The Lesson of Lewinsky

Bill Clinton's latest imbroglio carries a valuable lesson in self-government. This lesson speaks to the fundamental presumption of democratic self-government, that the people have wisdom and virtue enough to elect politicians wise and virtuous enough to rule. That presumption is at bottom a moral one because it presumes a moral people.

Perhaps the American people lost that presumption when they elected and re-elected Bill Clinton, but then again, history tells too many sad stories in which demagogues exploit decent and honest people. The more disturbing indictment of the American people comes from public opinion polls taken since the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal erupted. While polls indicate that the people think Clinton had some sort of sexual relationship with Lewinsky and has been less than honest about it, they also indicate that the people care little about the affair and much more about America's continued peace and prosperity. This dissonance is remarkable and, if protracted, ominous.

The first set of polls shows that Americans are perhaps ready to admit what they suspected and probably knew all along: our President is a compulsive womanizer and liar. He cannot restrain himself even in the most public forum. Late last year in a visit to Venezuela, Clinton flagrantly flirted with a presidential candidate, who just happened to be a former Miss Universe. Nor can he tell the simple and whole truth on the most trivial matters. Last November, Clinton said he had not eaten at McDonald's since he became president, a laughable lie disproved with a simple NEXIS search.

Now, perhaps Clinton partisans would think the label "compulsive womanizer and liar" unfair, and would respond, "Prove it." So suppose we subscribe to the Hillary Clinton-Oliver Stone conspiracy theory of politics. What must we believe to deny these charges against Clinton?

We must believe that Gennifer Flowers fabricated her entire story. We must believe that Flowers fabricated the hours of tapes between her and Clinton. We must believe that Clinton's denial of an affair with Flowers was true, though his legalistic language only denied the specific allegation of a 12-year affair with Flowers (or was it 13 years?).

We must believe Paula Jones fabricated her entire story. Again, we must believe Clinton's legalistic denial of Jones' allegations was true, though he only said he and Jones were "never alone together in the hotel" (but what about the hotel room?). We must believe Kathleen Willey smeared her own make-up and ruffled her own clothes and then lied about Clinton kissing and fondling her. We must believe Linda Tripp also lied about Willey's appearance and demeanor after the alleged event.

After we believe all that, however, we must turn to the Lewinsky scandal and begin round two in our game of suspension of disbelief.

We must believe that the 20 hours of taped conversations between Lewinsky and Tripp are entirely fabricated. We must believe that the reward for disobedient White House staffers is a new job at the Pentagon. We must believe that the many packages Lewinsky sent to Clinton's personal secretary contained nothing noteworthy. We must believe that Lewinsky's visits to the White House (especially the one after she received a subpoena in the Jones civil case) were routine. We must believe that Vernon Jordan makes a habit of placing unsuccessful 24-year-old hangers-on in high-paying jobs at Revlon. We must believe that the comfortable familiarity we see between Clinton and Lewinsky at past fundraisers merely reflects Clinton's boundless love for people.

You say you can believe all of that? Well, consider the most unbelievable event of all, which happens to be the most unobserved. Clinton and his aides invented and perfected the political "warroom" mentality. In campaigns and past scandals, the Clinton team always responded to charges rapidly, sometimes with seemingly inhuman speed.

But despite its past performances, we heard nary a peep from them in the first several days of the Lewinsky story, aside from more legalistic nondenials from Clinton. Now the Clinton team says it cannot explain anything in detail because it must collect information for Kenneth Starr's investigation. Yet Clinton is under no legal constraint, and the only facts that matter reside in his head. Simply put, an innocent man does not behave as Clinton has in the past two weeks. This is the case of Sherlock Holmes and the dog that didn't bark.

As indicated in the first set of polls, most Americans do not believe this fanciful nonsense. But as indicated in the second set of polls, they continue to support Clinton. It is as if a wife tolerated her womanizing and lying husband because he brought home a hefty paycheck and kept her safe. The truth will emerge, and the truth is that Clinton had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky, which of course means that Clinton lied to the American people last Monday when he looked into the camera, stuck out his chin, shook his finger and denied the allegations. When faced with that undeniable reality, Americans must respond in one of two ways.

Clinton may lose his support, which means trouble for him. Or Clinton may retain his support, which means trouble for us. If we continue to ignore Clinton's degeneracy, the real story then becomes our degeneracy. A self-governing people that cannot make the most obvious and rudimentary moral judgments about such matters and its rulers may not be self-governing much longer.

Thomas B. Cotton '98, a government concentrator, lives in Adams House. His column will appear on alternate Wednesdays.