Could the man from Hope have done this?

January 26, 1998|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- The story comes cascading out of Washington at electronic speed, accusations and denials, factoids and speculations. A feeding frenzy of reporters, analysts and lawyers is serving up undigested tidbits liberally salted with ''allegedlys.'' The words ''affair'' and ''perjury'' and ''impeachment'' pop up like uninvited guests crashing a White House dinner.

At the same time, my own phone line echoes with a mournful reprise from friends, colleagues and family offering up the most unscientific and honest and dispirited public opinion: ''I can't stand this.''

It's not clear what the unbearable ''this'' is. The waft of presidential scandal? The all-sex, all-the-time news that now treats the nation's leader like O. J. Simpson, the nanny, the Unabomber? The independent counsel wiring up a woman for sexual gotcha? The destruction of a 24-year-old woman? Of the first family? The idea that the whole mechanism of government -- peace in the Middle East, State of the Union -- now takes second place to ''perjury'' and ''peccadilloes''? All of the above?

At this moment, the life of a presidency is hanging on a laundry line of ''ifs'':

If it can be proved that Bill Clinton told Monica Lewinsky to perjure herself, it's over. If it can be proved he lied under oath, denying an affair that happened, he's dug a hole that not even the Comeback Kid can pull out of. If it can be believed that he had sex with a 21-year-old intern in the house he shared with his wife, his daughter and the country, who can stand it, stand for it?

It is being said that this is either the worst scandal or the worst smear in presidential history. My small sample of people who are not Rush Limbaugh listeners and do not laugh at Don Imus find themselves in the unusual and uncomfortable position of actually hoping that a young woman's fantasy life got the best of her.

''I cannot believe that he would do this in the White House down the hall from the Oval Office. It's too incredible,'' says a friend as if she were playing Clue. But she offers enough qualifications to leave behind a trail of her doubts.

On CNN, the political analyst Bill Schneider offers up the ''good news'' that if it is ''just'' an affair, Mr. Clinton may be saved by the cynicism of the public. Our opinion of politicians cannot be lower.

This is how far we have followed Mr. Clinton, parsing his personal life as carefully as he perhaps parsed his grammar in responding to questions about whether he ''was/is'' having an ''improper'' relationship.

When Gennifer Flowers came out with tales of their affair, the public accepted the candidate's indirect admission that he ''had caused pain in his marriage.'' The operative word was ''had.'' We understood that marriages can go through a bad patch. And be patched.

When Paula Jones made her accusation, it too was old news, tainted with conservative politics. In the distasteful deposition of the president and Ms. Jones, when families had the unenviable task of explaining ''distinguishing characteristics'' to the children, we were still uncertain about who was harassing whom.

Still the Comeback Kid?

Mr. Clinton has skated ahead of the cracking ice of public opinion. His agility, his genuine political gifts, his

grab-you-by-the-lapels intensity, have served him well. He ran for re-election as national dad, even as Chelsea's dad. We heard a man who understood what families are going through, how the government can help.

Dick Morris, of all people, once described Mr. Clinton as an Achilles without a heel. The heel was never the problem. As a bewildered Katie Couric wondered on television: ''If the allegations are true how is it this intelligent, ambitious, politically savvy man can be so foolhardy and such a slave to his libido?''

Make no mistake about it. The deal that Mr. Clinton struck with the American people was that the ''bimbo eruptions,'' the ''zipper problem,'' the sexual risk-taking were over.

If ... If ... If String them out along the laundry line. But if the president of the United States had an affair with a 21-year-old intern in the White House, it isn't just his wife who's been betrayed.

8, Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 1/26/98

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