He should go

President Clinton cares more about his personal gratification than his office.

Published July 30, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Dear Mr. Ross,

I write to you as a concerned citizen and reader. I have included an article you wrote on Jan. 27, 1998. I am wondering what your position is now as it pertains to our president.

-- a Salon reader

What I wrote almost seven months ago was that if President Clinton had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, lied about it and led others, inadvertently, to lie on his behalf, then he should resign. Now that we know he is guilty on all three counts, I believe he must go.

In his short address to the nation Monday night, Clinton put much of the blame for the situation on the office of the independent counsel. He is quite right in this. Kenneth Starr's pursuit of the president has taken on increasingly Stalinist overtones, unconstrained by any sense of proportionality, decency, relevance or traditional limits of the law. Not only has Starr's investigation long been "out of control," in Clinton's words, it has become a criminal enterprise in its own right. It is increasingly clear that Starr's office has illegally leaked grand jury testimony, suborned perjury and procured tainted testimony. It has molded a corrupt cast of characters into star prosecution witnesses, while browbeating innocent people into bankruptcies and nervous breakdowns. Knowing that his original mandate -- to investigate Whitewater -- had crumbled into dust, Starr desperately clutched onto the utterly bogus Paula Jones lawsuit to keep his sinking enterprise afloat. The "perjury trap," about which we have heard so much lately, was hatched then, in an unholy, and quite possibly illegal, alliance, between Starr and Jones' right-wing lawyers. This alliance of fundamentally undemocratic forces presents a far greater threat to the health and integrity of the republic than the president's pathetic moral lapses.

But that does not excuse Clinton's moral lapses. It is these -- and not the hair-splitting legal debates over whether the president committed perjury in a deposition ruled immaterial in a lawsuit without merit -- that fundamentally matter. It is about sex, and while the president -- and, judging by the polls, the vast majority of the American people -- consider this a "private matter," the affair was conducted on public property, by a public official, with a taxpayer-funded intern young enough to be his daughter, behind a curtain so thin that it resembled a seedy burlesque show. Republicans like Sen. Orrin Hatch are quite right that there is something sickening about a middle-aged man having a 21-year-old furtively service him next to the Oval Office, no matter how willing, or even initiating, Lewinsky may have been. He is, after all, the president of the United States, for God's sake, whereas she was barely a legal adult.

And while Clinton insisted last night that he and his family now be allowed some privacy in which to mend the wounds, it is his own actions -- whether driven by arrogance, "sex addiction," or a strange impulse toward self-destruction -- that have exposed his wife and his daughter to public shame and humiliation. It is bad enough that he lied to his political associates, and had them lie on his behalf, all the while keeping mum about the truth while their legal bills mounted up -- still, they're professional pols, they knew on some level the risk they were taking. But what about his own daughter? And what about his wife, a proud, strong woman, the president's most consistent and effective defender, made a fool of, reduced to an object of pity?

The practical reasons Clinton should leave the stage have been well-stated: A crippled president, hobbling pathetically through the rest of his term, trousers fastened firmly at his knees, is a joyful scenario indeed for Benjamin Netanyahu and Saddam Hussein. All that "important work" the president referred to Monday night, urging us to "move on," has about as much chance of getting done as the Democrats have of retaking Congress in November. For a politically brilliant man who was only too well aware of the vicious enemies he had, and of the sex-scandal eruptions he had narrowly escaped in the past, for such a man to have committed his brazen and repeated offenses in the White House surely renders him unfit for the highest office in the land.

Of course, all this is academic. Clinton will not resign. He will not be driven from office. The media will continue with its ongoing epileptic seizure, combining moral frenzy with drooling sensationalism. And Ken Starr will play out his role as KGB commissar, a man aflame with ideology instead of justice or national duty. The American public regards both men with ever-growing loathing and contempt for what they have dragged the country through.

Clinton should not be impeached. In the end, this sordid matter is not about perjury or matters of state. He has committed no known high crime or misdemeanor. But he has committed a low moral act that has brought disgrace to his office and humiliation in a very public manner to his wife and daughter. And no matter how he much he pleads the matter is private, his betrayals have lessened us all.

By Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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