Thanks, President Clinton!

Your lying and philandering turned the country over to George W. Bush.

Published January 20, 2001 12:15AM (EST)

"My dear husband has committed no fraud. The substance of what he told you was perfectly true, though perhaps he has slightly colored the details."

-- Robert Graves, "Claudius the God"

President Clinton's farewell address was probably the shortest political speech of his career. He had the time, but not the character, to apologize to the country for the spectacle he put it through two years ago. On the same day, revelations that the Rev. Jesse Jackson had a child out of wedlock made for an appropriate footnote to a tarnished presidency: Wasn't it just yesterday that Jackson was ministering to the disgraced president?

Jackson at least had the grace to admit his role in the scandal, and take himself out of the public eye for a while. If only Clinton had done the same thing. It's time that the president's left-liberal supporters acknowledge the lasting effect of the Lewinsky scandal: electing George W. Bush. Had Clinton stepped aside, as Jackson is doing, and turned the presidency over to Al Gore, his successor would easily have won reelection as the candidate of peace and prosperity. Instead, the bitterly fought impeachment battle polarized the country and effectively lost the election for the Democrats.

The received partisan wisdom about Clinton is that he was hounded by a Javert-like nemesis in the form of Kenneth Starr. When he was finally caught, in the end it was a crime, and a scandal, more personal than political. As a consequence he, and then the Democratic Party, was put in the reluctant position of defending an unattractive petty offense against an overzealous prosecution.

His defenders changed course over time. First their line was, Clinton didn't do it. Then, Well, he did it, but he hadn't been lying about it before. (That was after the question became whether he perjured himself.) Now, hours before the end of his presidency, to spare himself more legal bills, Clinton cut a deal with Starr's successor, Robert Ray. In it, he essentially admits he lied all along, and accepts a five-year suspension of his law license. It's yet another insult to his loyal supporters, but they'll no doubt accept it as meekly as they've endured all the others.

The Clinton impeachment proceedings were routinely referred to, in this publication and others, as a "constitutional crisis." That was pure hyperbole. The Constitution was adhered to, the system worked, Clinton was impeached and then acquitted, and life went on.

Two years later, however, we have endured something like a constitutional crisis. Bush will be inaugurated Saturday, even as news organizations are in Florida engaged in a recount that may well show that Bush received fewer votes there than Gore.

Of course Bush's taking the oath of office will be technically legal -- but the Supreme Court ruling that stopped the official Florida recount and gave him the election was a true constitutional crisis, undermining a large swath of the public's confidence in Bush's authority, and the court's. And we owe it all to Clinton.

If Al Gore had won Florida outright, of course, we would not be in this situation. It seems fair to surmise that the lasting impact of the Lewinsky mess -- having to learn that our president carried on matters of state by telephone while being ministered to by a 21-year-old intern -- might have cost his vice president, running to succeed him, a few hundred votes in a state like Florida.

The closeness of the Bush vs. Gore vote obscures the size of the sharp fault lines with which Clinton left his party and his country. The states Gore won were confined, with the exception of New Mexico (and possibly Florida), exclusively to the West Coast, the Great Lakes and the Northeastern seaboard.

Like most liberals who live in the urban areas of Gore Country, I disagree politically with most of the people in Bush Country. I don't like their politics, their taste in music, the way they wield their religion. I'm afraid of their power. But America is based on political accommodation, and to win the presidency a politician should try to make some accommodation with those areas. Clinton made it impossible for Gore to do that.

Clinton's sob sisters argue that Ken Starr was after a man, not a crime. I suppose this is true, as far as it goes. But I'm one of those few who thinks you can't have too many independent prosecutors. It keeps the politicians on their toes. (Voltaire once observed that the British executed an admiral from time to time for just this purpose -- "pour encourager les autres.") The big dogs were out after Clinton. He was the president. It's his job to have a clean enough background to get elected and the smarts to watch out for them after he's in office.

There's a typical Clintonian gracelessness to the "Starr was out to get me" defense, too. Wouldn't the devious way to thwart the evil inspector be simply to refrain from shtupping chatty young women? It's very much like that of the husband whose wife finds some condom wrappers and hotel receipts in his coat and accuses him of having an affair. "I can't believe you went through my pockets!" he cries.

Clinton's defenders say that Clinton's transgressions were personal, they didn't affect matters of state, and that the lies he spread were designed to defend personal error and were thus excusable.

There are three ways in which this blurs the real issues involved.

First, Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky was something different, and worse, than your average affair. Fewer people would have cared if he'd had a long-running, discreet liaison with a private businesswoman, or even the wife of some ambassador. Many -- probably most -- politicians are adulterers; Theodore White, who covered more than three decades of presidential campaigns, noted in his final memoir that the only politicians he felt sure hadn't broken their marriage vows were Jimmy Carter and George Romney, a governor of Michigan who briefly ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968. Most of those politicians were smart and discreet. The politicians who do get into trouble are reckless horndogs like Gary Hart and Clinton.

