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Finally, the Telltale Lie

By Charles Krauthammer

TIME magazine

(TIME, August 31) -- On Monday night before a rapt national audience, Bill Clinton's first-ever public admission of having lied began with--a new lie. "My answers were legally accurate..." he said of his Paula Jones testimony.

False. Even if you grant that his denial of "sexual relations" with Monica Lewinsky was "legally accurate" under Clinton's baroque interpretation of the word sex, his statement in that same deposition that he did not recall ever being alone with her is flat-out false. Seven months later, he recalled very well the "inappropriate relationship." How do you square that circle? Claim that the improprieties occurred in the presence of others?

The most poignant of all confrontations with truth is confession. Yet in his nationally televised confrontation with truth, Clinton revealed a notion of truth as endlessly self-reflecting as a fun-house mirror. It has the vertiginous feel of Epimenides' paradox, which (in one version) reads, "All Cretans are liars. I am a Cretan. Therefore I am a liar." (But, of course, if I am a liar, I'm lying about being a liar, and thus I'm not.) The lies-feeding-lies circularity is deeply disturbing. You feel you can never climb out of the box.

Clinton does not seem to mind. Scarier still, he does not seem to notice. He seems to really believe that his tortured legalisms, his artful dodges, his facile wordplay, his resort to idiosyncratic definitions that recall nothing so much as the "private language" of some autistic children, constitute an authentic escape from falsehood. It makes you wonder whether what appears to be Clinton's cynicism is instead a cognitive deficit, that he has by now and by habit lost all recognition of the difference between truth and lies.

Truth has a purity. Truth is absolute. Even "your truth," as the relativists would have it, has a rock-hard core: it is what you actually remember having happened.

When, however, words and memory are entirely instrumental, as they are for Clinton, truth is defined not epistemologically but politically. Days before going before the Starr grand jury, the White House was reportedly polling and floating trial balloons in the papers to determine what confession would fly. The truth is not what happened. It is what sells. And because Clinton is so good at selling, he has never needed truth as it is conventionally understood.

When the Lewinsky eruption occurred in January, Clinton had three choices. He could say, "I did it. I'm sorry." He could say, "None of your damn business." Or he could say, "I never had sexual relations with that woman."

His choice was preordained. After all, the lie in all its variations--the half-truth, the legalism, the critical omission, the elastic wordplay--is what he knows. Acrobatics--"I didn't inhale," the Flowers denial, the draft--are what brung him to the dance.

Assume that Ken Starr had not amassed a mountain of conflicting testimony and circumstantial evidence, up to and including the famous dress. Assume that the Lewinsky question, like the Jones and Flowers and Kathleen Willey questions, remained an issue of he-said she-said. Does anyone doubt that Clinton would still today be sticking to his original story?

In the end, the lie that caught him happened to be about sex. What a pity. Because what distinguished this lie was not its substance but the venue: a court of law. Yes, the underlying story is salacious, titillating and, in an appalling way, amazing. Which is what made it such a public sensation. But even sensations fade away. This one did not. Why?

Because the law takes a moving target--and there has never been a moving target quite like Clinton--and fixes it. This lie was frozen in a deposition. Frozen for examination. Frozen for accounting.

That does not happen very often in a frantic media age where tales of every conceivable variety and shade of veracity course constantly through the national consciousness. Because television is a medium designed for leaving impressions, not memories, the television age is one in which facts and words and truth are maddeningly elusive, in which national memories are extraordinarily shallow. Yet there remains one stubborn barrier to total amnesia. The law: ancient, ponderous, interminable, immovable. But fixedly real.

The fatal lie for Clinton is not the one endlessly repeated on videotape of the finger-wagging "that woman" television denial. After all, we've seen the endlessly repeated videotape of the Flowers denial on 60 Minutes. Yet Flowers faded, as does everything on television. Lewinsky would have too.

The fatal lie for Clinton was the one heard only by a handful of people in a Washington law office on a Saturday in January, and viewed later on tape by a few jurors in an Arkansas courtroom. It is to be found deep in the transcript of a long deposition in an even longer case, indeed a case that was later dismissed. But once that lie was made, the law forced an accounting.

"Except on really important occasions," writes Graham Greene of one of his spies, "he always preferred the truth. The truth can be double-checked." It has been Clinton's good fortune that politics is not very good at double-checking. The law, however, is.

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: August 31, 1998

"I Misled People"
Leading By Leaving
Blowing His Stack
Justice Should Come Before Closure
The View From Congress
Lies, Tight Spots
How We Really Feel About Fidelity
Is This What We Expect?
Can We Get On to Something Serious?
Finally, the Telltale Lie
That's Where He Lost Me
The Notebook: Clinton Loses Touch
Lies My Presidents Told Me
President Gantry Addresses The Flock


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