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Epilogue: Intern Affairs
Written February 1, 1998

We shouldn’t have been surprised. The Clinton scandals, long evaded, suppressed, and ignored, finally erupted with amazing force.

As might have been guessed, it all focused on a woman. And because she wasn’t Hillary Clinton, it involved sex. A few months ago, adapting Pat Moynihan’s famous phrase, I wrote that Clinton had “defined presidential deviancy down.” I had no idea. Clinton has now fallen below the expectations he’d already drastically lowered.

All the cynics and comedians had underestimated the truth: Bill Clinton had used a young White House intern as the receptacle of his peculiar and uncontrollable lust. According to what she told a friend, she had discovered, to her dismay, that she was only one of several. Clinton apparently had a sort of off-the-books harem ministering to his appetites in the White House. In public life he was the Franklin Roosevelt of the sexual revolution. In private life (if life in the White House can be called private) he was living the revolution.

It didn’t stop with adultery. It involved crime. Clinton’s vague and tight-lipped denials were clearly masking a concerted attempt, by him and his pal Vernon Jordan, to tamper with a witness who could have given very damaging testimony about him in the Paula Jones suit. While his defenders, including his belligerent wife, urged the public to reserve judgment “until the facts come out,” the crucial fact was that Clinton himself wasn’t giving us the facts. He said only that he’d never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky and that he “never asked anybody to lie.”

The second part may have been literally true, in the sense that many things Clinton says are literally true. He probably hadn’t used the word “lie” to “anybody.” But who was “anybody”? Whom had he been talking to just before Monica Lewinsky gave her affidavit denying the sexual affair? Clearly he had spoken to Jordan, who also volunteered that Miss Lewinsky had firmly denied any sexual relations with Clinton — though Jordan didn’t explain why the subject of a possible amour with Clinton had come up at all during his humanitarian attempt to assist her “vocational aspirations.” Then the Washington Post and New York Times reported that Miss Lewinsky had secretly visited Clinton in the White House a few days before her affidavit. And a tabloid reported that she had suddenly made $11,000 in payments on her credit cards at about that time, though her salary at her most recent job was only about $30,000 a year. It was a curious time for her to enjoy sudden prosperity and the solicitude of important men (including Clinton’s UN ambassador, Bill Richardson).

Only Clinton’s own spokesmen professed to believe him. Everyone else, including those ordinary voters who still supported him, assumed he was lying. This meant that he had committed perjury in testifying that his relations with Miss Lewinsky were never sexual, and it suggested that he had suborned perjury from her during their secret meeting and in the favors he and Jordan arranged for her. Clinton’s adultery had led him to crime as well as to naked public prevarication.

I have to admit I was amazed by his resilience in the subsequent week. Anyone else would have been crushed by such a humiliation. The new revelations surpassed all suspicions about him. The reports were laced with rumors of what has become a trademark detail, his preference for oral sex and his private insistence that it doesn’t count as adultery. Paula Jones stood vindicated: the new stories matched her description of his crude advances. All doubt about his “character” had been erased. Yet he refused to surrender. Between bombshells, he even enjoyed a boost in his job-approval ratings.

Miss Lewinsky reportedly told her friend Linda Tripp that Clinton was privately “obsessed” with the Jones suit, but dared not settle out of court for fear that “hundreds” of other women would come forth to sue him. This accounts not only for his hardball tactics with Mrs. Jones, but for the similar tactics his aides have used in the past to quell “bimbo eruptions.” It’s typical of the degraded defenders in his inner circle that they themselves coined this famous phrase, yet they persist in treating every new eruption as part of a scurrilous, politically motivated assault on a progressive-minded president who is, as they say, “good on women’s issues.”

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As I write, it appears that he is determined to hang in there until he is dragged out of the Oval Office in shackles. And from his point of view, this is the only rational course. The moment he surrenders the power of the presidency he will be defenseless. Nevertheless, you have to give him credit for determination. It’s the only trace of “character” he has.

I had to laugh when I heard a radio interview with a historian who said that “if” the charges proved true — he solemnly stressed the “if” — Clinton would probably go down in history as a failed president, “like Warren Harding.” Warren Harding? Clinton has already broken all records for ignominy. The salaciousness of his behavior with Miss Lewinsky is sufficient. But this scandal will also revive all the previous scandals he has so far managed to smother. It will no doubt lead to further revelations: the long-dormant media have finally joined the chase, along with the prosecutors. Even Janet Reno no longer dare cover for her boss. The aggregate scandals may in time put both Clinton and his wife in prison, even if he should somehow remain in office for three more years.

Bill and Hillary Clinton are to liberalism what Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were to evangelism. From now on it will be the burden of all other liberals to avoid reminding people of them. Just as “White House intern” and “Arkansas state trooper” have become doubles-entendres, all the catchwords of liberalism and feminism will now be infected with irony. The Clintons seem to have realized that trouble was coming as the day of his deposition in the Jones suit approached: they made a point of getting a dog, posing disingenuously as lovers on a beach, and appearing in church together, with Bill clutching his Bible. All they really achieved was to prepare the public for a huge laugh.

The sheer riotousness of this scandal is unlike anything else, ever. The Watergate scandals were shocking, but they had a certain gravity and Richard Nixon even kept some dignity to the end. Whatever his crimes, Nixon had self-respect. Clinton has none. With Nixon, impeachment was no laughing matter. It was more like tragedy. Clinton’s fall is farce — and sex farce at that.

The political damage to the Democratic Party is, of course, beyond calculation. Since Clinton moved into the White House the Democrats have already lost their long domination of Congress; now they will suffer further losses in the 1998 elections, especially if he lingers in office. And good luck to their presidential nominee in 2000. If Al Gore succeeds Clinton before then, it won’t be as an untainted Gerald Ford, but as a Spiro Agnew, deeply contaminated by his junior partnership with Clinton, by his own role in the fund-raising scandals, and by his defense of the indefensible “Big Creep,” as Monica Lewinsky nicknamed her lover.

Clinton continues to betray the public by the simple act of defending himself. He is like O.J. Simpson, perfunctorily denying what everyone, including his defenders, already knows. Like Simpson, he made an immediate but inadequate profession of innocence, lacking both conviction and convincing detail. It didn’t occur to him to make a more forceful statement until it was too late to persuade anyone, and even then he added nothing substantial to his first denial. At all costs he is avoiding any positive statement of fact that may be contradicted when more evidence emerges — when those “facts come out.”

Once again, his defenders, furiously attacking the prosecution and equating opposition with “conspiracy,” don’t dare mount the best defense: “He’s not that sort of man.” It’s because Clinton is, supremely, “that sort of man” that this whole thing has happened. He’s a lying lecher, a prevaricating pervert, an utterly slimy crook, without a trace of honor or loyalty, desperately trying to save his own skin one last time.

One sad comment has already become common: “Poor Chelsea!” Yes, but it’s worth bearing in mind that Chelsea may not be his only child. But the other one doesn’t have to worry about disgrace. His old flame Gennifer Flowers says that in 1977 he gave her $200 to abort it.

Clinton has indeed lived the revolution. And whether or not he is impeached or imprisoned in the near future, his place in history is secure.

Return to “Power and Betrayal.”

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