Men of the year
There is rubble everywhere around us now. The fate of a President moved from the hands of a flushed girl on a rope line to the halls of a howling Congress in battle fatigues. Civility, long rationed, ran out first. Politicians no longer express opposition: they are expressing hatred. No action, however solemn, is judged on its merits; everyone's got an angle. Even if the fighting ends tomorrow, it will be years before the wreckage is cleared.
By Nancy Gibbs
December 21, 1998
We treat our values, like our children, not equally but uniquely, and we don't like having to choose which one we would sacrifice to save another. Which matters more, honesty or privacy? Justice or mercy? The President or the presidency? What punishment is reserved for leaders who would force such choices in the first place?
Bill Clinton did something ordinary: he had an affair and lied about it. Ken Starr did something extraordinary: he took the President's low-life behavior and called it a high crime. Clinton argued that privacy is so sacred that it included a right to lie so long as he did it very, very carefully. Starr argued that justice is so blind that once he saw a crime being committed, he had no choice but to pursue the bad guy through the Oval Office, down the hall to the private study, whatever the damage, no matter the cost. One man's loss of control inspired the other's, and we are no better for anything either of them did.
For rewriting the book on crime and punishment, for putting prices on values we didn't want to rank, for fighting past all reason a battle whose casualties will be counted for years to come, Bill Clinton and Kenneth Starr are TIME's 1998 Men of the Year.
Who has survived this odyssey without losing some part of himself? A public majority that listed declining morality as a top concern found itself defending a President who most of them believed had committed a crime. Republican lawmakers voted along party lines, over public protest, to impeach a popular President from the opposing party and in the process dissolved their authority in acid on the House floor. The press corps that viewed itself as the public's conscience became the object of its scorn. Hillary Clinton, who for years had been vilified for leveraging the power of her marriage, was extolled for having handled with grace its public ruin and so finds herself loved for reasons she hates. Ken Starr, who was once viewed as too moderate to beat Oliver North in a Senate race, was recast as a zealot who twisted the law into a vendetta; he finds himself hated for reasons he can't understand.
Even the Justices of the Supreme Court were rendered unanimously ridiculous by this whole scandal, having blithely ruled that a sitting President could be made to stand trial in a civil suit without its impeding the conduct of his office. Now the favor has been returned, and soon the Chief Justice will have to clear his schedule in order to preside over the impeachment trial that the civil suit was never supposed to lead to.
Alone among the players, the one who remained unchanged and unchanging was Bill Clinton. Many people had long ago concluded that he was a rogue and a cheat and impervious to pain; this year he was himself, only more so. Even people who revile his reflexes acknowledge his charm. Ken Starr marvels at how attractive the President is, like a hunter who wants to pet the lion before he shoots it.
The very first thing a new President does is put his hand on a Bible and promise to do what no other citizen can: defend the Constitution and the country--to the point of sending soldiers to die for them. He had better be better than the rest of us.
Bill Clinton took the oath, but exaltation is not his style. He has polled us and tested us and talked to us until he's hoarse and spent, and we know so much about him, right down to his choice of underwear, that he made it hard for us to hold him to a higher standard. So instead his allies defended what was worst in him by appealing to what is best in us. How could we not be generous and forgive him? Has he done anything that many of us have not done ourselves? Are these not private matters? Any gentleman would, of course, lie about his mistress. Judge not... He's one of us.
Ken Starr, while aware of Clinton's charm, held a different view of his conduct. Though he would never quite say so, he came to see the President as the elusive head of a vast criminal enterprise, who over the past four years of investigation would admit nothing, hold back evidence, block inquiry--all the while professing to cooperate in public while destroying his adversary's reputation in private. To the righteous defenders of law and order, Clinton's not one of us. He's one of them.
That conviction may explain but not excuse the choices Starr made. By pressing his case, he forced us to define morality down. We don't approve of adultery. We abhor perjury. But we also don't like political plots and traps that treat the law as an extension of politics by other means, that leave us wondering whether we damage the Constitution more by making the President pay or by letting him go.
We rely on prosecutors to exercise discretion. A novice at the job, Starr saw no virtue in restraint, without realizing how his zeal in pursuit of the President would alarm the jury that was called to judge them both. If nothing else, his legacy is plain: he will probably destroy the institution that created him. The independent-counsel statute, born of an impeachment drama 24 years ago, is likely to die in the throes of this one. We may well, as a result of his efforts, conclude that the government can't be trusted to investigate those in the government who can't be trusted.
Starr handed his sword to the lawmakers in Congress, where the Republicans' superior numbers protected them from having to offer superior arguments. Like Starr, they think that it is long past time for Clinton to be held accountable for his actions; like the voters, they have strong personal feelings about the President. Unfortunately for Clinton, the feelings on Capitol Hill can be poisonous. In a country where everyone assumes that all politicians lie, politicians themselves regard a certain kind of lying as a special kind of sin. A President who breaks his word makes it impossible to do business when the doors are closed and the hands are played and the hard trading begins. Time and again, Bill Clinton made solemn, cross-his-heart promises, about taxes he would support and concessions he would make and difficult positions he would defend, and once they let him have his way he stepped out and all but said, "Suckers!" and pushed them off the ledge.
So most of them had no appetite for mercy in this season. They feared that if their punishment stopped at censure, he would claim vindication, light a cigar and lose not a moment's sleep. When in the final days the last undecided Republicans said, privately and publicly, just admit that you lied and we'll let you go free, Clinton would not run the risk of believing them. The terrain is laid with traps; assassination is a sport; trust turned to chalk long ago.
When the bombs began to fall, the questions immediately arose: Was Clinton doing this to stop Saddam, or was he doing it to save himself? The very charge became evidence against him. A man who cannot be trusted to do the right thing is not trusted even when he does.
This, then, is the legacy of a year that cannot end too soon. A faithless President and a fervent prosecutor, in a mortal embrace, lacking discretion, playing for keeps, both self-righteous, both condemned, Men 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