If and when Monica Lewinsky's navy blue cocktail dress is marked "Exhibit A" for congressional impeachment hearings, the president and his loyalists will face a difficult decision they may be contemplating already: whether to go nuclear against Republicans by exposing their alleged sexual indiscretions. Almost inevitably, the inquiry into President Clinton's private life has given that question both strategic salience and moral urgency. In an atmosphere of sermonizing hypocrisy on Capitol Hill, the temptation to inflict the same kind of agony and embarrassment visited on the first family over the past several years may become irresistible.
Let's hope it doesn't. The ultimate test of Clinton's character -- a favorite subject of his enemies -- may be his ability to forswear the kind of nastiness they have deployed against him. To respond in kind would do further harm to the nation without helping him.
Yet the turn Kenneth Starr's investigation has taken in recent days could result in an ugly, scorched-earth finale to the scandal. By the time the independent counsel completes his inquisition, there may not be much left of his case but bawdy girl talk and bodily fluids. The evidence of any conspiracy by the president and his associates to obstruct justice is weak or nonexistent, according to the latest gusher of leaks (none of them from the independent counsel's office, of course). Uncovering such a scheme was Starr's justification when he began to pursue the Lewinsky matter in January. In the days since the former intern began to talk in exchange for immunity, however, the supposed plot's "smoking guns" have started to look like a lot of smoke and no gun. Clinton's two closest advisors, Washington power broker Vernon Jordan and Deputy White House Counsel Bruce Lindsey, are apparently clear of accusations that they helped to silence Lewinsky with job offers and "talking points."
With Jordan and Lindsey removed as co-conspirators, Starr may well be deprived of any serious accusation against Clinton -- except that he dallied with Lewinsky and then lied. For congressional Republicans, that is a frightening prospect. Sensible Republicans have always been nervous about holding public hearings on the president's alleged indiscretions, but Starr's final report on the Lewinsky matter might leave them with little choice. At this point, they are hoping simply to put off the inevitable until after the November elections.
Someday soon, however, congressional leaders will have to address the Lewinsky matter, and when they do, the White House -- or its allies -- may be provoked to retribution. There is never a shortage of rumor and innuendo about the personal conduct of politicians in both parties, starting with the twice-married Speaker Newt Gingrich. Threats of exposure are brandished regularly in Washington, usually sotto voce, but occasionally at full volume. Just ask Rep. Barney Frank, the openly gay Democrat from Massachusetts, and one of the few members of Congress willing to discuss such sensitive topics on the record. He is also one of Clinton's most enthusiastic defenders and happens to be the brother of White House Communications Director Ann Lewis.
Several years ago, someone started whispering that then-newly elected House Speaker Tom Foley, a married Democrat, was in fact a closet homosexual. The whispers seemed to emanate from Gingrich's office and from the Republican National Committee, which put out a memo noting that Foley and Frank had similar voting records. It was headlined "Tom Foley: Out of the Liberal Closet."
In response, "I threatened to out six people on the Republican side," recalled Frank with a chortle. Although he now admits he didn't have anyone specific in mind, the insinuations about Foley were never heard again. There must have been a few members who thought Frank was talking about them.
Frank believes most Republicans will be reluctant to go after Clinton's alleged peccadilloes. "I had one Republican member tell me, 'I'm a divorce lawyer. I've been telling people to lie about their sex lives all my life. How can I go after Clinton about this?' They are conscious of the risks here. So they'll keep saying this is not about sex." And so far, he added, "I've seen no evidence of the White House going after individual members. There hasn't been a single leak. If they were going to do this, the time would have been long ago."
In any event, Frank believes that talking about Republican peccadilloes would be a mistake, even if an impeachment process begins. "It would be unwise," he warned. "They [the White House] can win the fight without it, and it looks nasty; it looks as if you have no defense. It becomes a mutual suicide."
The purpose of attacking the other side with its own sins is to disable as many opponents as possible, and it does work. Remember the smutty Clarence Thomas hearings, when Sen. Ted Kennedy had to keep his mouth shut in fear that someone would reply, "Chappaquiddick"? No doubt there are many in Congress who, though not burdened with Kennedy's history, could be made to feel vulnerable. The problem is that even a subtle threat can quickly escalate into full-scale tabloid warfare. A frenzied press is like a short fuse.
Certainly the president and his friends will feel an urge to strike back sometime in the months to come, just as they surely have in the months past. Among Clinton's pious tormentors are more than a few frauds who richly deserve exposure. But the rewards of revenge will carry too high a price. The American people despise this politics of pornography. At this moment of ultimate peril to his presidency, Clinton cannot afford to risk losing their enduring approval.