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Impeachment: Battle Won, War Lost

His detractors are simply jealous of Clinton's ability to govern.

December 22, 1998|ROBERT SCHEER | Robert Scheer is a Times contributing editor. E-mail:

Who would have thought that the sex lives of conservative Congress members could make such fascinating reading? Or is Hustler magazine's impending expose of Republican raunchiness just another sign of the low state of what passes for erotic literature in this country in the aftermath of the Starr report?

To be more charitable, we could take the emerging evidence of widespread right-wing adultery as a reassuring sign that the zealots who control the House are human after all. Call me an enabler, but I find Henry Hyde-the-philanderer almost cuddly compared to his previous incarnation as the Cotton Mather wannabe who made a career out of equating abortion with murder.

Also, Bob Livingston, Dan Burton and Helen Chenoweth just seem somehow less frighteningly robotic given their acknowledged infidelities than in the days when they sermonized with impunity that only '60s liberals ever surrender to the temptations of the flesh.

Still, I wouldn't go so far in my enthusiasm for the confessionals of these born-again sinners as House conservatives, who gave Speaker-of-the-Week Livingston a standing ovation. His is an honesty exposed only by the intervention of that great upholder of moral standards, Larry Flynt.

Of course there is nothing unexpected about the false sanctimony of those who would pin the scarlet A on others. Sexual hypocrisy is as American as apple pie. As Australians like to point out, they were lucky; they got the convicts and we got the Puritans. Indeed, the founding fathers, often a quite randy bunch despite nobler intentions, enshrined notions of personal liberty into the Constitution precisely because they knew all too well the lash of the self-righteous.

If there is one principle deeply enshrined in our inherited notion of freedom, it's that the personal behavior of consenting adults should not be made political. Work it out with your spouse or counselor, but don't involve the power of the state. But of course, apologists for the House Republicans will leap to the defense of their impeachment vote by insisting that sex had nothing to do with it.

Liar, liar pants on fire, as any 8-year-old could point out. I feel for school teachers who will have to explain why a president's failure to volunteer the information that his hand may have strayed to his paramour's breast--the substantive issue in the perjury charge--caused William Jefferson Clinton to be only the second president impeached in the entire history of this nation.

Even those kids will know instinctively that the president was set up. The sex police moved in when the Whitewater, travel office, Vince Foster murder conspiracy and myriad other even loonier allegations against the president didn't pan out. The trial of the president is only about sex because they couldn't come up with anything more germane to the claim of a serious abuse of power.

This bizarrely skewed contretemps will be taught by teachers, in saner times, as an object lesson in the persistent threat to the separation of powers that periodically engulfs this nation when a lust for vengeance holds sway--a time when mean-spirited opportunists sought to seize power for narrow partisan gain.

Opportunists, yes, because it is difficult to take the president's congressional enemies as true believers. They cannot conceivably believe that Clinton's continuance in office for two more years poses any threat to the orderly functioning of this society. Surely they know that it is rather the trial in the Senate, which they have ordained, that will wreak havoc with governance. Why then this virulent animus toward the president?

The answer is as odious as it is obvious: These are the pettiest of scoundrels willing--nay eager--to sacrifice the well-being of the nation in a rage of revenge. These are schoolyard bullies who were bested in a playground battle.

Clinton is hated by them for the same reason that he has the overwhelming support of the American public: He knows how to govern. Whatever his failings as a husband, he is, in the execution of his official duties, a supremely capable and moderate leader whose very competence maddens his critics.

Despite the stain of impeachment, Clinton's presidency will be highly regarded by future historians for one compelling reason: He stopped the Gingrich revolution in its tracks. The right-wing's victory in the impeachment vote will come to be viewed as its death knell--a dangerous overreaching for power that deeply alarmed the American public.

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