Grace under pressure

With his back to the wall, President Clinton finds his voice and passes the character test.

Published September 23, 1998 3:55PM (EDT)

"All people look better under arrest," John Waters once wrote. And while
President Clinton isn't under arrest -- that would require due process, anathema to
Kenneth Starr and the members of Congress and the media who've signed up with his lynch mob -- if you think of his videotaped testimony before the grand
jury as the sort of interrogation that usually only crime suspects are subject
to, then he looks better than ever. The four hours and three minutes of
Clinton's Aug. 17 appearance before the grand jury confirms what was
immediately clear in the statement he made to the nation in the hours
following that appearance: Enduring Starr's witch hunt has given him
the command and defiance that he should have shown toward his political
opponents beginning with the 1994 congressional elections.

Since any Salon
writer who defends Clinton runs the risk of being thought of as doing the
bidding of the White House (Memo to Tom DeLay: I wrote this all on my
own, like a big boy), I should say the absence of that defiance has long been
the source of my frustration with Clinton (frustration that I addressed in my
Salon reviews of "Primary Colors" and "Bulworth"). I voted for him in 1992,
but I couldn't bring myself to do it again in '96. After the Communications
Decency Act, the Welfare Reform Act, the Protection of Marriage Act, I
decided Clinton was acting too much like the Republicans he seemed so
eager to placate.

Maybe we had to wait until his own hide was in the fire for Clinton the
Democrat to emerge, but the Monica Lewinsky scandal has given him a
soapbox on which to implicitly address what I think has been the real
subject of American politics and American life since the 1980 election of
Ronald Reagan: the attempt by conservatives (whether they call themselves
Republicans or Democrats) to define, legislate -- and when, as now, they can't
legislate -- force what constitutes acceptable private behavior. "Even
presidents have private lives," Clinton said in his address to the nation,
and the implication of those words should freeze the blood of everyone who
believes that there is such a thing as a right to privacy in America: If this can
happen to me, the most powerful man in the most powerful nation in the
world, it can sure happen to you.

This is the point in this debate at which Clinton's critics can be counted on
to interrupt and insist that the issue here is not private behavior but public
accountability. As wearisome as this bleating has become, it's getting harder
and harder not to feel some sort of pity for people who have somehow
managed to reach adulthood, even attain positions of considerable
influence, while remaining so basically ignorant of the messy realities of
power and sex; while maintaining that every lie is of equal gravity; while
primly averting their gaze from the way things actually get done in politics;
while confusing politics with the priesthood.

We can certainly expect some of that wide-eyed bull in the days to come as
Clinton's critics take swipes at the maneuvers in his testimony. They will
point to his refusal to list the details of his "inappropriate behavior" as
"evasiveness." They will call it dissembling when he challenges Starr's
deputy counsels to be specific about the meanings of their questions and
even the exact meanings of their words and phrasing. But I can't imagine
that any of the millions of people who tune into "The Practice" or "Law and
Order" every week will see anything that will shock them. It should be plain
that when you're being questioned adversarially in a legal proceeding, you
don't give your interrogators anything beyond what they ask. And if their
questions are end runs around your determination to be specific, constantly
peppered with assumptions that you have not agreed to, you don't answer
until you force them to redefine the question consistent with the facts to
which you have already testified.

Certainly you take that strategy if the obvious purpose of your appearance is
a perjury trap. Starr's utter contempt for such things as the illegality of
secretly taping phone conversations, the concept of attorney-client privilege and
the secrecy of grand jury testimony was obvious well before the airing of
Clinton's testimony. What the full videotape of the testimony reveals is the
sheer, unrelenting sliminess of the Whitewater prosecutor's approach. Clinton had barely settled into
his seat in the White House Map Room before deputy independent counsel Sol Wisenberg
made it clear that he regarded Clinton as a liar. He asked him if he realized
he was under oath and if he understood that if he lied he could be
prosecuted for perjury. Wisenberg pressed on, asking what the oath he had
just taken meant to him, and did it mean the same thing on Jan. 17
when he gave his deposition in the Paula Jones suit?

Having set the tone of
the proceedings by badgering the witness before he'd been asked any
questions about the matter at hand, Wisenberg ceded questioning to deputy
independent counsel Robert Bittman. This Boy Scout couldn't seem to
understand why Clinton availed himself of the legal latitude that the
questions of Jones' lawyers gave him, as if doing so equaled perjury.
("You seem to be criticizing me because they didn't ask better questions," Clinton
astutely observed to Wisenberg later on.) But Bittman soon revealed merit badge potential
in the area of prosecutorial sleight-of-hand. When he asked Clinton if he tried
to keep his affair with Lewinsky a secret (duh), the unspoken conclusion was
that Clinton suborned perjury to do it. When, incredulous, he asked Clinton
why he gave Lewinsky Christmas gifts last December in the midst of
discovery on the Jones case, he clearly implied that Clinton was trying to
buy Lewinsky off (with a pen that shows the New York skyline and a box of
chocolate-covered cherries; Bittman must be used to real cheap dates).
Significantly, Wisenberg didn't pursue it when Clinton later said that if
he wanted to ensure Lewinsky's silence he would have given her the White
House job along with the full access to him she so desperately wanted after he broke off their affair and she had gone to work at the

But if Stalin is somewhere bemoaning that he didn't have Starr and his
henchmen for the Moscow show trials of the '30s, it's also true that, as
promised, this tape showed us a side of Clinton we'd never seen before.
Just not the one the Whitewater prosecutor and the Republicans on the House Judiciary
Committee think it shows. Ever since it became clear that Clinton's grand
jury testimony would be broadcast (and the tape makes it clear that both he
and his lawyers knew it would be; just before the tape ends and Wisenberg
claims that the only reason for the videotaping is the absence of one of the
jury members, Clinton's lawyer, David Kennedy, asks, "Is that the
only reason, Mr. Wisenberg, you had to videotape?" -- he receives no
answer) it's been sold as if it were a '40s movie. "See Bill Clinton as you've
never seen him before! Raw passion spills across the screen!!"

