History offers Clinton survival tips

Ma, ma, where’s my pa?
Gone to the White House, ha ha ha!

It looked like the end for Grover Cleveland. His 1884 presidential campaign was about to fall apart in a flurry of innuendo and accusations from mass media and Cleveland’s opponents. As a bachelor, Cleveland already had problems facing a Victorian society that distrusted the morals of unmarried men. But Cleveland’s problems were worse than mere suspicions of waywardness — a woman in Buffalo, N.Y. claimed that Cleveland had fathered her child.
He was becoming a laughingstock, the object of skipping-rope rhymes like the one printed above (in the 1880s you knew you were in trouble when children made fun of you while they skipped rope). Pundits said no one could support a man of such suspect moral character. Cleveland’s advisers told him to drop out of the race. But he carried on and narrowly won the election, thus giving America the grand legacy of the Cleveland administration.
Much has changed in the past 114 years. In 1998 there is no need to question the morals of unmarried men — we have TV shows that confirm our suspicions. Today youth are more likely to express their political angst through gangsta rap than rope-skipping. But many things have stayed the same. Media feeding frenzies still over-magnify squabbles. Mediocre men still occupy the Oval Office. Sex scandals can still overshadow the business of governing a nation. And, quite possibly, they can still be overcome.
It’s now been about one week since the Washington Post broke the story of Bill Clinton’s alleged sexual relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The initial reports of yet another extramarital dalliance by the President have prompted renewed investigations by full-time presidential prosecutor Kenneth Starr and renewed psychological analysis of the president by everyone with media credentials. Most of these voices express the (wishful?) sentiment that this is the scandal that will bring Clinton down — and they have some solid reasons to believe this.
I have mixed feelings about adding my voice to the cacophony — after all, I’m a 24-year-old columnist for a college newspaper, and I doubt that my opinion will have much effect on the Powers that Be (I’m the same age as Monica Lewinsky, and look at how much people believe her). But it seems to me that in all the coverage an important possibility is being downplayed, the possibility that Clinton could survive this scandal without a national catastrophe.
After all, when was the last time you heard anyone talk about how the United States collapsed because of Grover Cleveland’s illegitimate kid?
Here are a few simple reasons why the Clinton presidency, despite all its plagues, could actually muddle through the Lewinsky scandal:
He can always lie. Lying is a pretty reliable tool for Presidents. Look what it did for Reagan. Through selective recall he managed to pass off illegal arms sales to Nicaraguan butchers without any real threat to his presidency, even though, according to media reports in the fall of 1986, the Reagan Administration was going to fall apart any day. Lying has served presidents ranging from Woodrow “He kept us out of war!” Wilson to the immortalized-in-stone Abraham Lincoln, who promised that the Union would stay intact just before 600,000 Americans killed each other over the rupture.
Clinton, who finally confessed to committing adultery in his deposition for the Paula Jones case, has denied any sexual relations with Lewinsky. That’s a good move for now. Even if no one believes him (I don’t, although who knows whether or not Lewinsky is equally disreputable — the evidence continues to dribble in), he’s drawn his line in the sand, and that’s the most important step for survival. Plus, his statement, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,” is semantically exquisite. We still don’t know what relations he did have with her, and we don’t even know what he considers sex; Clinton has stated in the past that oral sex isn’t really sex, which makes him well-qualified for the presidency of every American men’s locker room. As long as this case remains his-word-against-hers, he has nothing against him that Clarence Thomas couldn’t handle.
If his lies are proven to be lies, he can always lie more. Let’s say that a smoking gun (pardon the Freudian imagery) is found that exposes Clinton’s lies. Let’s say that a DNA test on Lewinsky’s purported semen-stained dress shows that the fluids in question belong to the President. Then Clinton has some real problems (but nothing O.J. Simpson couldn’t handle). Can you impeach a president for egregious tackiness? Of course not — anyone who has read a biography of Lyndon Johnson knows that’s impossible.
But a smoking gun would make Clinton very uncomfortable, and dramatic measures would be required for continued occupancy in the White House. Clinton would probably have to modify his story. “Okay, I did it,” he’d have to say. “Mistakes were made. But I’m stronger now, and I want the pain I’ve caused this nation to pass.” Preferably, he’d confess to the American people from his living room, with Hillary holding his hand. Bonus points for crying.
Not enough, you think? You don’t think such a transparent about-face would work? Guess again.
