In apology mode, insincerity of contrition speaks volumes

September 16, 1998|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON — "It should not be surprising that there are graphic details. Nobody should be surprised to find gambling in a casino."

-- David Kendall WASHINGTON -- So, at this White House, a cigar in an intern and intimate oral contact are as unsurprising as gambling in a casino. That is something to ponder while awaiting the next presidential sermon on the V-chip.

Mr. Kendall is a criminal defense lawyer with President Clinton for a client, using the strongest arguments he has. (See above.) But what is the excuse of Mr. Clinton's staff and Cabinet?

The intern said she felt "disposable" when she detected a lack of presidential interest in her "as a person." ("Every day can't be sunshine," Mr. Clinton reportedly explained.) His colleagues, still loyal after being lied to and otherwise ill-used, lack even her sense of dignity.

A political carcass

Mr. Clinton's cowardice in sending forth others to absorb pain for him matches his obtuseness. People furrow their brows wondering how someone "so intelligent" could do so many stupid things. They ask, How has this "brilliant politician" become a political carcass? Proof of Mr. Clinton's mental prowess was supposed to be his mastery of the presentational aspects of the presidency. Now that his presidency is a slummy absurdity, what other evidence is there of his intelligence? Only the fact that he got just enough education to acquire a corrupting smattering of postmodernism, as in:

Language is a social construct; so the meaning of words is irreducibly indeterminate; therefore whether he was alone with the intern "depends," Mr. Clinton says, "on what you mean by 'alone.' " The truth of another proposition depends, he says, "on what the meaning of the word 'is' is."

The law reflects nothing more morally serious than society's fluctuating distribution of power, and if one political interest does not twist laws for its purposes, another will, so no stigma attaches to the twisting. In his "apologies," Mr. Clinton says families can be strengthened by, watching him cope nobly with his sins. His vanity explains the insincerity of his contrition. The nation's prisons are full of people sorry in exactly the way he is: sorry they got caught.

The Clintons' solipsism rises to clinical interest as they present the problem of their assault on the rule of law as a mere family melodrama. Or as a personal "journey," as the president, lapsing into misty New Age babble, calls the nation's slog through the sewer.

Mr. Clinton's theatrical contrition is part of what an aide calls "a forgiveness mode." (Was he warming up for this when he apologized to Africa for America?) This "mode" is part of a shrewd career move. It presents today's problem as all about him, and his healing and doing justice to him. Hence the misrepresentation of impeachment in the question, Does that punishment fit the crime?

The purpose of impeachment is not punishment. It is civic hygiene, the health of the republic. According to this city's crackpot realism, the impeachment process will follow public opinion. Actually, the process probably will pull opinion as House hearings (perhaps punctuated by indictments from the still-extant grand jury) acquire their own logic, which will condition all political calculations.

George W. Bush's (or whoever's) slogan as the 2000 Republican nominee is a given: "A fresh start for America." House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, his chance of becoming speaker declining with Democratic prospects this November, may be more inclined to run for president. So, too, Bill Bradley, who when he left the Senate wisely went to earth at Stanford, as far from here as possible. All other Democratic candidates must decide if they want to go to the country saying that Mr. Clinton represents the Democratic Party's idea of a satisfactory president.

Piling on

Perhaps Mr. Clinton's squalor insulates him from impeachment. Having behaved as no Framer could have imagined, impeaching him seems vaguely like using a howitzer against a gnat. On the other hand, there is the Frank Doctrine. Rep. Barney Frank, soon to star in Mr. Clinton's defense on the House Judiciary Committee, said this in January 1997, after the House reprimanded Newt Gingrich: "I think it is incongruous for him to stay as speaker. If you can be reprimanded and still stay as speaker, what does that mean?"

If Mr. Clinton can stay as president, what does that mean for -- and about -- a nation that just 24 years ago was shocked by transcripts of the Nixon tapes because "expletive deleted" indicated that the Oval Office had been the scene of salty language?

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/16/98

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