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Clinton's Pyrrhic Victory

In January, Clinton decided to win by lies and delay. And he'll rue the day he did

By Charles Krauthammer

Time cover

(TIME, September 28) -- It is perhaps the single most telling moment of the Clinton presidency. Right after the Lewinsky story breaks, Clinton is talking with Dick Morris. Clinton confesses that he did "something" and asks for advice. The question then, as always--in fact, the question of Clinton's life--is whether or not to tell the truth.

How does Clinton decide? They agree to take a poll.

For a man for whom words are what you want them to mean and truth is whatever story the public will buy, it was the natural thing to do. Morris returns with polls showing that if it is just adultery, the public will forgive him. But if it is perjury or obstruction of justice, he's dead. Clinton's response: "Well, we just have to win then."

So out he goes, and win he does. He takes to TV and delivers one of the most skillfully faked bald-faced lies in American history, a lie delivered, in the words of his loyal friend of 30 years, Robert Reich, with "passionate intensity" and "stunning conviction" recalling "the great Method actors of a previous generation." Result? His polls soar. Disaster is averted. He wins.

A former Clinton aide has expressed doubts about the Morris story. But Morris or not, the polls back in January were absolutely clear: if Clinton lied under oath, 63% of Americans thought he should resign.

So Clinton went with the polls. It was win-win. Either he would be able to stonewall forever or, if truth was finally forced out, the more time that passed, the more opinion might change. And change it did. Seven months and dozens of corroborating leaks later, Americans had grown accustomed to the idea of not just a dallying President but of a lying, perjuring one.

In January most Americans were not sure if Clinton was telling the truth, but two-thirds thought that if he wasn't, they wanted no part of him. By August those numbers were reversed. More than two-thirds now thought he had lied, and, after Clinton confirmed that in his televised confession-of-sorts on the 17th, two-thirds no longer wanted him to quit.

And don't think Clinton didn't know. He did not just poll about whether to lie in January. He was polling furiously in August right up to his grand-jury testimony, putting his finger to the wind to determine what story told under oath would fly with the public.

Even now, after the Starr report has set down in excruciating detail Clinton's affair and his corruption of the legal process, the polls are holding. As they say on Wall Street, the news had already been discounted--anticipated and worked into one's calculations.

There is a peculiar American cultural convention that "old news is no news," meaning that if any story, no matter how appalling, has seen some light of day a few weeks or months earlier, it is ipso facto drained of moral and political valence. Sure enough, despite the initial shock waves set off by the Starr report, public support for Clinton has remained steady. Two-thirds of Americans still don't want him to resign or be impeached. In fact, two-thirds approve of the job he's doing as President.

So the seven-month delay worked, didn't it?

Yes, Clinton won. And he'll rue the day he did. There has never been a more Pyrrhic victory. By going by the polls in January and deciding to lie and wait for the winds to change, he saved his presidency. He also brought upon himself the kind of disgrace and ridicule never before seen in American presidential history.

Yes, he is still in possession of the office he so coveted. But the office is hollow. Even his friend Reich says, "Mr. Clinton has no presidency to defend." Indeed, the longer he clings to it, the longer the revelations will continue and the more degraded his reputation will become.

Imagine how much better off Clinton would have been had he resigned in January with the truth. He might have been credited with a sense of honor. He might have been credited with genuine contrition. He would certainly have drawn enormous sympathy from people who thought he had been overpunished for a fairly minor offense.

And now? Having put the country through seven months of surreality, having forced Starr to produce the report he did--a report that would never have appeared had Clinton simply come clean at the start--Clinton has secured his place in history. Is there any question what document will define Clinton's legacy?

John Kennedy will always be remembered for his Inaugural Address. Jimmy Carter produced the Panama Canal treaties and Camp David. Even Nixon, forever stained by his articles of impeachment, left behind the Shanghai Communique.

But Clinton? What will people read of his presidency? The Starr report. And what film-frozen rhetorical moment will they see endlessly replayed until the end of time but "I did not have sexual relations with that woman..."? For the boy who dreamed of growing up to become J.F.K., what a very long way from "Ask not what your country can do for you..."


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Cover Date: September 28, 1998

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