A consensus is emerging on the presidential scandals

The Argument

A field guide to the outpouring of books about Clinton, Lewinsky and the moral and political consequences.

February 20, 2000|By David Kusnet | David Kusnet,Special to the Sun

Now that Monica Lewinsky is doing commercials for a weight-loss program, Linda Tripp has gotten a face lift and Bill Clinton enjoys high ratings as a president but low esteem as a person, a sensible consensus is finally emerging about the scandal that almost toppled him.

To understand the meaning of Monicagate, you have to wade through a pile of books, with too much political, legal and sexual esoterica -- all in search of the answer to the question: "So what?"

The conclusions of the Clinton chroniclers increasingly resemble the verdict of the voters:

Our president is a gifted leader with a disorderly personal life. We elected him because he understood the nation's economic and social problems and offered imaginative ideas for solving them. Since taking office, he's been hounded by political opponents whom he gave ammunition with personal behavior that deserved reproach but not removal from office. And he's leaving the country in better shape economically and even socially -- and at little risk of imitating his private behavior.

This assessment is important, even though most people are exhausted with Clinton's personal life and his critics' fixation with it. The nation still needs to set standards for evaluating the character of presidential aspirants and incumbents. The consensus on Clinton reaffirms the views most Americans have held for most of our history: Character is both crucial and complex. Flawed people can make fine presidents -- perhaps because their sins can set them on a quest for redemption through public service. And their private lives should stay private.

This emerging consensus reflects the evolution of Clint-lit. The Clinton-bashers began the battle. Such authors as former FBI agent Gary Aldrich ("Unlimited Access"), magazine publisher Emmett Tyrrell ("The Impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton"), investigative journalist David Brock ("The Seduction of Hillary Rodham") and the muckraking attorneys Ann Coulter ("High Crimes and Misdemeanors") and Barbara Olson ("Hell to Pay") all weighed in with books presenting Bill and Hillary Clinton as financially corrupt, personally depraved and 1960s radicals masquerading as moderates.

Almost lost amid the attacks were more balanced biographies by the journalists David Maraniss ("First in His Class") and Martin Walker ("The President We Deserve"). Each presents Clinton as a representative figure of our times, personally undisciplined but offering a centrist governance that meets the nation's needs.

As the Lewinsky scandal unfolded, it became clear that most Americans did not want to see Clinton impeached and convicted. His harshest critics then agreed that Clinton is a man of our times, and they began to condemn the people as well as the president. In "The Death of Outrage," William Bennett wrote: "Once in a while, a single national event provides insight into where we are and who we are and what we esteem."

Arguing that public and private behavior cannot be "compartmentalized," Bennett presented a view of the president as moral exemplar that became the basis for the case for impeachment, from Congress to the airwaves. To tolerate Clinton's wrongdoing, he warned, would signal the decline of the "moral streak" that makes the United States a special nation.

Even Bennett, the vicar of virtue, offered a measure of moral relativism, suggesting that John F. Kennedy's escapades were less reprehensible than Clinton's because they were less reckless. After all, JFK served at a time when the press respected presidential privacy, and he knew he wouldn't get caught.

Indeed, Bennett seems moderate compared to Marvin Olasky, a prominent social conservative, whose most recent book claims a clear connection "between religious beliefs and policy decisions, and also the links between lying about adultery and lying about other matters." Bearing a blurb from Texas governor and presidential contender George W. Bush, whom Olasky advises, "The American Leadership Tradition: Moral Vision from Washington to Clinton" (Basic Books, 298 pages, $25) contends that there is no distinction at all between public and private behavior. Thus, he argues that Grover Cleveland, a reformed philanderer who led the nation into economic collapse, was a better president than Franklin Roosevelt, a more complex figure who led the nation out of the Great Depression.

Such views were bound to generate a counterpoint, and now they have. In very different books, the journalists Jeffrey Toobin, Michael Isikoff, and the team of Joe Conason and Gene Lyons, as well as the conservative federal judge Richard Posner, all strive to put Monicagate into perspective.

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