Clinton's Challenge: Restore Trust

Robert B. Reich, a professor of economic and social policy at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., was secretary of labor during President Clinton's first term

The Monica Lewinsky scandal bemused and confused many around the world. How can the world's most powerful nation find itself mired in this messy affair? Why are we making such a fuss? Aren't there more important things to focus on than sex in the Oval Office?

Let me assure you that we haven't lost our minds. Most of us--even including those of us who have campaigned for Bill Clinton in the past, known him for years and served with him in Washington--are angry and confused, wishing that the whole thing would go away.

How can we get beyond this, over this, through this? By recognizing that the independent counsel's allegations are not really at issue. The American public does not want to impeach a president for lying about sex, or even encouraging others to do so. Most people are willing to forgive him his trespasses. Clinton's real problems stem from what he has already admitted to, and the resulting damage to his stature and credibility. His challenge--and the nation's--is how to restore the public's trust in this presidency.

One problem is what is now understood as a "character flaw" (for those who wish to blame him) or a "compulsion" (for those who wish to blame demons in his psyche). Clinton took a wild, bizarre risk when he carried on an "inappropriate" relationship with then 21-year-old Lewinsky. It occurred just months before the 1996 presidential election, less than four years after he almost lost the previous election over charges of sexual recklessness and just six months after Paula Jones charged in a civil lawsuit that he had asked her to perform oral sex in a Little Rock hotel room--charges against which, he knew, he might have to defend himself in court.

It was also a time when corporate America, universities and the U.S. military were under heightened scrutiny for permitting men in positions of power to sexually exploit female subordinates, and Lewinsky herself was the most subordinate of subordinates, a mere intern in the White House, barely out of college.

Consider, too, that the liaison went on for many months; that there was a high probability that Lewinsky would talk about it with others; that it occurred in or near the Oval Office, where security guards and gatekeepers would see her come and go, and that it included gifts and telephone calls that would constitute evidence of a relationship. Consider all of this, and you might conclude that something is not quite right with the president. What happens to presidential power when he shows such lack of judgment? Power inevitably subsides.

The second offense is the public lie, not simply the fact of it (presidents have been known to dissemble) but its passionate intensity. Better than any president of the television age, better even than Ronald Reagan, Clinton has mastered television--looking directly into the television camera, into the eyes of millions of Americans; speaking firmly but softly; pausing for reflection, lower lip sometimes protruding in defiance; sometimes eyes moist and brows tilted slightly upward, showing empathy or contrition. Like the great method actors of a generation ago, Clinton feels the emotions he expresses; his performances could not be so convincing were they anything but sincere. And yet, they are still performances.

Last January, the president told America with stunning conviction that he had not had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky. On Aug. 17, he looked into the eyes of America and said his January words had been "misleading." Many who witnessed both television performances thought the January one the more convincing. Hence, Clinton's second problem. If he can so convincingly fake a lie, how can the public believe anything else he says, including his current stream of apologies? Despite protestations that the Lewinsky affair was his private business, the betrayal was indubitably public because the denials were so passionately public. He spoke to America with the same emotional intensity he has brought to countless public issues. The danger for Clinton is that he will never again be entirely believed. What happens to presidential power when credibility is so blatantly forfeited? It inevitably subsides.

More apologies won't restore this president's power, nor will a formidable White House campaign to defend this presidency against impeachment. What's needed is an explanation from the president of why he risked everything and then lied so baldly about it, and an assurance that he has changed his ways. Americans will forgive him for this tryst, yet presidential power depends less on absolution than on an affirmative commitment of public trust.

Without trust, Clinton has only the public's approval of how he is doing his job, which rests largely on the continued strength of the U.S. economy, a perilous foundation, particularly with a third of the world in recession or worse. Absent trust, America will remain mired in this controversy, unable to focus on the more important issues which need Washington's attention. Lacking trust, Clinton in effect has no presidency to defend, and the nation has no president to lead us.

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