. . . or to overthrow a president

September 24, 1998|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- It was the most surreal of Mondays.

On the world stage, the president of the United States was speaking about the perils of terrorism. On the television set, he was being asked to define sexual relations.

At the United Nations, a jury of international peers gave Mr. Clinton a standing ovation. On videotape, a grand jury demanded to know, "Did she or did she not profess her love to you in these cards and letters?"

In millions of offices, cars, bomes, the drone of testimony ran for ,, four hours. Unedited, unexpurgated, a background static to everyday life.

As Americans put the wash in the machine or went down the hall for coffee, they could look up just in time to hear him being quizzed under oath about breasts touched or kissed, under or over clothing.

As they went to answer the phone or pick up the kids, they could hear their president being asked if "the person being deposed touched the genitalia of another person . . . ?"

Are we supposed to get used to this endless barrage that no one seems able or willing to conclude? Up in the morning, out on the job, any news about oral sex today?

Comforting Monica

Earlier the grand jurors had bonded with Monica Lewinsky, extending a comforting hand to the tearful 25-year-old. As the jury forewoman said, "We wanted to offer you a bouquet of good wishes that includes luck, success, happiness and blessings." Now the president in the Map Room struggled for a shred of privacy, asking these same jurors to "Put yourself in my shoes."

Was this a courtroom drama or an event in some parallel legal universe with Madame Defarge busy at her X-rated knitting needles?

There was enough in this videotape to satisfy those who regard the whole matter as an unconscionable invasion of privacy: "Mr. President, if there is a semen stain belonging to you on a dress of Ms. Lewinsky's how would you explain that?"

There was enough to reinforce those who regard the president DTC a parse-happy untruth-teller: "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is."

And there was more than enough in her transcribed words and his televised words to prove that in some perverse way they knew the end. Monica sensed that he had a Saturday night personality and a Sunday morning personality. Bill knew "she would talk about this. She would have to. She couldn't help it. It was, it was a part of her psyche."

Frozen polls

But these four hours were not enough to change the polling numbers that seem frozen by the public's equally balanced dismay at Mr. Clinton's behavior and independent counsel Ken Starr's behavior, by appalling private acts and the appalling invasion of privacy. The words of an embarrassed Ms. Lewinsky that most reflect public opinion are these: "Can I hide under the table?"

The one thing that seems to be nearly universal in the world beyond the Washington Beltway is the desire to be done with this scandal. Those for or against resignation, impeachment, censure, all want the story to reach some climax -- if that word is still permitted -- and some conclusion.

But in Washington, public opinion still comes second to partisan opinion. Despite all the morning-after media talk of a deal, in the Republican Congress, there is a more powerful desire to keep the president weak, the campaign issue strong, than to close the curtain.

What will happen now as the public's desire for an end -- any end -- meets Congress' desire to destroy the administration? Is this a calculated strategy that sooner or later our desire for finality will have the public clamoring for Mr. Clinton's head? As the only way out?

Count me among the deeply disappointed, the folks who don't want to look Mr. Clinton in the eye, don't want to be in the same room with him anymore. At best, this damaged man will limp through the next two years. Turned off voters may leave the November election in the hands of angry voters. Maybe the country would be better off -- tomorrow -- if he resigned.

But I'm convinced the country would be worse off -- the day after tomorrow or the decade after tomorrow -- if an elected president were forced out by the prosecutors of private behavior.

Do we want a government to be overthrown by those dead set on proving that Mr. Clinton lied about whether he had "physical contact with those areas of the body with the specific intent to arouse or gratify"? In this bizarre sexual revolution, I still have the grim feeling that we are approaching the guillotine phase.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/24/98

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