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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

That Old Familiar Uncharted Territory

Clinton's survival may depend on a combination of forgiveness and boredom

By Lance Morrow

TIME magazine

Congressmen and commentators spoke of being in "uncharted territory." They used the term in the way that medieval cartographers wrote "Here Be Monsters" on old maps--meaning that we are in the place where knowledge ends and dread begins.

The future undoubtedly harbors plenty of monsters, hidden from us now and waiting; at the moment, the monsters we see are chimeras of our uncertainty and disgust. But we know enough to make educated projections.

Entering the uncharted territory, we know we will find a solemn official district; there, the high formalities of impeachment will be performed--with circumlocutions that should be hilarious. Adjacent to this dignified marble complex will lie the sacramental dimension, the no less decorous churchy zone where repentance and forgiveness will be authenticated.

On the other side of the uncharted town is the raucous, gaudy, hooting, dominating brawl of Tonight Show hooraw and tabloid democracy, a raw 42nd Street and 24-hour chat room of American public opinion--an unceasing electronic noise that permeates, informs and corrupts America.

The fate of Bill Clinton and his Administration will be determined by a complex debate among these zones. We are watching multidimensional chess to try to figure the king's chances of survival. If Clinton's presidency can be saved, it will happen because two very different dynamics--forgiveness and, surprisingly, popular indifference--will interact.

Impeachment is as much a political as a legal process. It is where the sacrament of penance becomes politically relevant. Clinton performed miserably in his first public ceremonies of repentance, but then last Friday, at the White House prayer breakfast, delivered at last a persuasive peccavi, mea culpa. It was fascinating to watch the President's speech with a window at the bottom of the television screen showing the Dow Jones average moving like an electrocardiogram. The Dow was in losing territory when the Clinton started speaking, and rose steadily into the plus column as he went on.

If the American people forgive Clinton, then the Senate will not run him out of Washington; it is astonishing that Whitewater, the original complaint, is nowhere to be seen.

The devastation--the traumatic disgust--may be too extensive to be repaired. On the other hand, you might listen in the coming days and weeks for the sound of a loud backfire.

The shelf life of scandal, even presidential scandal, is not indefinite, and after such hypersaturation, Americans may find themselves not only ultimately bored by the Clinton-Lewinsky affair but also indignant at Kenneth Starr's sadistically detailed report. Americans may conclude it was not necessary for Starr, in order to make his legal point, to engage in such a pornographic narrative.

The public's boredom with the scandal will be more important than the question of whether the public forgives Clinton. Eventual indifference, in any case, is more predictable than forgiveness. Americans will almost inevitably tire of the sexual affair, which (forgetting that the man is President) is as scruffy and banal as most adultery. The fact that Congress cannot take up the matter of impeachment until reconvening in January may have two effects: 1) to weaken Clinton's presidency by leaving the charges and smut hanging in the air and devastating his credibility in all his dealings and 2) to save Clinton's presidency by giving Americans a chance to get sick of the whole subject.

Dick Morris seems to be faring well these days. So does Marv Albert. So, God help us, does O.J. Simpson. The volcanoes of media-powered scandal exhaust themselves pretty rapidly; they leave in their aftermath a depression and a disgust that help explain part of the public's loathing of the media. The Starr report completes the convergence of the highest public dimensions of American life with the lowest sleaze. The report discloses not only Clinton's behavior and character but also the extent to which the appropriate walls have broken down, allowing raw sewage to flow through all of American life.

Where do we locate reality? The Clinton-Lewinsky mess is entirely Clinton's fault. Still, there is something idiotic about where it has left us. Is this the best that the baby boomers can do for serious history? Is this their legacy?

Reality: we live in a bad world. Bad men do evil as routinely as they walk downstairs to breakfast. Clinton is not a bad man, even if he is a contemptible one. The law cares not about such judgments; the law cares about the law and whether it was violated. Public opinion takes a broader, less predictable view. And public opinion will dictate whether Clinton stays or goes.


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Cover Date: September 21, 1998

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