For Clinton, personal was clearly political

January 25, 1998|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON — ''The name means absolutely nothing to me.''

-- Alger Hiss, 1948 WASHINGTON -- Hiss' statement was artful, except for one thing: To a few alert people, it seemed artful. It did not quite answer the question, which was whether he knew Whittaker Chambers, who had testified to knowing Hiss while operating in the communist underground in the 1930s.

The will to believe Hiss -- former clerk to Oliver Wendell Holmes, former State Department luminary, then head of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace -- was strong in Washington 50 years ago. However, to a few skeptics, Hiss' answer seemed suspiciously lawyerly, and suggested another question: Had Hiss known Chambers by another name?

In time, the nation learned that Chambers had used the name George Crosley. Hiss was convicted of perjury.

Clever formulations

Today there is scant inclination to believe the brassily clever formulations that regularly issue from President Clinton and his operatives. To take one particularly germane example, recall the words -- and the missing word -- from a White House spokesman, Mark Gearan, when Paula Jones first said she had once been summoned by then-Governor Clinton to his hotel room, where Mr. Clinton allegedly made crude sexual advances:

''He was never alone in a hotel with her.''

The missing word -- ''room'' (no one said Mr. Clinton and Ms. Jones were the only people in the hotel) -- reverberated. Presumably Mr. Gearan, a professional, scrupulously said what his employer wanted said.

In this latest scandal, as in most such in modern Washington, the usual shark metaphors (''blood in the water,'' media ''feeding frenzy'') and Sir Walter Scott maxim (''What a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive'') have been followed by admonitions against ''rushing to judgment.'' Sound advice. Monica Lewinsky might be fabricating.

However, the swift judgment here, emphatically against Mr. Clinton, is not the result of a sudden rush with no context. Rather, it is the result of an assessment of his character based on a six-year accretion of evidence running back even further than to his stipulation (he apparently thought even this was artful) that he did not inhale marijuana.

Consider an example from the realm of policy. During the 1992 campaign, he said that if elected he would not raise taxes -- adding smoothly, without pause -- to pay for ''new'' programs. Given that money is fungible, what was the practical meaning of his formulation? Practically, it meant:

Watch this fellow very closely. He thinks he is so much more clever than the rest of us that we will not notice how much more clever he thinks he is.

On Wednesday, he said ''there is no improper relationship'' with Ms. Lewinsky. Should the word ''is'' seem artfully evasive? Should he be given the benefit of the doubt as to his understanding of what is ''improper''?

No. After the Clintons' vandalizing of the White House travel office (with overtones of abuse of the FBI and Internal Revenue Service); after 900 FBI files mysteriously (amazing mystery compounded -- they all concerned Republicans) wind up in the hands of Clinton operatives; after Mr. Clinton's friend Vernon Jordan (now making another appearance as, at least, a facilitator of Ms. Lewinsky's career) helped orchestrate payments (that look suspiciously like hush money) to another Clinton friend, the convict Webster L. Hubbell; after Mrs. Clinton's law firm billing records are mysteriously lost for a long time and then are even more mysteriously found, like the purloined letter, in plain sight; after

You get the idea. Washington has long since gotten the idea that he who was the brightest boy in Hope, Ark.,, may have acquired there an exaggerated sense of what his cleverness can enable him to get away with in the wider world.

Out in the country, Mr. Clinton probably cauterized the self-inflicted wounds of his sexual predations with his January 1992 confessional appearance on CBS, in which he said, I have behaved badly in the past. The country seemed to say, well, surely he has stopped. And the country seemed to decide that the facet of Mr. Clinton's character revealed by his private life could somehow be assumed to be hermetically sealed from another, entirely separate side of his character, which would control his behavior as a public person.

If his latest scandal severely cripples or even ends his relatively inconsequential presidency, the largest -- perhaps, the only large -- effect of his tenure may be a revision of the public's belief in bifurcated public personalities, and the public's broad indifference to questions of character in politics. Because such indifference is a form of decadence, Mr. Clinton's presidency may, by the cunning of history, turn out to have been an accidentally positive episode.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 1/25/98

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