I HAVE followed the trial of Bill Clinton carefully, and of the whole thing I can only say: I don't get it.
For those who may not be familiar with the Arkansas governor, the following facts are on the record:
Bill Clinton has been elected governor of Arkansas five times. Apparently, the people who know him best -- the voters of that state -- feel he has done something right.
In a Newsweek survey, the National Governors Association (the nation's 50 governors) named Mr. Clinton the nation's most effective governor. So those who have tried to do the job he does seem to feel he has something to offer.
Bill Clinton has forged the legitimate insights of the American conservative movement to the traditional values of the Democratic Party, attempting to recast the Democratic agenda in a way pundits have recommended for over a decade.
I have been especially impressed with his comfort level on issues of race -- with the sense that we might have a new national leader who could give us new leadership in this troubled period of our national life.
And yet, a nation that constantly whines that it has no good leaders is ready to throw this potential leadership away on the testimony of an assortment of flunkies, story-changers, liars and fools -- and over distant events dimly reported.
Item: A story appears in the tabloid press reporting a lawsuit (since withdrawn and apologized for) making sexual charges against Governor Clinton. The charges all have been denied by the parties alleged to be involved; the source of the suit is universally regarded as a crackpot.
Outcome: The story becomes the lead item on ABC's "Nightline."
Item: A lounge singer's story, for which she is lavishly paid, appears in the Star, a supermarket tabloid, alleging she had a 12-year affair with Mr. Clinton. Newsweek immediately reports that the accuser has lied about her past on several occasions, and it recites glaring discrepancies in her story.
Outcome: Her story dominates the national press. Newsweek's reporting is barely pursued.
Item: In an act that beautifully captures the moral degradation of the manner in which the Vietnam War was conducted, an Arkansas draft board official releases Bill Clinton's confidential draft records, then asks us to pass judgment on the candidate's character.
In the turmoil that follows, the facts become available (though they are unclearly reported) that Mr. Clinton willingly surrendered a draft deferment in October 1969, making himself available to receive a draftable number in the selective service lottery conducted that December.
Outcome: In the Alice-in-Wonderland rush to judgment that carries the day, this is universally construed as the behavior of a "draft evader."
That we have given credence to the sexual allegations in the Star is something about which we should shake our heads in national wonder -- and embarrassment. We have allowed our highest political process to be commandeered by those in the society who are plainly least credible. Why a society would be willing to do this is a matter for students of mass pathology to answer.
The claim that Bill Clinton may have evaded the draft is, of course, more serious than the charge that he violated his wedding vows. I would only suggest that, if we wish to judge on this basis, we try to reach our judgment in a careful, studied way, that we read Mr. Clinton's statements on the matter carefully and that we try to put them into the context of the war and the political and moral atmosphere of 1969.
If we do abandon this promising leader, let's at least try to find out the facts of the case, try to remember the context of the times we're discussing, try to balance our judgment against the totality of the man.
And let's take a minute to understand a most troubling national impulse -- the impulse to destroy potentially talented leaders on the testimony of those we should admire and trust least of all.
Bob Somerby is a comedian by profession. He lives in Baltimore.