You can argue that what a husband or wife does in the bedroom is a spouse's business, no one else's. But Clinton's decades of skirt-chasing are a different matter. After Gennifer Flowers, after Paula Jones, after Katherine Willey and all the Jane Does, it's reasonable to suspect that Clinton's private life is unduly influenced by an impulsive psyche that, unfortunately, is pathological enough to be everyone's business.

Clinton started his affair with Monica Lewinsky at a time when he was already under investigation. This was foolish and reckless and made him vulnerable. He could have been blackmailed by someone -- a lobbyist or a political opponent or worse. There's no evidence that it happened, but it's within the realm of possibility; my point is merely that a reasonable argument can be made that these issues are matters of public, not just private, interest.

The second way his defenders blur matters is when they say it's no big deal to lie about an affair. This is a disingenuous point. It is true that Clinton, like many other unfaithful spouses, lied about the affair while it was going on. Clinton's prevarications then can be fairly considered to fall under the realm of the "husband lying about an affair" excuse we hear so much about.

The big lie -- the inexcusable one -- came after Clinton was caught. This was a calculated deceit, repeated vociferously, for political ends -- a crime with Nixonian overtones. He lied to his family, his friends and his staff and let them fan out to lie to the press and the electorate, all to achieve a political objective. He lied to the national press and a national televised audience. ("I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.")

He also lied under oath.

These lies, incidentally, didn't fool anyone. Perjury is a felony in this country; insulting the intelligence of the electorate, for some reason, isn't.

The third way in which Clinton and his amen corner blur his crimes is the most fateful one, and the one that has the most bearing on the ordeal we went through in November.

To protect him from being tossed out of office, Clinton and his partisans were in effect saying that it was OK for him to lie to cover up something that really wasn't wrong. But by excusing Clinton's affair, they diminished its immorality. When they blurred over the fabulously raunchy circumstances of the affair -- blow jobs and rim jobs in an Oval Office hallway and bathroom, from an emotionally unstable woman 30 years Clinton's junior -- they inflamed the feelings of a large chunk of the electorate, some of it not Republican.

Human sexual activity is a colorful spectacle; there's nothing wrong with what Clinton and Lewinsky did. But even if their affair wasn't illegal or immoral, it was tawdry enough that a reasonable person shouldn't begrudge a wavering electorate for being repulsed by it.

In the end, they were repulsed by it. Everything and anything affects the course of the election in some way, of course: Ralph Nader, running under the Green Party banner, certainly cost the Gore campaign several states, including Florida. But both parties have to contend with Naders occasionally. (All the Nader bashers forget that H. Ross Perot put Clinton himself into the White House in 1992.)

The Clinton apologists say Clinton could have won the election for Gore. "Let the big dog out!" they shouted in the weeks before the election. The facts don't bear this out. There was 69 percent voter turnout in Florida, for example. The Democratic base came out in force; labor, blacks and women voted heavily for Gore. (The national labor vote was up more than 10 percent from 1996.) Before the election, the fear was that Gore might win the Electoral College but not the popular vote. In the event, the reverse happened -- Gore defeated Bush in the popular vote by more than half a million ballots.

In fact, Gore won everything he was supposed to in Florida -- with the exception of the senior vote, which he lost to Bush, 47 percent to 51 percent. The New York Times reported that this was 8 percentage points lower than what Clinton received there in 1996.

I think it's fair to say that the repugnance a good section of Americans feel about Clinton's behavior has something to do with that result. A few counties in Florida have become the face of this close election; does anyone seriously doubt that Clinton's clumsy affair, his grim dishonesty, his buffoonish coverup, didn't tip the ballots in these senior-heavy quarters?

Of course, Clinton's admirers blame Gore for not being the master politician his predecessor was. But Gore was in an impossible situation. George W. Bush was triangulating as fast as Gore was: It became such a fight for the middle that, for a while after the election, it seemed that the nation had ended up dividing itself almost precisely in half.

So the Clinton impeachment battle was a classic Pyrrhic victory. He froze the workings of the government for a year. He made himself a caricature. And he doomed his Democratic successor.

This was a selfish act. Like a con on the run, he used anyone naive enough to help him. History will record this as a selfish and undisciplined politician's most unhappy legacy.

Today our perspective on Clinton is skewed by his unconventional charisma and his odd, almost psychic connection with a certain part of the electorate. It's another liberal truism of the Clinton era that the Beltway was much more appalled by the president's actions than the rest of the country. Well, why not? They see charisma every day. The Beltway, in fact, knows Clinton much better than we did. The rest of the country, and Clinton's cheering section, have been blinded by the Clinton smile. It will be this deeply flawed man's harshest legacy that his most guileless supporters will be the ones who bear the burden of the election he lost for Al Gore.

By Bill Wyman

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of Salon and National Public Radio.

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Al Gore Bill Clinton George W. Bush