Ever since he was elected in 1992, critics have attacked Clinton as a slick pol without principle – a coreless, spineless actor, driven solely by the latest public opinion poll and by his own voracious appetite for approval. Columnist Maureen Dowd dubbed Clinton “President Protean,” a reference to his proclivity for changing his position on certain or all issues, and Gary Trudeau depicted him as a waffle.
Supporters such as myself recognized that Bill Clinton was a man of serious flaws, but we never doubted his motives. He might equivocate and prevaricate and flip-flop, he might shade the truth and engage in semantic weaseling, he might deny responsibility for his actions and let others take the fall, but the one thing we were certain of, the reason why we stuck by him through the bumpy rollercoaster ride of his first term, was that he cared â€” that he truly wanted to make a positive difference, to help the less fortunate, the jobless, the disenfranchised. He was not an honest man, or a particularly honorable man, but he was big-hearted man. He was our Empathizer-in-Chief.
What’s so devastating about the recent revelations about Clinton’s behavior is that they lend credence to the worst charges leveled at Clinton; namely that he is an egomaniac concerned, above all, with himself.
Clinton’s decision to engage in a sexual affair with an intern in the Oval Office when he was already facing a civil sexual harassment case and trailed by a zealous independent counsel reveals a recklessness that’s hard to put into words. For a few fleeting moments of gratification, Clinton risked his entire agenda and the agenda of all those working for him.
This was a case of selfishness to the nth degree. It’s tempting to dismiss Clinton’s behavior as a personal, private case of infidelity, to blow it off with a whiff of European savoir-faire . That’s how I first reacted when I was studying abroad last spring in Italy, where the national attitude can be summed up by what a group of Florentines told me over lunch at McDonalds: Clinton ha fatto bene (Clinton did well for himself). After all, attaining the presidency or any other high office requires a certain drive that seems to go hand-in-hand with an abnormally active libido; just look at Kennedy and Johnson.
But the fact is, for better or worse, in the United States in the 1990s, the rules have changed, and a political animal as intelligent and attuned to his environment as Bill Clinton had to have realized that. In the political and media climate he was facing, Clinton’s tryst with a 21-year old was tantamount to handing a loaded gun to his enemies. It was an arrogant public betrayal of all those in his administration and all of his supporters, and it calls into question his loyalty to them and to the ideas and policies he espouses.
And as if this was not betrayal enough, there’s the way the President lied to his aides, cabinet members, and congressional allies, and callously used them as expendable props to hide behind. When the story first broke in mid-January, there was a window of opportunity in which Clinton could have come forward and apologized for his actions. Instead, he sat silently as the people most loyal to him made fools of themselves by defending him on the record. With the self-centeredness of a child, he expected others to clean up the mess he had made, to take the hits, all in a vain effort to preserve his own tattered reputation.
Does this mean Kenneth Starr has been justified in his utter lack of prosecutorial discretion? Absolutely not. Constitutionally, Starr is the far greater danger, an unelected, politically unaccountable zealot who has effectively created a fourth branch of government out of the independent counsel statute, combining, as Jeffrey Rosen of “The New Republic” argues, the roles of legislator, prosecutor, jury, and judge. His pornographic report, posted on the web last week, represents a blatant attempt to shame a President out of office with salacious, and completely irrelevant, details. When we look back on the 1990s, Starr’s noteriety will probably exceed that of Clinton’s: he will be remembered as a Sexual McCarthyite, a Grand Inquisitor tearing down executive privilege after executive privilege and rewriting significant portions of the constitution in his righteous hunt for philanderers and cattle-commodity cheats, all the while cloaking himself in the guise of Joe “Just the facts” Friday.
But that’s not really the issue here. We shouldn’t have to choose between the President and his enemies. As appalled as I am with Ken Starr, that doesn’t make up for my disappointment in Clinton. It doesn’t repair the utter sense of disillusionment I feel in a man who came to the presidency six years ago with such high hopes. Like most Clinton supporters, I’ve simply lost the heart to defend the man. No words or gestures of conciliation, no contrite curling of the lower lip, no pleas for penitence can make up for his betrayal.
In July of 1997, five months before anyone had heard of Monica Lewinsky, President Clinton spoke briefly to a group of White House Interns. He told us that he did not care what we came away thinking about him; he only cared that we realized how many hardworking people there were behind the scenes, and that we went home with a renewed faith in government and public service. They were noble words.
A little over one year later â€” after the Presidency has become a dirty joke and cynicism has skyrocketed, after those dedicated people have experienced the shock of utter betrayal by their boss – I realize that this selflessness was a farce. Sadly, I am not fully convinced that Bill Clinton cares about anything other than what we think about him.
I hope I’m wrong.