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The Scandal: Making Sins of It All

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  • By Ken Ringle
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, February 13, 1999; Page C1

    So now it's over. We're right back where we started a year ago, before we knew the name of Monica Lewinsky, back before we could ever imagine we'd hear oral sex discussed on the evening news.

    The question that begs to be asked now is who's to blame? Who's responsible for our year-long slog through the Augean stables of presidential peccadilloes?

    Like Claude Rains in "Casablanca," we may as well round up the usual suspects: Pride, Avarice, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Anger and Sloth. And, of course, the Internet. These days, seven ancient deadly sins will never suffice.

    We could start with Avarice: Washington's endemic plague of lawyers, swarming every minute around every figure in the scandal. Avarice certainly cloaked those instant experts and talking heads thronging TV: like James Carville, lashed to the mast of Clinton's storm-tossed ship of state and raging at the tempest, and Dick Morris jumping ship like a bilge rat to gnaw holes in the hull. Lawyers, however, were the only people guaranteed to profit mightily for every fee-paid hour the presidential scandal was prolonged. Whether their clients won, lost or went to jail.

    "You can certainly make a case that it was the president's lawyers and their defense strategy that pushed this thing to impeachment," said Brandeis University historian David Hackett Fischer. "Each decision along the way was fed by the consequences of the decision before. But what forces shaped those individual decisions?"

    By most accounts leaking out of the White House, the primary force shaping the president's defense strategy was the lawyer closest to him: Hillary Rodham Clinton. Pride if it ever existed.

    It was primarily Hillary, some White House aides say, who refused to settle the Paula Jones lawsuit when Jones would have taken $25,000 to go away; Hillary who forced the don't-give-an-inch tactics in the face of revelations about Lewinsky; Hillary who refused any compromise with what she really didn't want to know. In hindsight her attitude looks myopic and bloody-minded, not to say disingenuous to the full.

    But if she hadn't forced that course and stood, however bitterly, by her man, would people now be floating her candidacy for the U.S. Senate from New York?

    And speaking of Pride, suppose you're a big-time lawyer named independent counsel and you spend four years and $40-odd million investigating a lot of Whitewater smoke and can't find any fire. Might that make you, shall we say, a bit zealous when the object of your investigation is caught in another venue with his pants down?

    How about Lust? Well, we certainly now know where that lives. And Gluttony, too. If the president hadn't snacked so often during the government shutdown in 1995, a thong-flashing intern named Lewinsky might never have come parading into the Oval Office Nov. 17 leading Clinton secretary Betty Currie to pronounce those Homeric words that launched a thousand slips: "Sir, the girl's here with the pizza."

    Moreover, if Lewinsky had fed less, there would have been fewer opportunities to be taped at table with Linda Tripp (more Gluttony), fewer caloric anxieties and confessions, and less confusion about spinach dip.

    Envy? Look to Congress, and especially to the House, where Republicans and Democrats alike are besieged daily by partisans and opponents of abortion rights and animal rights and civil rights and gay rights and handgun rights and every other explosive issue, and emerge scarred and bankrupt to watch their president skating through the same minefields and others more lethal without messing the crease in his pants.

    Anger? It tends to be the investigatee's reaction to a four-year probe that comes up empty but keeps on going. It also fuels a woman named Paula Jones, who allegedly gets flashed by the governor she worked for, invited to "kiss it," and sees her subsequent lawsuit become a laughingstock and herself derided as "trailer trash," while the gentleman in question sails to two terms in the White House.

    We'll reserve Sloth for the media. Instead of digging into all the unexposed problems of government, the Washington press corps spent most of 1998 sunbathing on Monica beach, chewing over the same cigars, titillating its viewers and readers while pretending to inform them. If the impeachment issue wasn't just about sex, you would hardly know that from most of the coverage.

    Then there's the Internet. It not only brought us the Starr report in all its glory but in a form searchable by lascivious keywords. It also brought us Matt Drudge, who discovered that you can shout any rumor you want from the new electronic podium, and it will rattle and reverberate far and loud until the more nervous members of the mainstream media feel they have to react. And then tut-tut about your irresponsibility while they themselves troll for book contracts, speaking fees and the instant, if disposable, celebrity of Lewinskydom.

    The Internet allowed us to sink from mere voyeurs to actual participants in the scandal, trading Monica sites, e-mailing Monica jokes, and playing all those cute little video games built around Altoids and pizza delivery in the Oval Office. No political development in history has ever before unfolded in the company of its own global carnival arcade.

    But beyond the obvious sins and sinners of the Lewinsky scandal loom those inhabitants of a second circle of causation: Betty Currie, the enabler; Vernon Jordan, the fixer; Sidney Blumenthal, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the Clinton White House. Were they the cause of our year-long water torture? Or was it Rep. Henry Hyde's passionate, persistent jeremiad, calling all America to a biblical and constitutional judgment from which the nation shrank?

    Obviously, says presidential historian Michael Beschloss, we can all identify points in the scandal where it might have been cut short: If Clinton had never gotten involved with Lewinsky, if he had never denied the relationship when it was discovered, if he had never given his defiant semi-apology in August and instead had shown real remorse and respect for Congress, if he had not held his post-House-vote Rose Garden pep rally that so infuriated the Senate.

    "But I'm not sure the final result would have been all that different," Beschloss said. "Ever since 1992 the American people have known two things about Bill Clinton they didn't like: one was the affair with Gennifer Flowers, and the other was that he'd evaded the draft. Those two things would have sunk almost any other candidate, but Clinton survived. And ever since then he's been seen by many as a guy who in his personal life bends the law, cuts corners, survives political hurdles and is never called to account."

    While that's not necessarily his own view of Clinton, he says, it is general enough in the country to have penalized the president by placing him under "enormous scrutiny" and pressure ever since, and contributing to the feeling of persecution and defiance that prompted his actions during the past year.

    "There have been voices raised for his impeachment almost from the beginning," Beschloss said. Few Americans have changed their minds about Clinton during the past year, he said, because, despite all the titillations of the Lewinsky affair, "we don't really know much about Bill Clinton we didn't know before."

    Truman and Theodore Roosevelt biographer David McCullough believes, however, that there is still much to be discovered, not just about Clinton but about all the principals in the Lewinsky affair and the history that surrounds it.

    "There is much that we're not reading about right now," he said, "like the great bitterness of many Democrats against Clinton for everything he's put them through. I believe there's a much richer and more human drama still to be written about this whole story years down the road.

    "You never really can understand people until you know all that they've been through in their lives," McCullough said. "And we're still learning."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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