The Clinton in us all
Those who hate him seem to bear more than a passing resemblance to him
By Margaret Carlson
December 21, 1998
My favorite commandments are the easy ones. I don't covet anyone's spouse; I don't want to kill anybody. A day of rest? No problem. But I'm in a constant struggle with the commandment Republicans have chosen as the one needing the full force of government sanction: Thou shalt not lie. I know honesty is the best policy, but I've been known to try the second-best policy when I have to justify the fact that the Christmas tree isn't up or that I haven't watched every minute of the historic debate TIME magazine pays me to cover.
But that's me. Republicans apparently never, ever tell a lie. Moreover, they don't count the other sins as sins unless compounded with a lie. Mother Marita Joseph didn't see it that way. Who would have thought the family-values party would be saying, in the interest of distinguishing Clinton's behavior from its own, "It's not the adultery, stupid; it's the lying." When it seemed last Thursday that the world couldn't spin any further out of control--bombs falling in eerie green light, members of Congress starring in a morality play without the morality--here was Speaker-elect (although not for long) Bob Livingston announcing that because he wasn't "running for saint," his occasional affairs shouldn't be held against him. He called what he did "straying," said he had "sought spiritual counseling," and "received forgiveness" from his family. Sound familiar? Lest this remind anyone of you-know-who, he asserted, "These indiscretions were not with employees on my staff, and I have never been asked to testify under oath about them."
Not quite an instant classic in a league with "It depends on what your definition of is is," but it had promise as hairsplitting of a high order. For one thing, no one had charged that Monica Lewinsky was hit upon against her will, as Livingston implied. And the Livingston rationale ignored his good fortune in having Larry Flynt, not Ken Starr, with his subpoenas and a grand jury, pursuing him. Thus Livingston could cling to the claim that in a sting operation run by a desperate prosecutor, he was the kind of guy who would have come clean. But the ultimate parsing in Livingston's comments was contained in his description of who it is he had slept with. He hadn't strayed with an employee, he said, skipping over the issue of whether his indiscretions might have caused a different set of problems. That discussion might have required too much parsing even for this Republican. And so he quit.
In any case, this is the kind of legalism we hate Clinton for, and it misses what matters. The worst part of cheating on your spouse is what it does to your marriage, not what it does to your oath taking. To take such an important aspect of yourself and give it to someone else is to live the biggest lie imaginable, whether or not it's repeated in court. Lately there's been a terrible tendency to dismiss adultery lightly if no official lying is involved. Henry Hyde describes a long affair with a married mother of three as a youthful indiscretion (he was 41); Dan Burton says his affair with a state employee and the secret child it produced is O.K. because he pays child support; Helen Chenoweth excuses her affair with a married man who was a business associate because she wasn't married and it took place before she was elected. What message does that send the children?
And the rule for Republicans seems to be that lying under oath about things other than adultery is not actionable. Hyde explained this standard best when excusing lies in the Iran-contra affair. It did not make sense, he said, to "label every untruth and every deception an outrage...in the murkier grayness of the real world, choices must often be made." Ronald Reagan could remember very little about his efforts to arm the contras, but when confronted with facts indicating that he'd been told about it, he insisted his "heart and [his] best intentions" proved otherwise. After Ollie North bragged about his own lying and got off on a legal technicality, the G.O.P. wanted him to be the Senator from Virginia.
We all have a little Clinton in us, and like it or not, that's one of the reasons he remains so popular. At the same time--and it's part of the same truth--those who hate Clinton the most seem to have more than the average share of him inside them, which may be one reason that spittle forms at the corners of Representative Bob Barr's mouth when he talks about the President. Hear his Clintonian combination of self-pity and feigned ignorance after he was called a racist for addressing the Council of Conservative Citizens, a group that proudly calls itself white supremacist. "It is a sad day in our country when a member of Congress cannot speak without...an exhaustive investigation to determine if one of their members has ever written an offensive or ridiculous column."
Clinton isn't above the law, but he should be above doing what he did. Livingston's resignation and the impeachment of Clinton teach children exactly the wrong lesson: that other people's deepest secrets can be plundered for political gain. Clinton is weak, not evil. He violated the Commandments, not the Constitution, and should be solemnly censured for it. In this season of Christmas, perhaps some Wise Men will appear in the Senate. One will do. If he comes, he could be next year's Man of the Year.
MORE TIME STORIES:
Cover Date: December 28, 1998
The story of the year
The Clinton in us all
The better half
How Starr sees it
The Starr report
The outrage that wasn't
Where the Right went wrong
On to the Senate
The rest of Monica
The friend from Hell
The indiscreet charm of Lucianne
The Speaker who never was