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Commentary | CALIFORNIA PROSPECT / Tom Plate

Asia Watches Our Scandal With Horror

A strong U.S. president is essential for dealing with foreign crises, and Gore isn't an option.

January 27, 1998|Tom Plate | Times columnist Tom Plate is also a UCLA professor who teaches governmental and media ethics. E-mail: tplate@ucla.edu

Bill Clinton is a president of considerable intellect and powers of concentration who, when focused, is capable of compelling analysis and constructive action. But now, knowing as we all do the way U.S. legal and media systems grind on with their own flesh-eating relentlessness, the Clinton administration's ability to work the international scene with vigor and purpose will evaporate. I am particularly worried about the Asian crisis. Should this systemic financial and monetary decline fester into world recession, a virtual inevitability if the crisis is not carefully attended to with all available firepower, including the involvement of the U.S. president, America will have paid a high price for its obsession with the president's character flaws.

Properly and respectfully occupied, the presidency is a gem of an institution. But now it faces further decline as the second resignation of a sitting U.S. president in 25 years looms as a possibility. As this country moves from an imperial presidency to a soap-opera one, however, Americans aren't the only losers. A crippled presidency is a loss for the rest of the world as well.

Does the international community care about the skirt-chasing tales of Intern-gate? It does because U.S. leadership is essential on a wide range of fronts. Besides the Asia problem, a strong Washington is needed for the Middle East peace process, to keep erratic Iraq in line and to maintain the momentum toward free world trade, to mention only the obvious. Concern about what is now happening in the U.S. undoubtedly is especially acute in Asia. As the economic crisis pulsates through the region, the American profile there will be difficult to sustain as the Clinton presidency comes to be viewed as an international laughingstock. Indeed, some Asians would now be laughing at the president's alleged behavior, if not at American puritanism, except that the issues are so serious and the prospect of a breakdown of the world monetary system so grim.

Only a rapid resolution of this unhappy affair can stanch the hemorrhaging. That seems unlikely. Not only will Congress laugh at the administration if it tries to propose fast-track legislation again, it may laugh all the way through the fall congressional elections if Clinton asks for approval of further U.S. contributions to the International Monetary Fund for Asia. Both policies had been in serious trouble before; now they are all but dead. This off-track president will certainly not get fast-track this year.

The pressure of events may even propel the incumbent to resign, ushering Al Gore into the Oval Office. The possibility fills me with dread. Besides his alleged involvement in improper campaign fund-raising, the wooden Gore strikes me as George Bush without the chipper personality and lifelong commitment to international affairs. Gore's record scarcely conjures up the force of a man able to resist labor unions that want to keep out foreign goods and avoid international trade deals. A strong foreign policy presence is impossible without a strong presence in the Oval Office, especially when the administration is without a dominant secretary of state. With Gore, anything other than the shrinking of the U.S. role on the world stage is difficult to envision.

I therefore root for William Jefferson Clinton to be found wholly blameless of the sordid allegations against him. As much as I have criticized Clinton, I have no appetite to condemn him, especially as the destruction of a particular president can undermine the authority of the office of the presidency itself. I hope and pray there's more smoke than constitutional or criminal fire to the charges. To be sure, no matter how stupid or trivial the offense, there is no condoning perjury, if that proves to be the appropriate term to describe the understandable human effort to hide an embarrassing personal truth from the world.

Remember: This is not Watergate, which at its ugly heart was a comprehensive and vile effort to subvert law enforcement agencies and convert them into political arms of the White House. This scandal is far more personal and pathetic--about a man who somehow never managed to fully grow up. But as the Asian crisis rolls on, destroying economies and export markets, eating national currencies and unnerving international economic stability, more and more Americans might wonder if the price of knowing as much as we do about Interngate has been worth paying, and if the questions we ask about our presidents are the ones that most directly impact on our own fortunes and destinies.

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