Unfortunately, all the people who watch the video hoping to see
the already famous moment when Clinton storms out of the room in anger
have a disappointment in store for them: It doesn't happen. That most
remarked upon moment of Clinton's testimony turns out to be an utter lie.
(And if that's the accuracy of the leaks that have been coming out, how
reliable is anything else we've heard?) Clinton was angry, all right (and anyone
who claims they'd act with deferential respect if they were subpoenaed to
appear before a grand jury, accused of perjury and then asked questions
about their sex life is a liar). But it was never reckless, unhinged anger;
it was far more controlled, far more wounding.

With remarkable
dignity, often with courteous affability and without a trace of self-pity, he
managed to get in his indignation at the maneuverings of both Paula
Jones' lawyers and the Office of the Independent Counsel. Clinton showed,
I think, real courage in choosing to bypass the namby-pamby "diplomacy"
that has more and more come to substitute for direct speech in political life.
He accused Jones' lawyers of "having a lousy case on the facts" and engaging
in a "dragnet of discovery" to dig up any dirt they could when it became
clear they couldn't win their case. "That was their strategy and they did a
good job of it, and they got away with it," he said. "Their goal was to hurt
me," and then, with a slight smile, "maybe they thought I'd settle." The
flicker of defiance in that smile was the same as what Clinton showed in his
address to the nation, a promise that he will not be bullied.

Finally, when
deputy counsel Jackie Bennett opened a line of questioning about the
exquisitely named Kathleen Willey, we got to watch Clinton say what
almost no one in the press, and almost no one in Congress -- certainly not the
spineless finger-waggers in his own party like Richard Gephardt and Joseph
Lieberman -- has had the guts to say: "The questions you are asking betray the
bias of this operation that has troubled me for a long time." This was not the
vulgarity and petulance and arrogance we had been promised. This was
something far more basic, far more satisfying and long overdue: the thrill of
seeing someone stand up to a bully.

Part of that thrill came from Clinton's realization that he had other people
to defend besides himself. By far the most unexpected, and the most
touching, moments of his testimony were the ones when he showed a gentlemanly concern
for Monica Lewinsky. After months of nonsense about a
50-year-old man preying on a young girl (as if someone past the age of
consent isn't capable of making her own decisions, as if it's possible to be
seduced against your will, as if it's possible to remove the power dynamic
from any sexual encounter), here was Clinton according her the simple
decency denied her by Starr (whom Clinton accused of treating Lewinsky
"as if she were a serious felon") and by all those who've made her name a joke.
It would have been easy, after characterizing their affair as inappropriate, for Clinton to paint her as a tawdry little groupie. Instead, he betrayed an
unmistakable tenderness toward her, a refusal to even intimate that the
memories he has of their affair are bad ones. He acknowledged that from the time he broke off their affair in 1996, he knew she
would eventually talk about it. "It was part of her psyche," he said without
any accusation in his voice, just an acceptance that that's the way she is.
That is not what we expect of a politician in a spot. During much of the
testimony, Clinton showed a willingness to beat scoundrels at their own
game. Whenever he talked about Lewinsky, he showed a complex
humanity, a refusal to reduce what he called "the most mysterious area of
human life."

The investigation into Clinton's sex life has been one of the most
terrifying and Orwellian dramas that I have witnessed during my
lifetime. Even if he did commit perjury -- and nothing about the legal
definitions of "sexual relations" provided to him by the court prove that he has -- it's
time to say that there are some things that basic human decency dictates we
lie about. There is no dishonor in lying to people who are asking questions
that are none of their goddamn business to begin with. The tenets of
democracy seem to have come unstuck not, as Clinton's critics would have
it, because of any duplicity on his part, but because of what a friend of mine
calls "the cigar coup" we find ourselves in.

In the end, the predictions
that Starr's decision to release this tape will backfire on him may very well
prove to be right. The darker question that remains is, so what? Not once
since this political storm broke in January has the will of the electorate mattered to Starr, to Congress, or to the media who have largely ignored the Whitewater prosecutor's conflicts of interest and his flagrant disregard for
due process. We face a constitutional crisis
not because the White House is occupied by a Nixon who ignores the
Constitution, but because we have possibly the most dangerous figure in
American politics since Joe McCarthy, abetted by a Congress that has
chosen to ignore the inconvenient realities of that "most mysterious area of
human life" to embrace a hypocritical and invasive "morality" that reflects
neither the will of the people nor the right to privacy they expect their
elected officials to uphold. For four hours and three minutes, that is exactly
the principle that President Clinton, maybe to his undoing, upheld. If, as Clinton's
critics would have it, the issue here is character, he passed by any measure of
common sense. I'll take a human being over a savior any day.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

MORE FROM Charles Taylor

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