The Magazine


Jan 18, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 17 • By DAVID FRUM
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Back in 1992, the harshest criticism of Clinton's character, after all, was not that he was a philanderer but that he was a chronic and shameless liar. That's the harshest criticism even now. Consider this, from the December 25 issue of the Forward, a New York Jewish newspaper:

President Clinton stood before the Palestinian National Council and spoke of two profoundly emotional experiences in less than 24 hours. One of these meetings was his meeting with the children of jailed Palestinian-Arab terrorists. The other experience was meeting Israelis, some little children whose fathers had been killed in the conflict with Palestinians. Israeli government sources who would speak only on condition of anonymity said Mr. Clinton never net with the Israeli children. The White House and State Department did not return calls about whether such a meeting took place. There was no such even on the public schedule of the trip.

Twenty years of misrepresentation of his marriage was the school is which Clinton learned to lie like this.

What we want to know about the people who seek to lead the country is whether they can be trusted. Adultery in a politician worries us because it reveals an ability to deceive. Will the politician who betrays his vow to an intimate also betray his oath to his constituents? The answer to that question is not always yes. But the case of Bill Clinton reminds us that the answer is not always no, either. In Clinton's case, in fact, the forms of treachery blend so smoothly into one another that it is hard to say where one starts and the other stops.

Post-Clinton, memories of this double-treachery will linger. Which means that a politician with a very checkered sexual past must be able to prove himself trustworthy in other ways. Instead of saying "Go to hell," he must be able, without babbling on about things that are none of the public's business, to reassure the public that he knows how to keep faith. This can be done. John McCain of Arizona has done it: a man who busted up his honor in a Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp. It cannot, however, be done in the way that the Clintons did -- by cajoling an ambitious spouse into projecting a false image of family bliss and then asserting one's right to privacy whenever the press stumbles across a fact that calls the false image into question. That is how one converts a lie to one's spouse into a lie to the electorate. And that is a lie that a would-be leader of the country should scorn to tell -- or, through the artful or blustery avoidance of questions, even to insinuate.

David Frum, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is completing a book on the 1970s.