On this scandal, GOP agrees with old establishment

November 26, 1998|By David M. Shribman

WASHINGTON -- The capital's peculiar mystery has been playing out for almost a year, but now, as temperatures drop and impatience rises, we pretty much know who did what to whom and where they did it. We are not, in case you haven't seen a newspaper in the past 10 months or didn't pay your cable bill, talking about Col. Mustard in the conservatory with the rope.

But a big mystery remains: Who doesn't get it?

The Washington establishment and the Republicans -- there's a combo you didn't think you'd see as subjects of the same sentence in this life -- are still in a dither about the president's affair with a one-time intern.

The Democrats are, in a phrase Monica S. Lewinsky made famous in her grand jury testament, in denial. And the public is more interested in where the Patriots will play (turn to sports section), whether 17-year-old Lucy Camden has sex (tune into TV's "7th Heaven"), or why the Thanksgiving turkey has red and blue splotches (you didn't take the wrapper off before you roasted it).

But somebody in this country isn't getting it, and it's no joke. Not since the Washington insiders' passionate debate over whether Social Security should be part of the unified budget has the political establishment cared so much about something that the rest of the country cared so little about.

Establishment politics

Somebody around here sure is missing the point about national public life. Here are three theories:

The public doesn't get it. The country did more than hire President Clinton to manage the deficit and keep the lid on world events when it elected him president. It lent him an office once occupied by Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, expecting him to return it as shiny as he received it. It presented him with great privileges in exchange for grave responsibilities. And it asked him to be the steward of the nation's traditions, the personification of its values and the curator of its myths.

The president succeeded in the surface tasks, even the ones such as the deficit, where deft hands failed before. But he soiled an office that is the center of national public life, breaking faith with the founders and with his own professed ideals. He flouted rules that apply to the most meager among us, undermining the very fundamentals of popular government. He lived by lies, half-truths, deceptions and deceits, denying the most basic moral examples for young people whose lives he vowed to enhance. Move him out of there.

The Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee don't get it. The Lewinsky scandal, a tawdry episode of immature behavior on both sides, may show the frailty of the human spirit, but it underlines the robustness of the American system. Indeed, the Washington sex wars provide a vivid example of the irresistible power of popular government. At a time when Republican firebrands (and their unlikely allies, Washington's wayward liberals) assert that the president is unfit for office, the public that elected him rose up in defiance, broke a century-old historical trend, and actually enhanced the president's party's JTC power in Congress in the sixth year of his administration.

Hard selling job

The rest of the country has signaled its interest -- indeed, its determination -- to forget the whole matter. But the prickly partisans refuse, dawdling over details in a months-long psychodrama that had bad ratings the first time around and doesn't deserve to go into syndication. The harder the Judiciary Committee Republicans push, the harder their case becomes to sell. The bigger the principles they discuss, the smaller the principals look. The more serious the GOP lawmakers' language, the sillier they look. Move on.

The Washington establishment doesn't get it. The mastodons of the capital press corps actually believe that the presidency is the center of national life, that what Washington says really matters, and that leadership and character are the same thing. They're in thrall of an 18th-century institution, mired in 19th-century romanticism, obsessed with 20th-century power relationships and completely out of tune for the 21st-century world.

The mastodons actually think Mr. Clinton's betrayal of them is far more offensive than his betrayal of his wife, that the sense of justice the Founders infused in the American system cannot tolerate a virus like Mr. Clinton and that this sorry story will have a happy ending. Move aside.

Everybody's right, in a way -- with one exception. There's no chance of a happy ending. But Thanksgiving came just in time. This year more than ever, we can all be thankful for our loved ones, where the real genius and power of the American system reside, and for this glorious land, which has shown it can withstand anything, and for the end of the 105th Congress, which means this mess is about to become history.

David Shribman is Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe.

Pub Date: 11/26/98

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