Saving Private Clinton


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.

Mind you, I now suspect that last weekend’s events render the issue moot; no one could have predicted that in Clinton’s case, being impeached would be restorative. And even if that weren’t so, I’d still be pissing into the wind, because this country’s deepest political piety is the belief that no president, however damaged, should vacate the White House before the lease runs out except in extremis. But you can get all the mad you want, and I’ll still call that mystique childish— less a defense of democracy than a betrayal of our low faith in its resilience, fueled by a residual royalism and our deep desire to hold on to our daddies. Maybe Clinton didn’t start this, but he’s the one— the only one— who could have ended it a year ago, at no cost to his policies and some credit to himself. If that moldy fig “public service” means anything, the only question that either the public or the president should have been asking themselves since last January is whether, given his situation, the country is helped or hindered by his remaining in office.

Not that I ever expected such a dramatic, and to me decisive, answer to that one. Whatever else you think of it, for the world’s most powerful nation to bomb the shit out of another is a drastic act. People die, a lot of them, and sooner or later some will be Americans— maybe even you. Up to now, one unacknowledged, morally debilitating, and ultimately foolish premise of our post­Cold War foreign policy has been that we needn’t fear retaliation, but not all bombs need to be delivered via surveillance satellites and B-52s. The war on Iraq that Clinton renewed for 73 hours last week may have been justifiable, and may have been atrocious, and may have been what one French official called it: “Inevitable, but not necessary.” But it ill-served this country to let so consequential a step be tainted by even a suspicion of ignoble ulterior motives on the commander in chief’s part. Even if you reject the trivializing Wag the Dog analogy— and as a ploy to avoid the inevitable (if Clinton really thought bombing Saddam would gain him more than the 24 hours he got, he’s so stupid he shouldn’t be allowed to run heavy equipment, much less the country), though not an element in Clinton’s thinking (how could he help it?), I do— it was irresponsible of him to put the United States in a position where such questions could be raised. Supposing his conclusion that this had to be done, and done now, was reached on the merits, the principled course was obvious. He should have resigned on the spot, removing himself as an issue and letting Al Gore give the order.

And right— fat chance. In hindsight, it sounds deluded. Even Gore wouldn’t have been thrilled; if Clinton were to bail before this January 20, his successor only gets to run for one term in his own right. While a few— foolhardy, as it turned out— Republicans risked questioning Clinton’s timing, they basically treated it as cheating at chess, and I heard none fret about the cost to American prestige; we just don’t talk that way anymore, because when it comes to dealing with the world, we don’t need no stinking prestige. Once the country got over its initial incredulity, what settled us down was less a reassurance that Clinton had acted with integrity— that question was left dangling, but mostly as a noose for Trent Lott to yank his neck out of— than a perfectly appalling consensus that bombing Iraq wasn’t that big a deal. Why fuss? We’ve done it before, and given our policy’s worst-of-both-worlds combination of gangsterism and schoolmarmish finger-waggling, we’re almost sure to do it again. My view that it was important enough to be worth resigning over left me seeming even to myself like a citizen of cloud-cuckoo-land— more naive than Barbra Streisand if not battier than Bob Barr, neither a cheering thought.

Instead, within 24 hours, the bombing became just another sideshow. By the time this sees print, all of four days after the attacks ended, you’ll probably wonder why I’m even bothering to rehash such ancient history, so let me remind you— this was not a fake war, we weren’t just blowing up balloons, yet however much we chortle when Saddam pulls himself out of the rubble to declare victory, he’s not doing anything we don’t. Remarkably, when Clinton spoke on Saturday in the wake of the impeachment vote— backed by a phalanx of Democratic legislators, flanked by the wife whose career arc must have Tammy Wynette chortling in heaven (if there’s any justice and/or she has any humor, “Stand by Your Man” will be the tune Hillary asks the band to strike up as she leaves the White House), and bookended by Gephardt and Gore, who can be coaxed into sharing a platform about as often as Arafat and Netanyahu— he didn’t mention Iraq. Not even some passing allusion to our military, who were then still accomplishing whatever the hell they were supposed to accomplish. Apparently, that sort of boilerplate was for suckers— namely, the discomfited Republicans, whose overcompensatory protests of “supporting our troops” (what troops?) and automatic invocations of U.S. personnel “in harm’s way” left them sounding like Stepford patriots.

Clinton’s omission can’t have been out of tact, since he not only had Gore issue a crass reminder of how well the country is doing but trotted out his standard issues— saving Social Security, education, etc.— in what sounded uncannily like a campaign speech. Indeed, that was my first explanation for his strangely unchastened manner: that he was back in the campaign mode he prefers to all others. But the more I tried to get a fix on his attitude— and it’s not like we have any comparisons to tell us how a president who’s just been impeached should act, but this didn’t quite seem to be it— the more the unexpected word that floated up was triumphant. If this was a campaign, it was one Clinton believed he’d already won. I think he may have guessed the same thing I suspect: Impeachment is the best thing that’s ever happened to him.

For six years now, he’s put us through the damnedest movie: Saving Private Clinton. Ever since the beach-storming of the 1992 election, his supporters— led by their mysterious captain— have sacrificed themselves to rescue him. It’s been a massacre: kapow! There goes Lani Guinier. Bang! That’s Webster Hubbell, falling on that grenade. Rat-a-tat-tat— there goes welfare! They haven’t even known why they’re doing it, but their mysterious captain has urged them on; theirs is not to reason why. (George Stephanopoulos is the finky Jeremy Davies character here, I think.) Finally, we’ve reached the climax: the Panzers coming on, explosions everywhere, the whole shebang. The mysterious captain, with her dying breath— of course, it’s Hillary; whadja expect, Jesse Jackson?— turns to Private Clinton: “Earn it.” And we all know that what he really says, cupping his ear and biting his lower lip, in the scene Spielberg left out, is: “I’m sorry— burn what? The Rose Firm records? Are there tapes?”

In fact, he hasn’t earned it. But thanks to Kenneth Starr and the GOP wolves at Clinton’s heels, that’s not the version that will go down in the history books. Instead, this asshole is about to become legendary— not for his record of spotty accomplishments and ugly betrayals, not for his sins and scandals, not even as the Great Prevaricator. He’s going to be the Man They Couldn’t Lynch. If they succeed, the fairy tales about the tragedy of his thwarted greatness will put to shame the Camelot myths about the splendid, courageous, liberal things that cautious, canny, sail-trimming John F. Kennedy would have done if he’d lived— and unlike Kennedy, Clinton himself will be around to burnish them. But if the Senate doesn’t convict him, he’ll be a demigod. The public will adore him for doing what they wish JFK had done: survive his own assassination.