|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
17 - 23 September 1998
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Bill Clinton turns to God
Friday, 11 September 1998 was a day unlike any other in American history. In the White House that morning the president of the republic turned in desperation to God and religion. At a "prayer breakfast" he tearfully confessed before a roomful of priests that "I have sinned". Citing the Jewish and Christian scriptures, he asked for "forgiveness" from his family, staff, the American people and Monica Lewinsky. Hillary Clinton was there endorsing her husband's appeal and extolling his achievements as a peacemaker. He was careful nonetheless to draw a distinction between sin and the law, saying he will instruct his lawyers "to mount a vigorous defense". Therein lay Clinton's strategy: establish a separation between law and morality, admit to sinning in personal life, insist on presidential rectitude, and disarm the public and the media with gestures of atonement over a private failing while contesting accusations of crime and misuse of power.
The opening scene suggests that this strategy yields mixed results. It will be some time before the muck clears. Clinton may escape impeachment but will be a lame duck for the remainder of his two and a half years as president. Irrespective of its immediate effect on Clinton's presidency, this event will affect the future of American politics.
Within hours of the confessional breakfast cyberspace was filled with muck, and the net closed on William Jefferson Clinton. In a 445-page document, all of it on the Internet, Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel, had found Bill Clinton liable to impeachment on eleven counts involving perjury, obstruction of justice, witness tampering, and abuse of authority. This indictment is supported by an excruciating and salacious recounting of details. In the Paula Jones case Clinton had denied, under oath, ever having had sexual relations with "that woman, Miss Lewinsky". So, Mr Starr has provided, in nearly 50 pages, a quite lurid and sometimes funny account of Bill Clinton's "sexual encounters" -- one to ten -- with Monica Lewinsky, an ambitious and manipulative 21-year-old intern at the White House. This quite salacious section of the report reveals Clinton as a middle-aged urchin, dangerously vulnerable, lacking judgment, self-control and integrity. Public attention world wide has naturally centered on this section of the Starr Report.
Ironically, Clinton's lawyers, too, have responded by focusing on the salacious in Kenneth Starr's report, describing it as a "hit and run smear campaign" replete with gratuitous "pornographic specificity". In a 42-page rebuttal, they contend that Starr had found "only personal, not impeachable" misconduct by the president. Kenneth Starr argued back that the inclusion of the lurid in his report was "unfortunate but essential" for judging the overall reliability of the evidence. After all, Clinton's alleged violations of law and abuse of authority were related to his efforts to conceal his illicit sexual relations. Be that as it may, the jury is out on Bill Clinton. The Congress will decide by a complex procedure which will begin with an inquiry led by Congressman Henry Hyde as head of the House Judiciary Committee. The House of Representatives may dismiss the charges, vote for a censure, or vote by a simple majority to impeach. For impeachment to go into effect, the Senate must cast a two-thirds vote.
Speculations abound, but as of now the informed consensus is that while Clinton may not escape a congressional censure, he is unlikely to be impeached. White House lawyers' vigorous rebuttal notwithstanding, Kenneth Starr has built a strong legal case for impeachment. It is apparent that Bill Clinton committed perjury when he denied under oath, during a legal deposition, having sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. To this commentator at least, the evidence appears persuasive that he committed perjury and also attempted to shape the evidence of potential witnesses on the White House staff. But, pious claims from congressmen and senators notwithstanding, political calculations shall influence the verdict of legislators more than the merits of the case. As of now, the political equation favors Clinton's continuing in office, with his power and stature greatly truncated.
The charges against Clinton are quite similar to those leveled at Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal -- obstruction of justice and abuse of power -- but their context is quite different. Nixon's misdemeanor was committed in the pursuit of power and politics. Clinton's has been the outcome of a personal proclivity. Hence, in relation to him the idea of forgiveness appeals more easily. Watergate occurred toward the end of the Vietnam war when America's morale was shaken and there was a hankering after moral leadership which Nixon's conduct violated. By contrast, Clinton's administration is identified with prosperity following years of stagnation. Also, the media favors Clinton. Over three decades in national politics, Nixon and a large portion of the American media had developed an adversarial relationship; when the Watergate story broke, Nixon had few friends in the media. Of a seemingly liberal disposition and a relative newcomer to national politics, Clinton has stayed on the good side of the media, and his wife is an outright favorite. (A certain revulsion from the president's dissimulation and crude conduct has surfaced since the Starr Report was released, but will it last?) For these reasons, while the polls indicate a deep revulsion at Clinton's behavior, this does not translate into approving impeachment. A large majority of Americans wish it to be over soon, with him censured, not impeached. This is mid-term election time, and the presidential campaign is a mere two years ahead. This is opinion watch season in America.
