• U.S.

Nightmare’s End

13 minute read
Nancy Gibbs

Friday was graduation day, full of pomp and circumstance. The Senators voted to acquit the President, and he gave his 82-second commencement address. The daffodils didn’t know enough to stay under the mulch, the little white flags fluttered on the South Lawn putting green, aides stood in the sunshine listening to him apologize and reconcile one more time. And of course it was the postscript that sealed the day, after he turned to leave and heard the heavenly question transmitted by Sam Donaldson. “In your heart, sir, can you forgive and forget?”

Perfect. Pause. “I believe,” Clinton answered, reaching for his diploma, “any person who asks for forgiveness has to be prepared to give it.”

He had been up so late–thinking and writing, thinking and writing, the long version, the short version–that he slept through his 8 a.m. wake-up call and was still scribbling as the votes tolled, guilty, not guilty. He knew–everyone knew–that every time he had opened his mouth about the scandal he had made things worse: too glib, too bitter, too unbowed, too phony. But as Dick Morris once said, Bill Clinton will make every mistake a President can make, but he will make it only once. This time he was so determined to get the tone right that he kept searching for the word he knew was still missing. The last word he added came at the end, when he urged everyone to “rededicate ourselves to the work of serving our nation and building our future,” and then wrote in “together.”

So much for burning down the House.

Nobody needs to be told what to hate about this year, what made us flinch or groan, change the channel, fling the magazine across the room. Generations of scholars yet unborn will read shelves of books yet unwritten trying to figure out what went wrong in America in 1998 and why. So maybe it’s the lazy luxury of relief, now that it’s over, to look at what might have gone right and toast the new era with a glass half full.

The serial predictions of anarchy never came true. The markets did not crash, the public did not rush to judgment, fact and fiction met but didn’t merge, and the unending Senate trial took precisely 37 days. Within moments of the vote, the Senators were cheering the Chief Justice and one another, and no one lunged for anyone else’s throat. The U.S. is still a superpower, and the only elected President to be impeached is still the leader of the free world.

A public content to ignore its government can take heart that its institutions are sturdy and forgiving: the presidency forgave a reckless President, the Congress survived a bout of cannibalism, the Constitution warded off anyone who tried to ransack it for any reason. It was tempting to blame the clanking 18th century impeachment mechanisms for dragging out the investigation for months after the public had made up its mind; yet that stately pace served the purpose of forcing both sides to confront the evidence, honor the process, hear each other out. It turns out the Constitution wasn’t built for speed. It was built to last.

In some ways the system turned itself inside out. The House members, who stand for election every two years in districts so small that all voices should be heard, were the ones who drove the process forward despite widespread resistance. The Senate was designed to judge the case on the legal merits, protected from public passions by its six-year terms; yet in the end the Senators accepted the fact that the public had reached a complex decision to tolerate Clinton’s conduct, and groped their way through the law and politics and duty to find a way to honor the people’s will.

In the process some blurry principles came into focus. For years the debate has raged over which conduct is public and relevant, which is private and protected. One after another, in the effort to prove they were being prosecutors, not Puritans, Republicans declared that the private aspect of Clinton’s misconduct was no one’s business, certainly not the Senate’s. If the media get the message, the country will be happy to move on. Similarly, the culture of investigation that created Ken Starr with his searchlights and Bill Clinton with his Dobermans has been examined under bright lights, and so surely we will now look for a better way to hold politicians accountable without holding them hostage.

The Senate today is a different place from what it was six weeks ago, before what Bob Kerrey calls its “confinement.” Senators these days are free agents: they talk to cameras, not one another. But during the trial’s last week, when the TV lights and microphones were turned off, that slowly changed, and the members became like neighbors who take down the fences after the floodwaters have swept the whole town away. They turned to one another and had an argument unlike any other in their experience: pointed, passionate and thoroughly private. On Friday, once the vote was taken, Tom Daschle and Trent Lott reached across the aisle and shook hands. “We did it,” said the Democratic leader as his counterpart slapped him on the back. “We sure did,” responded Lott. There were thumbs flying high and backs thumped and orthopedic hugs all around as the Senators filed out.

Reflecting later on the new mood, a bone-weary Lott told a few reporters, “We’ve gotten to know each other better as people, as individuals rather than Senator So-and-So from Minnesota or Senator So-and-So from Alabama. There’s been a lot of holding of hands and slapping on backs and nuzzling of each other and trying to keep this from breaking out into a really nasty affair.” Newly bonded, the Senators are hopeful. “It doesn’t mean we won’t get into fusses over tax policy or farm policy or foreign policy or whatever,” Lott added, “but I think we will be a little less quick to question the other’s motives or to publicly be critical of each other.”

And finally, of course, there is the sheer benefit of its being over, which is incalculable and inexpressible, something you just know in your bones and feel grateful for.

A year that began with caricatures eventually produced some defiant icons. Thanks to Charles Ruff, we saw more of a powerful man in a wheelchair than most of us have in our lifetime. Gender stereotypes tumbled as Clinton was declared the country’s first female President, the first black President, all empathy and soul with just a whiff of victimhood. Many women winced at a scandal that began with a lovestruck Valley Girl gossiping to her treacherous friend; by year’s end those images had been diluted by some other women who took the stage: Cheryl Mills, all of 34, with her hypnotic legal lullaby; Nicole Seligman bleaching the House case; Democrat Dianne Feinstein trying to be genuinely stern with an adolescent President; Republicans Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins emerging from the back benches to call for a reasoned response. You could disagree with their positions and still respect their conduct.

