Willey confirms all that was gossip

March 17, 1998|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON — I said, "Hillary, he had insomnia. He couldn't sleep so he went for a drive." She started screaming and cussing and slammed down the phone.

I got on the phone and called him, and I said, "Governor, Hillary's up." And he said, "Oh, my God. Oh, God. Oh, God." And he came back in the back gate probably five to 10 minutes later.

-- Arkansas trooper Roger Perry, recalling under oath a late-night call from Hillary Rodham Clinton.

WASHINGTON -- With Kathleen Willey's "60 Minutes" appearance, the crisis of the Clinton presidency reached an adult moment, and the mental mechanics of agnosticism became yet more difficult. What kind of person can continue the intellectual contortions necessary to sustain doubt about who is lying -- President Clinton or the dozens of people who he, through his helpmate and hirelings, implies are engaged in a vast, orchestrated campaign of lying?

Ms. Willey's painful -- for her, and for civilized viewers -- appearance drew dignity from her patent reluctance, and her grown-up's incredulity about Mr. Clinton's crudity at the time and his continuing mendacity. The measured words spoken Sunday night were by someone who not even Mr. Clinton's taxpayer-funded smear squads will characterize as a "Clinton-hater" from the bowels of the "vast right-wing conspiracy." Ms. Willey's words cannot be dismissed as "rumors" (as Mr. Clinton's lawyer Bob Bennett dismissed much of the testimony taken by Paula Corbin Jones' attorneys, including the words of Trooper Perry, above).

Ms. Willey's words moved the focus of the crisis beyond Mr. Clinton, and beyond the taxpayer-funded chest-thumping White House boys sent forth to profess belief in their stonewalling employer. And it moved the focus beyond Monica Lewinsky and her age-appropriate attorney-consort, William Ginsburg.

The focus is now on the American public. Of course, Mr. Clinton must decide whether to continue casting himself as First Victim, against whom an amazingly disparate and growing group of people is risking prosecution by telling the darndest lies under oath. However, the public has a more important decision to make: whether it still thinks that Mr. Clinton's "private" behavior and lies he tells about that behavior are irrelevant to his public stature.

Presidential perjury

One judgment can no longer be evaded: If Ms. Willey is truthful, Mr. Clinton is a perjurer. So if she is truthful, he is probably not the sort who would flinch from suborning perjury and obstructing justice. Thus a backward-rolling tide -- a tentative presumption of truthfulness -- washes over an enormous mound of testimony.

Some of it, such as the trooper's words above, is perhaps pertinent primarily to an aesthetic judgment about the Clintons' vulgarity. But grave judgments about possible abuses of power should be colored by knowledge of the kind of people at issue, people who for more than five years have been saying such things as:

Trust us, it really was an innocent bureaucratic mistake that caused 900 FBI files -- all concerning Republicans; what a coincidence -- to wind up in the hands of some people exceptionally unsavory even by the standards of the Clinton White House.

Sunday night the nation received another lesson in the power of sight and sound to magnify the power of printed words. Reading her deposition and seeing her recapitulation of it are quite different experiences. Some who have heard the tapes Linda R. Tripp made of Ms. Lewinsky say that it is as hard to doubt the truth of Ms. Lewinsky's words as it is to doubt the truth of Ms. Willey's.

The scandal's momentum will grow with the pursuit of such questions as: Did Nathan Landow, a large contributor to the Democratic Party, send a plane, as Newsweek reports, to bring Ms. Willey to see him? If so, for what purpose and with whose knowledge?

Cleansing the White House of Mr. Clinton -- the lamest duck in the history of the presidential aviary -- is less important than expunging two anodyne assumptions held by many Americans: that there can be merely trivial public consequences from presidential corruptions, particularly if they pertain to behavior the public chooses to call private; and that the duty of a president to obey the law varies inversely with the Dow Jones average. For a few years the United States can probably function fairly well, at least absent a foreign crisis, with a ridiculous president. We seem embarked on that constitutional experiment. Meanwhile, Gennifer Flowers has rendered an appropriately dismissive judgment on Mr. Clinton. "You'd think the boy would learn." The boy.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/17/98

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