What if it were President Packwood?

Liberals must face up to their hypocrisy in backing a president who lied under oath in a sexual harassment lawsuit.

Published December 22, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

After the impeachment vote, President Clinton said he hoped that the legacy of his trials and tribulations would be to suck the poison, once and for all, out of American politics.

It was a noble thought, and if achieved, it would be a wondrous legacy of his presidency. At this point, it is hard to see how the threshing cycle of political murder and revenge eating away at the vitals of American democracy will be slowed. The grotesque impeachment proceedings, the cynical Republican rhetoric about "the rule of law," the rank abuses of prosecutorial power exercised by the independent counsel, the vindictiveness, the trampling of rights, the blatant coup in broad daylight -- these will long be angrily remembered.

Testifying on behalf of the coup's opponents, historian Sean Wilentz told the House Judiciary Committee that history would "hunt down" those who voted for impeachment. In faint echoes of the civil rights and anti-war days, celebrity teach-ins are springing up and protesters are taking to the streets. A veritable crusade is shaping up on behalf of a president whom writer Mary Gordon, in the pages of Salon, likened to the martyred Billy Budd.

But before we throw on the chain mail of righteousness, let us imagine that it is not President Clinton on whose behalf we are fighting the good fight, but George W. Bush III, who has overcome his own rather colorful past, or Robert Packwood, who instead of being bundled out of the Senate for sexual matters, has acceded to the highest office in the land.

Let us suppose it was President Packwood who had testified under oath in a sexual harassment deposition and in a federal grand jury proceeding, understanding that failure to tell the truth ("the whole truth") could result in charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.

Question: Have you ever given any gifts to Monica Lewinsky?

Packwood: I don't recall.

We would know that President Packwood, under oath, had told a flat-out lie. Would we -- good liberals and feminists who have been in the forefront of virtually criminalizing, under the guise of "sexual harassment," any sexual contact between men and women in the workplace -- have been so easily forgiving of this lie? Would it really have been OK with us had it been President Packwood, rather than President Clinton, who also knew that Lewinsky, an intern young enough to be his daughter, was filing a blatantly false affidavit in which she swore she had no sexual relations with President Clinton. Are we so sure we would have dismissed this president's callous indifference to Lewinsky's putting herself in criminal harm's way as "private behavior" or merely "lying about sex"?

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Then, of course, there would be the evasions and obfuscations in President Packwood's federal grand jury testimony. What the meaning of "is" is. She aroused me, I didn't arouse her. What he and Lewinsky did together "did not constitute sexual relations as I understood that term to be defined." And how sympathetic to President Packwood would we be after hearing the president's own counsel say to the House Judiciary Committee: "Reasonable people, and you maybe have reached this conclusion, could determine that he crossed over that line, and that what for him was truthful but misleading or nonresponsive and misleading or evasive, was in fact false." Or this, from "a longtime advisor" to the president: "For the president of the United States to lie before a grand jury is a big deal. I don't care if the lie is about a fender-bender or about sex. We always knew that perjury before a grand jury was a dastardly, very serious act that most people would not tolerate."

Would we be so tolerant of President Packwood's perjury? And what would we be thinking as members of his own party got up during the House impeachment debate and, one by one, called his behavior "inexcusable," "deplorable," "indefensible"? "He broke the law? Probably so." Would we not be looking increasingly askance as we read the actual text of the censure motion offered by President Packwood's party, which states that the president "egregiously failed" the obligations implicit in his oath of office, to "set an example of high moral standards and conduct himself in a manner that fosters respect for the truth." Further, his actions "violated the trust of the American people, lessened their esteem for the office of the President and dishonored the office which they have entrusted to him." What more would it take to get people marching in the streets with placards demanding, "Packwood must go!"

Would Toni Morrison have risen up to lionize President Packwood had he so "egregiously failed?" Would she and other literary lions have affixed their signatures to various anti-impeachment petitions had it been President Packwood who, according to loyal aide Sidney Blumenthal's grand jury testimony, compared himself to "a character in the novel 'Darkness at Noon' ... I feel like a character in an oppressive farce that is creating a lie about me and I can't get the truth out." Rather than defending President Packwood, Morrison might have pointed out that the book's author, Arthur Koestler -- not to mention the real victims about whom Koestler so eloquently wrote -- would be appalled by the way President Packwood cynically exploited literary truth in the service of the big lie he was telling to all around him.

And before the rest of us get too misty-eyed about ending the politics of character assassination, we might want to take a closer look at our own record in this area. There's Packwood himself, of course, run out of town by California Sen. Barbara Boxer and assorted feminists in full-throated roar for copping smooches with female staffers. Then there's former Texas Sen. John Tower, whose crime was that he enjoyed a drink or two, and failed Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, whose video rental receipts were paraded in front of the world. And of course Clarence Thomas, pitted against Anita Hill -- the liberals' equivalent of Paula Jones -- with a sex harassment smear every bit as bogus as the one used to bring down Clinton.

As for Clinton, perhaps he meant it when he called, in his post-impeachment Rose Garden speech Saturday afternoon, for an "end to the politics of personal destruction." But in his own case, that heartfelt call is beside the point. If in the end the forces arrayed in his defense prove insufficient, nobody will have brought down Clinton except himself. Richard Mellon Scaife didn't tell him to avail himself of Monica Lewinsky's charms; Kenneth Starr didn't tell him to lie about it for seven months. Henry Hyde didn't tell the president to hand a gun to his sworn enemies and suggest they shoot him at point-blank range. In Clinton's case, a call for an end to the politics of self-destruction might be more apropos. And it would suit the rest of us to apportion responsibility accordingly.

By Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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