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Where is the Political Statute of Limitations? : Clinton: Scandals cling to the campaign of the former front-runner. Now his position on Vietnam has come back to haunt him.

February 16, 1992|Suzanne Garment | Suzanne Garment, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of "Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics" (Times Books)

WASHINGTON — Can you believe it? The scandal machine has done it again! As the 1992 presidential season began, leading journalists seemed determined to avoid a rerun of the sensationalist press coverage that marked the 1988 campaign. No, sir, this time we were not going to let the political process be hijacked by scandal politics. Yet today the process is so far gone that it's asking for landing rights in Havana, and we are once again pursuing the wrong questions in the wrong way.

How did the scandal mess surrounding Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton develop in spite of the fact that so few people wanted it? In the typical post-Watergate way. Here are the elements.

A relatively unknown candidate. Back in Clinton's home state, rumors about his alleged womanizing circulated for some time, and critics call him "Slick Willie" for what they say is his habit of playing the old bait-and-switch game when it came time to make tough decisions. But on the national stage, all this was news.

Incorrigible and seemingly helpless scandal-hunting in the press. The mistrust coursing through U.S. politics since the mid-1960s has persuaded news organizations that "real" political stories lie not in what candidates say for public consumption but in their secrets and gossip. So in January, when the Star began printing Gennifer Flowers' claim that she had had an affair with Clinton, other news organizations had forgotten the very words to insist that the subject was not news--even if politicos and the tabloids were abuzz. Many journalists felt distaste for the controversy, but distaste is not argument and is no match for modern journalism's competitive pressures.

A failed attempt at damage control. In trying to squelch his scandal by appearing on "60 Minutes," Clinton did a pretty good job. But instead of meeting Flowers' attack at his outer wall--with "None of your business"--he flatly denied her allegations and called her a "friendly acquaintance." These are the sort of assertions that can be checked. They were thus an invitation to further chewing on the topic by journalists, who explained their concern was now with Clinton's credibility.

Metastasis. The mark of a sturdy scandal is its ability to sprout secondary charges, and the Clinton sex scandal succeeded by spawning the even more resonant Clinton draft scandal. In the Vietnam years, Clinton, instead of being drafted, had signed up for an ROTC program in Arkansas. This issue and been brought up and shot down earlier in Clinton's career. But now a news story announced that Arkansas officials thought Clinton had mislead them and manipulated the system specifically to stay clear of the draft.

The classic scandal-response dance repeated itself last week. The Clinton campaign pointed out that the candidate later renounced his deferment; the scandal beast responded with news stories saying that, by the time Clinton gave up the deferment, he was in little real danger of being drafted. And there surfaced a letter that Clinton had written in 1969, putting forth deep anti-war, anti-military and anti-draft views and saying he had finally decided to "accept the draft" so as not to jeopardize his future in politics.

The Clinton campaign was now thoroughly, if temporarily, swamped.

There are those who say the scandals have told us things we need to know. The Clinton on "60 Minutes" is not the Clinton said to be talking to Flowers in the phone conversations she thoughtfully tape recorded. The Clinton standing to the right of his fellow 1992 Democratic candidates on foreign affairs is not the Clinton in the 1969 letter. Aren't we seeing what Clinton's Arkansas critics warned about?

Maybe not. As for the alleged adultery, the simple fact is that some private sexual behavior tells us significant things about a public figure and some does not. But unless we are talking about sins like violence or compulsive behavior, what we learn from these scandals is not worth the damage they do by distracting us from other issues and making politics so dangerous that citizens will want nothing to do with running for public office.

As for the draft scandal, it reveals not a distinctive character flaw in Clinton but attitudes shared by his entire late-'60s cohort. Commentators have already started explaining that, yes, evading the draft now seems unpatriotic or at least immature, but back in the '60s it was not a bad thing, and besides, Clinton's positions were shared by his entire "generation." At least Clinton, say some of these writers, avoided the draft out of principle--unlike Dan Quayle, who favored the war but tried to keep out of it anyway.

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