The Magazine

YES, IT IS LIKE WATERGATE

Sep 28, 1998, Vol. 4, No. 03 • By DAVID FRUM
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The Clinton scandals ought to cause the nice people to rethink. The scandals have exposed Clinton's supporters in Congress and the country as willing to condone law-breaking in some ways more blatant than Nixon's: Nixon at least never personally perjured himself before a grand jury. And they have called into question the morality not just of a single man but of an entire administration: While two of Nixon's cabinet officers (attorney general John Mitchell; commerce secretary Maurice Stans) were convicted of crimes, five of Clinton's officers are now under the shadow of the law. Former agriculture secretary Mike Espy has been convicted of taking bribes. Former HUD secretary Henry Cisneros has been indicted and will be tried in November for lying to the FBI in an effort to conceal blackmail payments to a former mistress that were considerably larger than one would have thought him able to afford on a politician's legal earnings. Former commerce secretary Ron Brown escaped investigation only because of his accidental death. Both labor secretary Alexis Herman and interior secretary Bruce Babbitt are being probed by independent counsels.


But it is going to take more than allegations to make the nice people rethink. One of the great lessons of the Clinton scandals is the brute power of fact. Washington insiders, privy to all the details that proximity to power brings, have presumed Clinton guilty of lying under oath since January and have condemned him for it. But it's only since August -- when Clinton moved from being a presumed liar to a confessed one -- that the nation's disgust for the man has begun to catch up to the capital's. For those who had followed the Lewinsky matter closely, Clinton's admission changed nothing; for everybody else, it changed everything.


The same will be true of the terms of Clinton's eventual punishment. It is not because Nixon was indelibly disgraced that he was forced to resign; it is because he was forced to resign that he is indelibly disgraced. If Clinton holds on to office, the public will very reasonably infer that the evidence was not there that would justify removing him. An administration that ought to be discredited as corrupt will instead slide into the history books as "controversial." Censure, censure plus a fine -- neither of these will mean anything.


In fact, given Clinton's amazing ability to "accept responsibility" in one breath and claim innocence in the next, any punishment less than impeachment will be seized on by him as both an escape and carte blanche to continue lying, stonewalling, and obstructing justice in the two years remaining to him as president.


This is a political as well as a legal danger. For not until Clinton has been disgraced will his party be discredited for nominating and defending him. If there are any Republicans who imagine that they can eke out a greater political advantage by letting the Clinton scandals dribble on without a resolution than by proving perjury and obstruction in the Senate, they are deluding themselves. Clinton said early on that there could be only one survivor of the struggle between him and Ken Starr, and he was right. If the case against Clinton is somehow not borne out, the sleaze of the past eight months will unfairly but ineluctably splash back on those who have accused him.


The appetites that led Clinton into perjury and obstruction are so ludicrous and so pathetic that it is hard for Americans to see the perjury and obstruction as criminal. But crimes are crimes, whether the person responsible for them is in the end a sinister figure or a sad one. And in a republic of laws, crimes must be punished. The alternative is to blur forever the force of law and to leave Clinton's example intact as a permanent temptation to future presidents.




David Frum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.