In light of the conclusion of the Senate trial of the president, the editors of THE WEEKLY STANDARD asked 22 writers, thinkers, and political actors the following questions: "President William Jefferson Clinton has been impeached and acquitted. What have we learned? What should we do now?"

THE MOST DISHEARTENING LESSON of the entire farce through which we have lived for what feels like an eternity is how easy it has become to turn everything upside down. I infer, for example, from talking to even reasonably well-informed foreigners that practically the whole world believes the following inversions of the truth:

1) That the independent-counsel statute was invented by conservatives to avenge themselves on the '60s by destroying Bill Clinton. When I explain that this institution was created by liberals, that conservatives have in the past consistently called for its abolition, and that Clinton himself strongly supported renewing it early in his term, my foreign interlocutors look at me as though I were trying to put something over on them.

2) That Ken Starr and other "religious fanatics" were the ones who arrogated unto themselves the right to investigate Clinton's private sexual life. When I explain that it was not conservatives, or the Christian Right, but rather the feminists and their supporters on the Left who invented the idea of "sexual harassment," I am rewarded with a skeptically knowing smile. And then when I go on to inform my interlocutors that it was also the feminists who persuaded the courts to allow investigations to establish a pattern of such behavior when a woman brings suit -- a procedure that in other areas of law would be deemed "prejudicial" and therefore inadmissible -- I am hit with a blank stare. The stare gets even blanker when I further explain that this is precisely how and why Monica Lewinsky's name came into the Paula Jones case. Finally, it turns altogether glassy-eyed when I add two more details. One is that the same feminists who have defended Clinton -- on the ground that his sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky were "consensual" -- have previously insisted with fury in their voices that there could be no such thing as consensual sex between a male boss and his female subordinate. The other detail is that on the basis of this theory countless corporate executives have been fired and millions upon millions of dollars have been shelled out by their terrorized companies.

3) That no one in America is punished for lying under oath. When I point out that more than a hundred Americans are at this moment sitting in prison for doing just that, my foreign interlocutors murmur, "Really?" in a tone suggesting that surely I exaggerate.

My guess is that at least half of the American people believe these same inversions of the truth. This is not just a tribute to Democratic spin; it also results from the fact that conservatives, never mind Republican politicians, have done next to nothing to straighten out such confusions. On the contrary, just as the feminists were deserting their own cause in order to defend Clinton against the jackboots they imagine waiting in the wings, conservatives rushed to fill the vacuum by turning themselves into champions of the concept of sexual harassment and its abominable legal offspring. Nor have conservatives retained the zeal with which they opposed the institution of the independent counsel when it was being used against the Reagan administration.

What should conservatives do now? Well, we might start by returning to where we were on these issues before and fight the fight we should have been fighting all along.

Now, however, I have to throw in what will no doubt seem a perverse conclusion. I think that even though Clinton richly deserved to be convicted, and though Henry Hyde and his colleagues were honorable and courageous in pressing their prosecutorial case, it would have been worse if they had succeeded. Little if any damage was done to the country when a highly unpopular president like Richard Nixon -- whose crimes, by the way, were no better understood by foreigners than Clinton's, and appear, I confess, no more reprehensible to me -- was forced out of office. Yet the rancor and the bitterness that would have been caused by throwing out so popular a president as Clinton (whatever the sources of that popularity) would have injected even more poison into our political system than is already so abundantly there. Both alternatives entailed serious evils, but my reluctant assessment is that those brought by acquittal are on the whole the lesser of the two.

Norman Podhoretz, editor-at-large of Commentary and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, is the author of Ex-Friends (Free Press).

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