Shortly after l’affaire Lewinsky broke open last year, the public let it be known that if in fact President Clinton had lied under oath, he would have rendered himself unfit to remain in office. O what a difference a year makes! Somewhere between then and now, the public appears to have concluded that having a president who lies with practiced habituation to more or less everyone in sight, courts included, and counsels others to do the same, is not such a bad thing after all. Nor is this conclusion based on mere ignorance: a substantial majority appears to have reached it even while acknowledging that Clinton’s morals are considerably south of those associated with used car salesmen.
Far be it from me to dissent from the opinion of my fellow citizens, but there’s a disconnect here somewhere. Perhaps, as William Bennett says, it’s the death of outrage; perhaps it’s the booming stock market; perhaps the public’s just soft on sex, or James Carville slipped something into the water supply while no one was looking. Whatever the explanation, it’s hard not to sympathize with H.L. Mencken’s definition of democracy: that form of government in which the people get what they deserve—and deserve to get it good and hard.
Whatever we get, Clinton’s certainly in a position to give it to us. Even with the impeachment dust-up, his job-approval ratings have remained dismayingly high—high enough to conduct a “victory” rally on the White House lawn within hours of becoming the second president in history to be impeached by the House of Representatives; high enough to reduce the Senate of the United States to a passel of posturers; high enough so that he can parade himself, unblushing, before the applause of town hall after town hall, dispensing government goodies like some Tammany ward-heeler on election eve; high enough, indeed, to allow him to survive until the end of his elected term. By the time he’s done, he’ll probably demand his legal fees and a congressional apology for the hurt caused to him, his family, and the country.
I don’t know about you, but in retrospect, I wish the Senate had dropped its constitutional pretense at the outset and devoted itself instead to picking someone to count the White House silver after Clinton leaves. (Then again, given that worthy body’s impeachment performance, we have little reason to hope they’d have gotten that right.)
How long Clinton’s mesmerizing effect will last is anyone’s guess, but my own is that once he’s gone from office, history will not be kind to him. Polls are notoriously fickle things. While for the moment they puff Mr. Clinton to larger-than-life stature, he is in fact a small man, diminished by his flawed character and shameful deeds. That will remain so despite the failure of the Senate to place a scarlet letter next to his name in the history books.
Those who question this may wish to reflect on his meeting last month with the Holy Father in St. Louis. As the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body dithered, uncertain whether to honor their incumbency or the Constitution, Bill Clinton slithered out of Washington to bask in the sun of a truly great man. Clinton got what he came for—a photo-op. But the Holy Father, who has spent more hours in the confessional than Bill Clinton spends reading polls, and who has no need of photo-ops with presidents or kings, no doubt had some other purpose in mind. What was said between the two we shall never know for sure, although it is easier to imagine what the pope might have said than what Mr. Clinton said in return. (Imagine yourself the White House staffer tasked with doing the talking-points for that one!)
But to see these two men together is to be reminded at once of what an utter triviality Mr. Clinton is likely to be. John Paul II, frail and bent with age, is nearing the end of what will be considered by all accounts one of the great papal reigns of the modern era. Next to him on the tarmac, in a city founded on the sacrifice and blood of humble priests and named for a saintly king, stood a large man in the prime of life, at the peak of his fame. Never has worldly glory seemed so irrelevant, and in his palpable nervousness, Clinton acknowledged as much. Those who fear for the future of America in the wake of Clinton’s triumph over his political foes need not despair. From that image at the airport in St. Louis comes all the hope we shall ever need: just about the time Mr. Clinton achieves the status of a footnote in the history books, the reputation of John Paul II as the Great Man of his age will be carved in stone.