Saving Private Clinton

As the casualties mount, our Commander-in-Chief soldiers on

Early last week, as a dismayed and puzzled country woke up to what the judiciary committee had wrought, my own back- and-forth feelings about Clinton agonistes dissolved into a liberating realization that I'd stopped caring either way. Disgust left me figuring impeachment as a win-win proposition, and I haven't changed my mind. If you know your Reign of Terror, you know that Danton and Robespierre ended up guillotined too. Even assuming a Senate conviction that by Sunday, with a peculiarly unfazed if not quite cocky Clinton enjoying his highest poll ratings ever, looked about as likely as Cosmo sticking Linda Tripp on the cover, Saturday's House vote was a Pyrrhic victory whose most important consequence will be a wave of popular revulsion against the radicals responsible, with a GOP hemorrhage in the 2000 congressional elections the likeliest short-term result.

Not only will they almost certainly fall short of ousting the man they hate after staking their all on it— they'll have made him the national hero he's always wanted to be, and could never have become on the merits. He's still a sellout, as lefties should remember, still a waffler, as Monica Lewinsky knows more vividly than any grand jury, and still a selfish fink, as I hope Betty Currie realizes eventually. But that no longer matters much. America's favorite kind of martyr has always been one who wins in the end, and this is rapidly turning into then-all-the-reindeer-loved-him time, if not the moment in It's a Wonderful Life when even the callous auditor adds a dollar to George Bailey's collection plate. Far from triggering a run on jackboots inside the Beltway, the stupefying upshot of Henry Hyde's labors should confound the right wing into an orgy of recriminations that will make "Who lost China?" look like who-slapped-John. That means the Republican Party will either be restored to sanity or destroy itself. I can't see anything to wring my hands about in either outcome, although my head prefers the former while my heart pines for the latter. National nightmare my foot— if I were a Democrat, I'd be dancing the yes-I-can-can around now. Behind closed doors, the party's bigwigs probably are unable to believe their good fortune.

I may manage a jig or two myself. But just because the bad guys are losing doesn't mean the good guys are going to win. There aren't any good guys. Having long found the question of justice to Clinton irrelevant anywhere outside the courtroom Congress isn't and the history books no one alive today will write, I haven't changed my mind about that either. Partisan disingenuousness on Capitol Hill and good-hearted ingenuousness outside the Beltway to the contrary, calling impeachment a political process is a description, not a denunciation. Despite our penchant for equating a Senate trial with a judicial one— a confusion the framers didn't help by shanghaiing the chief justice for a busman's holiday— the Constitution's deliberately imprecise bill of particulars gives Congress leeway to evict a president from office on pretty much any grounds it deems worthy, and that legislative prerogative is no less deserving of protection than the chief executive's authority even if it's equally open to abuse.

But the Constitution also assumes elementary savvy— a sense of what the traffic will bear. That's why Ronald Reagan was never at risk of being impeached over Iran-Contra, a worse crime against our system than Watergate. While Richard Nixon deserved everything he got and more, as a practical matter it did help that he was Nixon: charmless, blamable. From the start, the miscalculation of the GOP's Jacobins in Clinton's case has been that, while he's their Nixon, they've been either too clueless to grasp or too fanatical to care that the bulk of the country doesn't feel the same way. They simply seem to have had no idea that going this far would horrify everybody but the true believers who propelled them into office. Strategically, they've bungled every step of the way, too. If they hadn't played such party-line hardball, they might well have gotten 20 or 30 Democratic votes in favor of impeachment, enough to give their vendetta a bipartisan figleaf.

Even so, if I'm all wrong and the Senate somehow gives Clinton the boot next year, I won't call it a tragedy, and I don't think you should either. The recent vogue in liberal circles for styling the impeachment a coup d'état— with one pundit using the even more loaded term putsch— is tendentious twaddle. Under other circumstances— if deposing Clinton meant his replacement by a member of the opposition, or even the leader of a faction in his own party at odds with his policies— I might be sounding the tocsin. But vice presidents get elected too, and the one we've got is hardly an Iago. Besides, my understanding of democracy defines the presidency as a job, not a sanctuary, and puts the collective good ahead of individual vindication. When Nixon quit, he said he was resigning because he lacked the congressional support to govern, annoying many who wanted him to say that he'd been very, very bad. By contrast, once an initially reluctant Clinton got into mea-culpa-you-a-culpa-everywhere-a-culpa-culpa mode, he started serving up acts of contrition like Big Macs. But clearly, inability to govern, as opposed to ordering air strikes, has never entered his calculations as even an excuse for leaving— and forget about a genuine reason to.

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