3 mysteries lie at center of Clinton case Solutions might be found within president's history and American mythology

October 11, 1998|By Richard Shenkman

THE LAST time a president faced impeachment, one great tantalizing mystery puzzled everybody: why Richard Nixon didn't burn the Watergate tapes.

If he had burned them, pundits said at the time, he could have saved the presidency. One Nixon apologist suggested, only half-facetiously, that Nixon should have torched the tapes in a fire on the White House lawn.

This time, there are three mysteries.

The first is why Bill Clinton, knowing that Kenneth Starr and Paula Jones were out to get him, fooled around with a 22-year-old White House intern.

The second is why Clinton, being involved with Monica Lewinsky, did not settle with Jones when he had the chance. Jones' former attorney told NBC's "Dateline" that, on two occasions, Clinton could have ended the lawsuit, once by making an apology and a $25,000 payment, terms so favorable to him that the mind boggles at his refusal. He might not have wanted to settle before the 1996 election, but after he won, he apparently had no reason not to settle.

The third is why the public (thus far) has been so tolerant of Clinton's behavior.

In January, when Matt Drudge broke the story of the Lewinsky affair, many experts predicted that the public would be so repulsed that the president might have to resign within days. Eight months later, he remains in office. As Bob Dole might say, "Where's the outrage?"

These three mysteries are not, however, so mysterious as they appear. Agatha Christie's super-sleuth Hercule Poirot, with a little help from historians, would be able to solve all three.

Slick Willy Myth

Clinton's mysterious failure to face the fact that his affair with Lewinsky would likely become known to Jones and Starr was based on the Slick Willy Myth: the belief that he could wiggle out of any tight spot in which he found himself, especially those of his own making. Like a political Harry Houdini, Clinton had dazzled audiences with not one but three political death-defying stunts. He had persuaded Americans it didn't matter that he had an affair with Gennifer Flowers, smoked dope as a college student and dodged the draft.

Events have proved to him that he is not so slick as everybody said he was, or as he evidently believed he was. But it has taken the threat of impeachment to bring the myth into question - powerful testament to its durability. (The shattering of the myth, one suspects, must be devastating to the president, as it formed so vital a part of his identity.)

No doubt the American people's willingness to stick with Clinton through the past eight months is owed in part to their inclination to keep in office a leader associated with peace and prosperity.

But there must be something more to it. As media guru Dick Morris has indicated, a poll he conducted for the president in January indicated that Americans would not tolerate lying; yet, when confronted with the facts, they have.

The explanation might be rooted in the mythological feeling Americans have for young, dynamic and charming leaders. The intensity of this myth's hold over the American people is most evident in their continuing approval of John Kennedy, on whom Clinton in many ways (both desirable and undesirable) seems to have modeled himself. Though we are well into the second decade of Kennedy debunking, JFK ranks, according to polls, as America's favorite president. That he was a compulsive womanizer hasn't seemed to dent his image as the nation's Camelot King.

Facing the facts

Unlike Kennedy, who died before the facts about his private life became known, Clinton has to face facts while in office. This is putting the myth of the Camelot leader to its greatest test. Kennedy has been debunked only in books and documentaries. Clinton is being debunked daily in almost every form of media.

What might decide Clinton's fate is whether he can hang onto another myth that attaches itself to presidents: the George Washington myth, the belief that a president should be a mixture of virtue and strength. No president since Washington has been able to live up to the Washington myth, but nearly all have publicly acted in such a way as to give the electorate the hope that they were trying. Clinton's problem is that his lies have become so egregious that it's increasingly hard even for his loyalists to continue believing that he is trying.

If the day comes when Americans find that they have lost all hope of Clinton's acting like George Washington, then he, like Richard Nixon, will discover that his support has dissolved.

Like Nixon, he will have no choice but to go.

Historian Richard Shenkman is the author of "Presidential Ambition: How Presidents Gained Power, Kept Power and Got Things Done," scheduled for publication in January by HarperCollins.

Pub Date: 10/11/98

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