The difference between right and righteous

February 28, 1997|By Michael Kelly

WASHINGTON -- Tuesday was a great day for the study of Clintonism, which is in part the study of the difference between what is right and what is righteous.

It is Mr. Clinton's wish that he be seen as a profoundly right-thinking president. Running for re-election, he spoke ritualistically of what was the right or the wrong thing, pretending that issues had no politics. ''As Americans, there are some things we do simply and solely because they're moral. Right. And good,'' intoned an announcer on a Democratic National Committee television spot paid for by the president's now famously moral, right and good soft-money machine. ''And President Clinton is right to protect Medicare.''

This was a good electoral strategy, but it had one large drawback. Bill Clinton is not really a very righteous man. Quite the evident contrary. There is about him an obvious air of the rogue, the seducer, the sly dog, the self-consciously bad boy.

One evening late in the 1992 campaign, Mr. Clinton came back to the press section of the plane and chatted about what he called ''Bill Clinton's Laws of Politics.'' There were half a dozen of them, and they were as knowing as they were cynical. One was: ''When you're starting to have a good time, you're supposed to be someplace else.'' Another was: ''When someone says it's not the money, it's always the money.'' A third was: ''Nearly everyone will lie to you, given the right circumstances.''

That was a Clinton rarely seen, a thoroughly political and thoroughly practical man, and it was not without its charm. But this Clinton showed himself for only a few minutes, and then the candidate remembered where he was, and Machiavelli disappeared. Mr. Clinton began speaking earnestly about education and job training.

Bill Clinton long ago decided that the true political Clinton -- which is the Clinton that his friends and supporters find attractive -- was not suitable for mass consumption. The more anyone tries to suggest the creature's existence, the more loudly righteous in his denials the public Clinton becomes, to a point approaching self-parody.

One of the funniest smoking guns in political history was the disclosure Tuesday of a 1995 memo from then-Democratic Finance Chairman Terence McAuliffe to Mr. Clinton proposing a plan to reward top party money-givers with coffees, dinners, golf, etc. The president wrote: ''Yes, pursue all 3 and promptly -- and get other names at 100,000 or more, 50,000 or more. Ready to start overnights right away -- give me the top 10 list back, along w/the 100[,000], 50,000.''

Nothing could be more clear than this admirably frank exchange of views. The charge that the president had hotly denied for months -- that he and his lieutenants had brokered access to his person and to the White House in exchange for campaign funds -- now stood revealed as undeniably true. And in the president's own handwriting.

What was truly wonderful, though, was not the revelation, but the president's reaction to the revelation. On this day, his righteousness finally surpasseth itself.

''The Lincoln Bedroom was never 'sold,' '' said the man who had declared himself ready to start overnights right away. ''That was one more false story we have had to endure.''

The White House spinners picked up the Friends theme. The press office released a list naming 831 first-term overnighters and solemnly dividing them into various categories, none of which mentioned money. They were all just friends: 370 ''Arkansas friends,'' 155 ''longtime friends,'' 111 ''friends and JTC supporters,'' 128 ''public officials and dignitaries'' and 67 representatives from the world of ''arts and letters.''

But, of course, an ''arts and letters'' type could also be a financial contributor or fund-raiser, and the same could be said of the ''longtime friends'' and ''Arkansas friends.'' As the president's increasingly beleaguered mouthpiece, White House special counsel Lanny Davis, explained to an openly incredulous Ted Koppel, just because somebody gives the president money doesn't mean he's not a friend.

Mr. Koppel: ''I don't see anything in either Mr. McAuliffe's memo or in the president's notation referring to friends. This is strictly money we're talking about here.''

Mr. Davis: "The fact that that note doesn't use the word 'friends,' Ted, doesn't mean they're not friends.''

As it happened, the other event of Tuesday illustrating the difference between right and righteousness in Clintonism also involved ''Nightline.''

A knowing lie

In November 1995, as the debate over partial-birth abortion hit its stride, a prominent pro-choicer named Ron Fitzsimmons appeared on the program to argue the pro-choice party line that the hideous procedure -- a late-term baby is delivered vaginally feet first up to its head, and then the physician suctions its brains through a hole driven through the base of its skull -- was performed primarily to save the lives or child-bearing capability in a handful of women who were carrying badly deformed babies.

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