A terribly wounded presidency

January 26, 1998|By Elmer Smith

THIS one won't go away. We won't wake up in a couple days to find that this latest presidential scandal has blown over.

It's too toxic to dilute. When we water it down with the tales of other presidents whose extramarital dalliances have come to light in this age of unwanted disclosures, we're still left with a stain too stubborn to wash away.

Because by now we're forced to ponder the possibility that our president is a compulsive sexual aggressor or that he is besieged by political predators who will stop at nothing to bring him down, even if they have to disrupt the government to do it.

Did we elect a man so reckless that he'd risk his future and ours for a back-room quickie or so ravenous that he'd take advantage of some star-struck groupie to satisfy an insatiable sexual hunger?

Or have his enemies devised a ''fact-finding'' process that will prompt almost daily disclosures until they bury him under such a flood of false accusations that not even the truth will set him free?

Independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's wide-ranging investigation of Whitewater allegations has been expanded several times over the past three years.

But this latest excursion has the potential to either topple the presidency or expose Mr. Starr's vendetta. Either way, we're left with a dilemma that will have to be resolved before the president can devote his undivided attention to the people's business. In that sense, he's already wounded.

A need to believe

Like most Americans, I want to believe the president, and I don't want to believe that his judgment or ours is so faulty that we could have overlooked or disregarded such a fundamental flaw in his character.

I almost needed to believe him Wednesday as he sat across from Jim Lehrer to deny the accusations in an interview on the Public Broadcasting Service.

We had heard from his press office earlier in the day that the president was ''outraged'' by accusations that he had had an affair last year with a 21-year-old intern named Monica Lewinsky and that he later pressured her to lie about their alleged affair in sworn testimony at a deposition in the Paula Jones case.

I was outraged to think that Mr. Starr and the president's enemies in high places could be so relentless and unprincipled in their pursuit that they would equip Linda Tripp with a body wire to entrap Ms. Lewinsky into a public disclosure of these allegations.

And when the president had the courage to face the charges head on, I expected to see some of that outrage from him.

Instead, he sat there and played lawyer games:

''You had no sexual relationship with this young woman,'' he was asked.

''There is not a sexual relationship,'' he hedged in an answer that seemed to skirt the question of whether there ever had been such an affair between them.

On the far more serious question of whether he and his close confidant, Vernon Jordan, urged Ms. Lewinsky to lie to a grand jury, he denied the allegation but left open the possibility that he had indeed talked to her about her testimony.

''I did not urge anyone to say anything that was untrue,'' he said.

That was Wednesday. By Thursday, new allegations were coming to light and old ones were being rehashed.

In the midst of what was to be a day of deliberations on the very sensitive Middle East situation, including two scheduled talks with PLO leader Yasser Arafat, the president had to take time to confer with lawyers and to answer more questions about the latest sexual-misconduct allegations.

''He is doing the best he can,'' White House press secretary Mike McCurry said at one point.

Elmer Smith is a Philadelphia Daily News columnist.

Pub Date: 1/26/98

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