nuance would be weighed by an increasingly suspicious public.

In the end, one cannot separate the speech from the speaker. Can anyone have heard this commander-in-chief's resolute words last week about the need to fight terrorism, and not for a single moment entertained a skeptical thought?

So does character reinforce words, and the lack of it make even fine words suspect. It's a problem this president, and this country, will have to live with for the rest of his tenure, however long that may prove. The nixonization of Bill Clinton began long ago, but now it becomes undeniable.

The lines between all the boxes in Bill Clinton's neatly compartmentalized mind begin to dissolve. It grows impossible, as it did for Richard Nixon, to separate his office from the thought of how he has abused it. It may take some time, but rot spreads. Scandal cannot be contained; it must be faced. Until it is, it will become more and more difficult to distract the country, change the subject or just tend to business.

This was no nuclear alert Bill Clinton was announcing Thursday, but the kind of prompt and decisive action that a Ronald Reagan might have slept through, so automatic was the American response to terrorism back in the decade when the Cold War was won. The dream of a better world order still beckoned bright, and victory had not yet dribbled away into indecision and apathy.

If only for an instant Thursday, Bill Clinton revived the prospect of an awakened America, prepared to strike against terror without hesitation or vacillation. But does the country have the moral leadership to match the spirit and effectiveness of its military? Morale is all in such matters, and the country now has a president -- and commander-in-chief -- who cannot walk into the Oval Office without bringing along a pile of baggage. By now it is beginning to tower over that presidential seal.

For there is no longer any ignoring the questions and doubts. They mount daily, in court and out. This president steps out of the Oval Office into a minefield of political choices: Resignation? Impeachment? Prosecution? Or try to ignore it all and pretend nothing's wrong? That's what our impassive secretary of defense did when he was asked if he'd seen "Wag the Dog.'' But how long can everyone overlook the elephant in the room?

Nothing became Richard Nixon in office like his leaving it, even though he waited till his departure had become inevitable. Will Bill Clinton be able to ride this out, or will he only prolong his ordeal and the country's? Will he, too, choose honor only as a last resort?

Already the White House takes on the air of a bunker. No one resigns anymore. For there are still spins to be spun, memoirs to be written, internecine wars to be waged and, always, others to be blamed. Not just words like ``truth'' and "honor,'' "confession'' and "redemption'' have disappeared from the political vocabulary, but the concepts. Standards are replaced by legalistic distinctions without a difference. Lawyers, talking heads and assorted kibitzers now produce a 24-hour cycle of convolutions. And evasions and excuses fill the airy spaces of the Constitution like so much junk thought; it's like watching a great cathedral being used for a rummage sale.

This, too, will pass -- but how long will it go on before the slow, hard, patient work of restoring the dignity of the American presidency can begin? Will this president finally dismiss the campaign manager and alter ego responsible for so much of his rise and fall, Slick Willie, or choose to rely on that ever-elusive wizard once again? By now there have been more Clinton comebacks than there were new Nixons. Is one more still possible? And if the president gets past this scandal, too, how long before the next scandal erupts? Because there is always another for a leader with his elastic definition of truth.

It is a time for reflection at Martha's Vineyard, but Bill Clinton may only retreat to the war room he carries everywhere with him. For in the war room, there is no moral crisis that cannot be finessed, no reality that is anything more than perception, and the only thing that counts is the latest poll.

Even if Bill Clinton were to shake Slick Willie after all these years, and look inside himself, would he find anything? After all the layers are peeled away from his stories, what would he find left? What would he find at the heart of his being? What principle would he not sacrifice for the be-all and end-all of his career, political viability?

"It is a long road you have opened,'' Thomas More tells the court in Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons, "for first men will disclaim their hearts and presently they will have no hearts. God help the people whose statesmen walk your road.''

Whenever this president finds himself in trouble, it is too easy to forget what a perfect reflection he is of us -- of the American culture circa 1998. In his words and actions, his rises and falls, Bill Clinton does indeed represent America. And when he is caught out, it is too easy for those of us who aren't surprised to forget that he needs our prayers even more than our criticisms. And we in Arkansas need to remember that, after all is said and done and regretted, this president of the United States is also our native son, and would be welcome home.


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