The same can be said of the impassioned, impugned House managers, who, whatever the merits of their case, put a lie to the assumption that all politicians are driven solely by polls and survival instincts. One could wonder where their compass pointed, but no one mistook it for a weather vane. Henry Hyde argued that “there’s no political profit in this. A President Gore would not be helpful to the Republican Party.” But when Hyde faced the Senators, he challenged them to larger purposes: “I have always believed that there are issues of transcendent importance that you have to be willing to lose your office over.”

If it seemed that we spent the year in the moral faculty lounge debating the weight of our principles, there was value in that exercise as well. You learn more about the views you hold when you’re forced to defend them. Tom DeLay tried to frame the debate as a choice between relativism and absolute truths, but there were subtler arguments advanced by both sides. Smart virtuecrats like Bill Bennett argued that a leader who occasionally drank in the evenings was not impeachable, but one who drank before deciding on troop deployments maybe was. White House officials agonized in private over which was worse: that Clinton lied to them or that he failed to apologize for it. Censure ultimately died, in part because Senators decided that enough damage had been done to the President without adding any to the Constitution.

With so many values in play, hypocrites lost their footing the moment they seemed to be holding others to standards they themselves did not embrace: feminists who decried the pursuit of the President’s personal life after years of declaring that the personal is political, Republicans who deplored Clinton’s lies or affairs but then were confronted with lies or affairs of their own, presidential spinners who condemned the politics of personal destruction even as they practiced them–all were called to account. If there is a lesson for future candidates, it may be not that only saints need apply or that rising markets erase all sins, but rather that honesty is worth more than practiced perfection–there will be no secrets anyway, and you can trust the people to judge wisely.

Because in the Year of Perpetual Polling, the public never caught the fever of the combatants. Week after week the argument was framed by the extremes: the politicians and the pundits created a cross fire in which every action was cast as either a partisan plot or an assault on justice. Yet no matter how appalling the details, the public generally kept its distance from the shouting and weighed the evidence carefully.

That absence of outrage appalled many conservatives, who took it as evidence of widespread moral laziness among people too drunk on Internet stocks and cheap gasoline to care about their soul. But that diagnosis also invited a closer look. We call ourselves God’s country, always scooping up lost religious rebels into a nation safe for people with strong moral views. This year revealed how strong and how varied those views turn out to be. Clinton has privately called the Congress that dared pursue him “Stalinist”; James Dobson, meanwhile, has said the American people can no longer recognize the nature of evil. But 1998 was a year of public corruption and private progress, of numbers that shouted of moral uplift as crime, abortion, teen pregnancy and drunk driving all dropped. There was no epidemic of perjury; in fact the evening news became an occasion to demonstrate in constant, clear terms that we take lying extremely seriously.

Parents took no joy in trying to explain to children how the President got in so much trouble, unless they could get away with saying that oral sex means that it’s not written down. But it was a unique chance to explain plenty of other things. If the year of O.J. made us forensics experts, this year was a civics lesson. We’re constitutional scholars now. The irony of this seamy scandal is that it forced us to return to First Principles, to passages of a dusty Constitution we rarely have occasion to consult in the normal course of events. We came to understand the concrete value of abstract concepts like majority rule, the workings of justice, the difference between fact and speculation, and the peaceful mechanisms the framers devised for settling mortal arguments that drive other countries’ armies into the streets.

The presidency feels different to us now, less a solid than a liquid, too vast for any one man to poison permanently, yet so fluid it molds to the shape of the vessel it’s poured into. For much of this century, particularly from Franklin Roosevelt on, the men wore the office, borrowed its majesty to wage war or make peace. Modern Presidents cannot count on that mystique. Now the office wears the man. In the age of 24-hour news channels, it is the man we recognize and judge, which is why Reagan’s power was utterly different from Carter’s, Clinton’s from Bush’s.

Some have argued that because Clinton has survived with so few Americans approving of his character and so many approving of his performance, it shows that it is possible to govern without moral authority. The logical response is to question not whether Clinton has moral authority but whether he has governed. Over the past six years there have been triumphs he can legitimately claim–his partnership with Congress on welfare reform, balancing the budget, raising the minimum wage, promoting peace in Ireland and elsewhere. But this year, when his moral authority was systematically stripped, we could not help being aware of the governing he didn’t do despite spectacular opportunities. He could dispatch planes to Iraq but not troops, nothing requiring broad debate and consent. He could not trade pet projects with Republicans in Congress–I’ll give you school vouchers if you give me the patients’ bill of rights–because he could not afford to annoy any Democrats. And so, in the end, there was no tobacco deal.

Yet when you talk to the people who in recent weeks turned out for the President’s enormous rallies, they express awe and gratitude for his mastery of the material. Someone, for whatever selfish reason, at least appears to care about their life and truly loves the game, knows the numbers, enjoys the ideas and proposals so much he soaks and wallows in them–even if they only affect life at the margins. It may be that the scandal forced him to focus as never before, to justify the White House motto, “Just going about the work of the American people.”

In the weeks ahead, we’ll get to see how serious Clinton is about forgiveness and reconciliation. He’s always best when he’s in a fight, which left people wondering whether he’d have to go find himself one. By the time he had finished his Rose Garden remarks, the storm clouds were rolling in. It was raining by 4, drenching the false spring. Already there was no shortage of people in front of microphones arguing over who should be most ashamed of his or her performance. But if the President had any hope of getting all parties to the peace table to save what’s left of their reputation, he at least had to appear generous in victory.

–With reporting by James Carney, John F. Dickerson and Karen Tumulty/Washington

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