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The Starr Report

It's Politic's, Stupid

The president must campaign on the nation's agenda, not himself. If he can keep the American people focused on the 'public'--not the 'private'--he ma weather the storm.

September 13, 1998|William Schneider | William Schneider, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a political analyst for CNN

WASHINGTON — First things first. This is a political crisis. It is not a constitutional crisis. Everything that's happening is explicitly provided for in the Constitution, step by step. Which is why even harsh partisans like House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) have assumed a certain magisterial demeanor. "I would have to say to any member who believes this is a time for partisan antics, Pity for you," Armey said on Wednesday.

The stakes are rising fast. President Bill Clinton made a particularly contrite and emotional confession at a prayer breakfast on Friday. "I was not contrite enough," he confessed. "I don't think there is a fancy way to say that I have sinned."

At the same time, the president held fast to the distinction between private behavior and public performance that has sustained him for the last eight months. On public performance: He expressed gratitude for the support of those Americans "who somehow, through it all, seem to still know that I care about them a great deal, that I care about their problems and their dreams." On private behavior: He expressed gratitude to those "who say that, in this case and many others, the bounds of privacy have been excessively and unwisely invaded."

Indeed, at a meeting with his full Cabinet the day before, the president lashed out at Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala for daring to challenge that distinction. Shalala is reported to have rejected Clinton's implication that policies and programs were more important than moral leadership. The president replied that the public character matters, too, and that if her logic had prevailed, Richard M. Nixon would have been elected in 1960 instead of John F. Kennedy. Kennedy is Clinton's lifelong model as president--in many ways, as we now know.

For the president to survive, the distinction between public performance and private behavior has to hold. It's under severe challenge right now, within his own Cabinet and from some of his oldest allies like Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.). Lieberman said on the Senate floor on Sept. 3, "No matter how much the president or others may wish to compartmentalize the different spheres of his life, the inescapable truth is that the president's private conduct can and often does have profound public consequences." Like, Lieberman said, exposing the president as a hypocrite when he talks about values, and undermining people's ability to trust his word.

The president's contrition on Friday was matched by the details in the Starr report. Stories about particularly gross behavior by the president--lurid tales of fondling, oral sex, phone sex and cigars. Stories that will hold the president up to ridicule forever.

Plus stories about particularly flagrant evasions and deceptions by the White House. Like the president's inability to remember, under oath, whether he had ever been alone with Monica S. Lewinsky--after what he now acknowledges were a half-dozen "inappropriate" encounters. (She claims 10.) Like the president's defiant insistence that his "inappropriate intimate contact" with Lewinsky did not amount to "sexual relations." To which the entire world will say, "Oh, please."

What can we expect now? Anger, for one thing. The same kind of anger that greeted the president's confession on Aug. 17. People were not surprised to hear the president say he lied. Polls show they suspected it all along. His confession made people angry because he had forced the country to go through a wrenching seven-month ordeal--more than 80 witnesses subpoenaed, constitutional showdowns over Secret Service testimony and attorney-client privilege, millions of dollars spent. All because he didn't tell the truth in January.

Now people are being forced to pay attention to mortifying news reports about genitalia and oral sex. The White House claims Starr is trying to humiliate the president. But Starr claims he has to refute the president's argument--made as recently as Aug. 17--that his testimony denying a sexual relationship was "legally accurate." Once again, the response is likely to be anger at the president for forcing the country to endure such a tawdry spectacle.

Clinton will survive only if the distinction between private behavior and public performance holds. Because impeachment, in the end, is a political process, not a legal one. The Constitution says a president can be impeached by the House of Representatives for "treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors." What are "high crimes and misdemeanors"? Then-Rep. Gerald R. Ford said, back in 1970, "An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history."

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