Why send scandal into overtime?

August 10, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- In his heyday as a voice of those he called "the average citizens," the late George Wallace used to enjoy making fun of those who made excuses for criminals. "They say," he would say, "that he did it because his daddy didn't carry him to a Pittsburgh Pirates game when he was a little boy."

Lines like that were sure fire crowd-pleasers when the Alabama governor was running for president as a third-party candidate a generation ago. A lot of Americans don't buy the argument that parents should be blamed for the conduct of their children once they grow up.

Hillary Clinton apparently doesn't understand that. If she had, she would not have made the comments in her infamous interview with Talk magazine that suggested that President Clinton's behavior as a 50-year-old man might have been affected by the "scars" he suffered when he was 4.

The Clintons have been quick to deny that they believe anyone except Mr. Clinton himself was responsible for his egregiously outlandish behavior with Monica Lewinsky.

"Everybody is responsible for their behavior and I am a very strong proponent and believer in personal responsibility," said Mrs. Clinton, "so I hope that people will take this message away from this."

Said Mr. Clinton: "I have not made any excuses for what was inexcusable and neither has she, believe me."

Mrs. Clinton and her defenders also pointed out, accurately, that, in the magazine interview, she did not explicitly link the president's sexual misconduct with conflict between his mother and grandmother.

But the language she used in describing her husband's pattern of behavior with women certainly encouraged the inference that that he was a victim. That contrasts sharply with her previous claims that the Lewinsky episode was a product of some "vast right-wing conspiracy."

But the bizarre fact here is that Mrs. Clinton put herself on record finding excuses for her husband when everyone else apparently wants to forget about any Clinton scandal-related matters.

The message in the opinion polls is explicit: Enough already.

One of the theories being tested right now is that Mrs. Clinton wanted to dispose of the issue here in the dog days of summer so it will be permanently off the table for the next 15 months in which she will be running for the Senate from New York. Indeed, after raising the issue at great length in the magazine interview, she now has cut off any further discussion.

But what cannot be erased is this further evidence of the Clintons once again indulging themselves by agonizing in public over the state of their psyches.

The immediate question is what impact, if any, this little brouhaha will have on the Senate campaign. It is a question that obviously cannot be answered for months, if ever. At the very least, it has made the first lady the butt of jokes, not a good position to occupy in New York politics, for some indeterminate period.

And it clearly doesn't help her to be seen as a soft-headed liberal trying to seek out excuses for the inexcusable. In the Talk interview, she even suggested that the president lied about the Monica Lewinsky affair because he was trying to protect Mrs. Clinton. That one will be especially hard to sell.

The real victim in all this may be an innocent party, Vice President Al Gore. It is already clear that one of the heaviest burdens he carries as a candidate for president is "Clinton fatigue," meaning the desire of the American people to move beyond all the tawdry melodrama that has been so much a part of this administration.

The last thing he needs is another round of public conversation about why Mr. Clinton behaved like such a cad. No one cares.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 8/10/99

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