Outside of Henry Hyde himself, and those close enough to be considered family, I doubt that anyone felt the impact of Salon's decision to disclose his 30-year-old affair with a married woman as viscerally as I did. I know Henry Hyde and, like many others on both sides of the political aisle, admire him as one of the most gracious men and thoughtful politicians in Washington. Like them, I think of Hyde as a leader of exceptional integrity (this regretted episode from his past notwithstanding) and, like them, I looked to him to provide the kind of bipartisan statesmanship that might have helped to guide the nation out of the morass in which it finds itself. I felt the article was unfair and mean-spirited, a gratuitous invasion of privacy, inflicting pain on a man who didn't deserve it and causing damage to the already tattered fabric of the nation's political life.
Even more problematic, as a columnist for Salon, I was personally implicated by the article (even though, as a contract writer, I was not involved in any of the decisions that led to its publication). If I had any thought that I could avoid involvement, I had only to look at my mail from political supporters urging me to leave Salon and to dissociate myself from its callous act.
To compound my dilemma, the author of the offending piece -- and one of the authors of the editorial defending its publication -- was a man I have known for 20 years and consider a friend, despite our political differences. The David Talbot I know is not a thoughtless and unscrupulous tool of the Clinton attack squad, as partisans of the right have suggested. On the contrary, David Talbot is a generous human being and a man of exceptional integrity. Indeed, it is these very virtues that created the dilemma confronting me, since it was David who was responsible for my opportunity at Salon.
I was thus faced with a contradiction that appeared unresolvable. On the one hand, there was the injustice and venom of the article itself; on the other, what I knew to be the decency of the man responsible. This conundrum forced me to think again about the dilemma that we have all been put in by our presidential crisis. In particular, I had to reassess the anger that would cause someone like Talbot to resort to "fighting fire with fire," as the Salon editorial described his article, to "descending to the gutter tactics of those we deplore." In other words, I was forced to stop deploring the passionate defenders of Clinton and think about what might have caused their outrage.
It was an interesting moment. I saw that if you regarded the presidential sins as confined to the private matter of sex, and if you regarded lying about sex as different from lying about other things, and if you believed a person could confine his lying to sexual matters, then you would probably feel exactly the way Talbot does and do exactly what he -- and the editors of Salon -- did: Expose the "hypocrisy" on the other side.
This put the nation's crisis in a new light for me. I can summarize it by referring to the appearance of Bill Bennett's book, "The Death of Outrage," in the No. 1 spot on the New York Times bestseller list this week. Our country is now divided between those who are outraged that the rest of the country is not outraged by President Clinton and those who are outraged that the other half is. More particularly: On the one side of the national division is a large contingent of Americans who despise Clinton, who feel that he has debased the presidency and the nation, and that he ought to be impeached. On the other, there is a large contingent of Americans who feel that Clinton is above all a flawed man who is being hunted by his political enemies, who are conducting a puritanical witch-hunt against him.
My second thoughts over the Salon article are incomplete, but they have given me this much pause: Ken Starr is indeed a puritanical prosecutor and legalistic to a fault. It was a serious mistake to release the Monica Lewinsky report without releasing his reports on Travelgate, Filegate, Whitewater and Kathleen Willey, or to make the Lewinsky report so rich in salacious detail and thus the centerpiece of his case. By doing this, he has made pornography into a national spectacle and shaped the nation's dilemma as described above.
On the other hand, I believe, as I'm sure Salon's editors do not, that Starr chose to focus on the Lewinsky (and Paula Jones) matters only partly (and not even principally) out of his personal disgust at the sexual aspects of the president's bad behavior. In my view, it was Starr's legal impasse that pushed him to this extreme. After three years of frustrated investigations, he had concluded that he was confronted by a president so pathological in his prevarications and so determined to thwart the law that the only way he could ever pin down a truth and support it with evidence was through the convergence of characters like Lewinsky and Linda Tripp -- the one so besotted and the other so calculating as to provide an indelible and unequivocal record -- that would finally enable him to nail his man.
Where does this leave us? In a sordid impasse, to be sure. I, for example, do not want to see Clinton impeached on the basis of the Lewinsky report alone. Not because I do not think the crimes that Starr has revealed are impeachable offenses. They are. We cannot have a rule of law if the chief officer of the law is a criminal. And Clinton most surely is. Moreover, I am certain that such an accomplished liar and obstructor has lied about the other cases against him as well. Which means that he is likely guilty in those too.
But I do not want to see Clinton impeached if so large a contingent of decent Americans believes that this is only happening because he has political enemies who are puritanical bluenoses, or just plain hypocrites, about sex. That would be bad for the country, and bad as a precedent for the political future.
Fortunately, the matter will not be resolved this way. There are reports and investigations yet to come. There is an election in November that will register the political judgment of the American people on the case thus far and also on the prospect of impeachment. It is these -- and not the tales of Monica Lewinsky -- that will ultimately decide the fate of President Clinton.