Whether William Jefferson Clinton will spend his last days in office defending himself before an impeachment inquiry in the House of Representatives is debatable, but his presidency is almost certainly damaged beyond repair. In one of his few memorable statements, Jimmy Carter said that on the important issues a president’s advisers are more or less always equally divided. The same might be said of public opinion, which tends to sort itself out in volatile, confusing, and conflicting ways until acted upon by a clear and persuasive outside force. In American politics, that force is more often than not the voice of the president.
Mr. Clinton, without doubt the talkin’-est president in history, has no trouble persuading the public to support easy things. He has yet to demonstrate that he has either the courage or the moral suasion to lead the public down difficult paths. On the routine questions of economic and political life—the who gets what—self-interest usually suffices to carry the day, and presidents follow as often as they lead. But on the great questions—war and peace, the state of the culture, a national crisis of almost any sort—the ability of a president to distract us from what Chesterton called our “potty little selves” depends decisively on his moral standing with the people. Despite his protestations of innocence regarding Whitewater, campaign finance scandals, and sexual hanky-panky, the public has formed a low opinion of his character. Should he find it necessary to rally the people to a great national goal beyond their more or less immediate gratification, he’s going to find that his stock of moral capital has been dangerously depleted.
Practitioners of the realpolitik school of analysis will no doubt dismiss Mr. Clinton’s ratings in the morals department as a quaintly irrelevant feature of American sentimentalism, a vestigial remainder of once widely shared pieties that no longer command allegiance save among fringe groups of believers. Americans, they say, have cast off their childish (by which they mean religious) ways, whence it follows that we are now indifferent to the private lives of our presidents, especially in matters sexual. We are becoming, so the argument goes, more like the French. (Just ask yourself when France was last held out as a model worthy of emulation!) This theme—quel surpris!—has been embraced, though not so boldly nor in so many words, by the president himself. Asked when he plans to reveal the true nature of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, he sighs like a long-suffering and endlessly patient teacher vexed by the incessant questions of children and says only that he wants to get on with the job he was elected to do.
Would that it were so. Trouble is, the lengthening line of aggrieved women who shadow his reputation cannot be so easily dismissed, not by the voters and not by Mr. Clinton himself. Their accusations even now rise like Banquo’s ghost to haunt his peace of mind at the most inconvenient moments, and we have every reason to suppose their visitations will intensify in the months ahead. The president has successfully eluded his adversaries thus far, but he can avoid press conferences for only so long, and there are only so many continents he can visit like some sort of permanently peripatetic plenipotentiary. Soon or late he’s going to have to address the serious accusations being leveled against him in both the courts of law and public opinion.
No doubt the president and his cronies assume that his unprecedentedly favorable job approval ratings will suffice to carry him through almost any crisis. But even that seasoned and cynical battalion of war-room veterans ought to be worried about the parlous standing of Mr. Clinton on the question of his character. Public esteem for his moral qualities, never high to begin with, declines with each new allegation of impropriety, and with each refusal on his part to answer questions so obvious that they must occur to the mind of every schoolchild. Mr. Clinton’s deny-avoid-obfuscate strategy works only at the price of depleting the trust that is the presidency’s greatest power. Americans, preoccupied for the moment by economic contentment and a world largely at peace, may not be easily aroused from their indifferent slumbers, but their patience will last only so long. Judge Starr is a long-distance runner. His report, which is sure to be damning and exquisitely painful in its accusatory detail, will survive long after the last unjust attack on his investigatory techniques has faded from memory. Whether he is formally impeached or not, Mr. Clinton is going to have a hard time rallying to his side a public that would not trust him to be alone with their own daughters.