The Republican Party legislators, upon whom falls the onus of leading the impeachment bandwagon, should be the least desirous of impeaching the Democratic Party president. First of all, their party will be in a better position to defeat the democratic candidate if a discredited incumbent sits in the White House. Why should they give the democrats a clean administration to defend in the next presidential election? Moreover, the chances of an impeachment proceeding becoming protracted ought to be taken seriously. Clinton supporters may even filibuster it. If it takes a mere five months to impeach, Albert Gore as president for less than two years will be a formidable incumbent. (He cannot run for a second term if he has been in the White House for more than two years.) Why then carry out an impeachment lacking strong public support and with dubious media backing? A vote of censure, by contrast, may suit the popular mood and make the Grand Old Party appear statesmanlike -- above petty politics and mindful of the public interest. So ironically, his opposition happens to be Clinton's best ally.
The danger lies in his own party. Here, too, Clinton's situation resembles Nixon's Watergate debacle. He held out through the grueling congressional hearings and resigned only when his own party members turned against him. They were haunted by the same specter: having to seek re-election with a lame duck at the helm. A compromise was then reached: Nixon shall resign. In return, his successor Vice President Gerald Ford shall pardon him against possible prosecution. The murmurings and first gestures of the Clinton team suggest that it is aiming toward a plea bargain with the Congress, perhaps a more contrite apology than he has offered so far, a congressional vote of censure, and a return to the business breakfast in the White House. There are still weeks, if not months, before this affair shall approach conclusion. Depending on the political and economic environment at the time, this may or may not play with Clinton's own party members. If at the moment of truth they feel safer with Albert Gore, then it will be time for Clinton to go.
The salacity and crudeness on display is truly nauseating. The honorable course for Bill Clinton would have been to resign. As Palestinians have learned the hard way, a sense of honor, taking responsibility, or keeping promises are not among Bill Clinton's strengths. He, like his wife Hillary, has a will to power and will hang on to it as long as he can. But the system over which he presides shall endure as it has the strengths of a well rooted democracy. Accountability is not merely a slogan here, nor simply a weapon to use against opponents. Rather it serves as a mechanism for correction. That is what Watergate was about. Decades of interventions, the authorised illegalities which were permitted US officials in distant lands, had ruined official American habits. At the end of the Indo-China war, which so dramatically exposed the contradictions of American life, the chickens of dirty tricks abroad came home to roost. The American media, public and congress joined in the cleansing act. Inquiries were held and reformist measures were taken. One innovation to strengthen the structure of accountability was the creation of the office of independent counsel of which the latest holder is Kenneth Starr. Given the propensity of American democracy to reform, Monicagate too shall yield some good.
But the democracy I have just praised is imperial, hence deeply flawed. It wishes to and does exercise power abroad, often in an arbitrary fashion, frequently in criminal ways that have devastating effects on peoples' lives and future. It does so without accountability, at home or abroad. Even officially acknowledged crimes of the American government and officials routinely go unremarked and unpunished. Thus in the last five decades not one president nor one of his high officials has been censured by the congress, convicted by the courts, or investigated by an independent counsel for the myriad crimes they have committed upon individuals and peoples abroad. Some of these are officially acknowledged crimes, among which are the multiple attempts to kill Fidel Castro, the targeted killing of some 10,000 Vietnamese under the Phoenix Program, the participation in the overthrow of elected governments such as those of Arbenz, Mossadegh and Allende, and the waging of secret wars that caused the destruction of Laos and Cambodia. All of these were illegal acts, none was carried out with congressional consent, and none was a subject of inquiry and censure. It is this fact which renders the American a narrow and sectarian democracy unworthy, still, of universal respect.