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A Flood of Accusations : To the Public, This Just Isn’t Important

<i> Suzanne Garment, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the author of "Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics" (Times Books)</i>

It is not pretty. It is, in fact, ugly and gross. In The Times and the American Spectator, Arkansas state troopers who guarded then-Gov. Bill Clinton have presented a picture of our President as sexually promiscuous, infantile and willing to threaten and bribe to cover up his sins. The First Lady emerges in these tales as foul-mouthed.

So is the First Couple in big political trouble? Probably not--at least not directly, and not from this particular bunch of charges.

Thus far, the public at large has shown no great enthusiasm for the current scandal. People are too busy with Christmas plans. Their interest in politics is focused on the just-barely-promising economy.

More important, they’ve heard it all before. The adultery issue could not have been more graphically embodied, as it were, by Gennifer Flowers during the 1992 presidential campaign. No live and breathing citizen could have remained unaware of her story or of the fact that Clinton did not exactly deny it. People who voted for Clinton have already made the judgment that other issues are more important.

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For its part, the scandal-making chattering class is deeply ambivalent about the current controversy. They--OK, we--like a peek at the private lives of the powerful just as much as the next guy does--probably more. We dress up our curiosity nicely inthe true, if empty, assertion that the character of high-level politicians is the public’s business.

Yet many, perhaps most, writers and commentators do not feel that adultery is a fundamental moral issue. They are, therefore, uneasy about their role as purveyors of dirt. As a result, they put various hedges around their activity. In the trooper case, their qualifications go this way:

“We don’t care about the sex; we only care whether he used government employees for personal purposes.” Or, “We don’t care about the sex; we only care whether he intimidated others to cover up his actions.” Or, “We don’t care, etc.; we only care about whether he continued his adulteries after the famous “60 Minutes” campaign appearance when he more or less promised the American people that he had turned over a new leaf.”

These positions make it harder to extend the life of the scandal.

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As for using government employees improperly, that is the crime for which Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson has been indicted in Texas. But the use of troopers to perform personal services is too widespread in state politics to be a real shocker. Anyway, you can’t indict a sitting President unless you get him out of office first, and the trooper scandal is not exactly impeachment material.

The charges about bribes and intimidation are important ones. But the President has denied them. It is hard to see how his accusers could prove the truth of their account; their credibility is already being challenged. They have reportedly been involved in an insurance scam; and their lawyer--the man some people consider their handler--is an avowed enemy of Clinton. And the question of when the President stopped fooling around--whether before or after “60 Minutes"--is inside baseball.

So, if there are all these obstacles to the spread of the scandal, how can it get the President into big trouble?

One way is the Pony Express route. When Horse No. 1 gets tired, hand your saddlebags off to another steed that can keep the mail moving.

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Though the Clinton scandal spotlight today is on sex, more interesting are the investigations, already initiated in the Justice Department and now being born on the Hill, that are delving into the Whitewater case.

Back in Arkansas, Clinton and his wife invested in something called the Whitewater Development Corp. Their partner was James B. McDougal--also the owner of a Little Rock savings and loan that, after state inaction, was shut down by the federal government at a substantial cost to U.S. taxpayers.

Federal investigators are reportedly interested in whether McDougal improperly diverted S&L; funds to politicians and to propping up Whitewater. Lurking in the background is the question of whether Clinton, as governor, let McDougal keep his S&L; going in return for some financial consideration.

The case is now in a “post-cover-up” stage: After public pressure the Clintons say they will turn over Whitewater files that were in the possession of the late deputy White House counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr.

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All we have now is a collection of ominous suggestions. But, this still being post-Watergate Washington, we must expect that something incriminating may turn up. If it does, Clinton’s fate will depend on his credibility in answering the charges against him. The current sex scandal will become one vivid way in which that credibility can be impeached.

For Clinton there is also another, more important route that trouble can take. A President is not like any other federal official; he embodies the republic. For all our attempts to draw the lines between public and private behavior, the President unavoidably merges the two. We want to admire him in a personal as well as an official sense.

When we cannot admire him, we are disappointed, and our respect for him ebbs. The absence of this respect saps a President’s ability to lead.

But whether the respect gap is crippling depends on other events. If the current presidential popularity surge gives way to hard times, the scandal will be one factor that keeps citizens from rushing to his defense.

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But if the economy keeps providing grounds for optimism and if no large crisis forces Americans to pay attention to Clinton’s spotty foreign policy, today’s sex scandal will probably not provoke a wave of indignation or a crisis of confidence. The scandal alone is not enough to revive the character issue and make it the determinant of Clinton’s fate.


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