The short attention span of media is one of Clinton’s biggest assets in this scandal. Many in media could blame the American people for not paying proper attention to Clinton’s integrity, but I disagree. I think people are very good at keeping track of Whitewater, Paula Jones, etc. — they just don’t care about them as much as Washington folks do (many of them care about — drum roll, please — substantive issues!). This is understandable, as most people won’t get book deals if Clinton resigns.
For example, ABC White House reporter Sam Donaldson said on his show, “This Week,” last Sunday that the Clinton scandal would play itself out in days. That’s exactly what Donaldson should hope — if the Clinton affair becomes a drawn-out legal battle, people lose interest, and Donaldson loses a really good chapter in his next autobiography.
If Clinton confounds conventional wisdom and makes it through February, a well-timed teary-eyed confession could be enough to satisfy the American public. It’s not that people are stupid or apathetic — they’re just more concerned about their own well-being than the President’s sex life. If this happens, reporters faced with a fading story will have to go back to writing “Comeback Kid” pieces.
But what if the scandal doesn’t go away? What if there’s a smoking gun, and journalists remain tenacious, and Bill’s crocodile tears don’t work? What if he’s put on trial for perjury? At that point, it will be useful to remember another important point:
This isn’t Watergate. Reporters and Republicans alike have been using Watergate comparisons to underscore the seriousness of Clinton’s possible legal breach. But the comparison isn’t appropriate. Even if Clinton is found to have encouraged Lewinsky to lie under oath, even if he lied under oath himself, the entire affair is nothing compared to a massive conspiracy to cover up an attempt to pervert the democratic electoral process, which is what Nixon did in the early ’70s. If charges are brought to trial and Clinton is found guilty, he is a legally-proven slimeball eligible for impeachment and removal from office. Given the Republican-controlled congress, Clinton would probably have to resign if legal defeat seemed certain.
But remember — this could take years. Never underestimate a lawyer’s ability to undermine justice. The Paula Jones case has been rattling around Washington corridors since 1993. Clinton could be planning his presidential library by the time perjury charges make it to court.
What seems even more certain than a perjury trial during Clinton’s presidency is a revisiting of the independent counsel concept. Kenneth Starr may only be doing his job by investigating Clinton, but the Constitution never provided for a full-time inquisitor whose only job was to spend millions of dollars on fishing expeditions to nail the President. Right or not, Starr is becoming more of a threat to effective government than the alleged wrongdoings he investigates.
Other factors also point to Clinton’s survival. One is his opposition, which is filled with people who are downright mean. People would be much more sympathetic to the prosecutors if they weren’t the same people who created Vince Foster murder theories. What kind of “friend” tapes personal conversations anyway, as Linda Tripp did to Lewinsky? And does anyone really want to hear Rush Limbaugh shriek “I told you so” until the year 2000?
Another important force for Clinton’s resilience is national satisfaction with his overall performance as chief executive. Unlike the Watergate year of 1974, when Vietnam was just about lost and the economy was reeling from OPEC oil shock, Americans aren’t looking for anyone’s head right now. The economy is strong, and regardless of Clinton’s personal integrity, people are generally satisfied with his policies. And finally, inevitable comparisons to the film “Wag the Dog” aside, we could be at war with Iraq in three weeks. If that happens, any sex scandals will be pushed under calls for patriotism — and though presidential support might not be passionate, it will at least be distracting.
There are many reasons to believe that Clinton can weather this storm. This, of course, doesn’t mean that his actions should be condoned, or that he deserves to remain in office. As someone who owns a “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for Nader” bumper sticker, I find the president’s conduct disgusting, regardless of the truth of the Lewinsky affair. I won’t be sad if he has to resign, and I won’t be surprised if — despite all my arguments — next week I’m writing about the challenges of the Gore presidency. Things can change fast in this crazy nation of ours.
But some things don’t. As famous liar Abraham Lincoln once said, “this too, shall pass.” The republic has survived scandal before. Despite his own scandal, Grover Cleveland served two terms. Two years into his presidency he decided to ease national anxieties and married a very nice woman from a privileged background named Frances Folsom. Of course, she had been rumored to be his mistress for some time, and it was said that when Cleveland was angry he beat her mercilessly. And she was only 21 years old. Oh, the scandal! The president having sex with a 21-year-old! Imagine that.

Alan Bjerga’s column appears every Wednesday. He can be contacted at [email protected]