The Damage Report: For the Sake of the Presidency, Let’s Hope the Worst Isn’t True

E.J. Dionne, Jr.
EJ Dionne
E.J. Dionne, Jr. W. Averell Harriman Chair and Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

January 25, 1998

Many parents, I have learned, had to confront the same question last week as I did from my son: What did President Clinton do wrong?

The new and potentially lethal scandal in which the president finds himself will force everyone to figure out his or her own answer to this question. If the allegations are even partly true, we will once again engage in the messy questions involving the relationship between a politician’s sexual life and his public character, the press’s role in reporting on such matters and the obligations of politicians to be honest about what they do, even in private.

We will grapple with these not as abstract issues, but as concrete questions about Bill Clinton. Even if your predisposition is not to care or want to know about a politician’s sex life, hadn’t Clinton implicitly promised Americans that his indiscretions would be confined to his past and that he would spare us from further spectacles? Given all the forces at work to bring him down, wouldn’t new sexual adventures be dangerously reckless?

To answer these questions, of course, we’ll need to know more than the president has told us so far. If Clinton had no sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, the then 21-year-old White House intern, the controversy melts away. Clinton would have no need to perjure himself or encourage her to lie. The answer, then, would be refreshingly simple: The president did nothing wrong.

But the public does not believe that simple answer to be true. According to a Gallup poll conducted for CNN and USA Today, 54 percent of those surveyed believe he had the sexual relationship that’s been alleged, and only 37 percent think not. Worse than the poll results is this: The president, despite his formal denials, hasn’t convinced us that he believes in his own innocence.

That’s one thing he has already done wrong. In the early interviews, his answers were hedged, formulaic, lawyerly and limited—the school of response that has earned the label “Clintonian.” By answering the questions with such narrow specificity and peculiar grammar, he has clouded the issue and invited disbelief.

“There is no improper relationship,” he told Jim Lehrer. “There is not a sexual relationship.” Yes, but was there a sexual relationship, and by the way, what exactly is your definition of “improper”?

His later responses got stronger, but the damage was done. Reporters went scurrying for other instances in which the narrow denial turned out, on examination, to be no denial at all.

The president could fix this any day he wanted without worrying his lawyers: If the charges are false, he could come out strongly and say, “I’ve been wronged. I’m the target of a reckless special prosecutor who exploited a fine young woman with an active imagination.” Then he would need to start at the beginning and deal with the specific details that have emerged: How well did he know Lewinsky? Did he spend much time with her? Did he send her gifts? If so, why? Did he leave her phone messages? These things are either true or they’re not. They either have innocent explanations or they don’t. If you’re not guilty of something, how much orchestration and spin control do you need?

Many people are ready to disbelieve the president not only because of his past behavior and clever deflections, but because he really hasn’t told us anything. We’re supposed to accept his denials on faith. But many people, including many of the president’s supporters, don’t.

So let’s turn to the possibility many of the president’s friends fear: that he did have some sort of sexual relationship with Lewinsky and has lied about it. Is that a hanging offense?

Put aside for a moment what could really get the president into legal trouble—not the relationship itself, but that he may have lied about it under oath. And that, worse still, he or his agents encouraged Lewinsky to lie. What about, well, sex?

I’ve heard it said this week, and not just by Clinton supporters: Who cares with whom the president sleeps? Is that our business? How many other pols have had goodness knows how many other extramarital relationships and gotten away with them? If he’s a good president and the affairs are consensual, what difference does it make? And why in the world does the press love to report on this stuff?

In truth, most of the press does not love to report on this stuff, a point made by Clinton’s opponents. They contend that mainstream reporters (with a few exceptions) have consistently downplayed or ignored the president’s sex life. Mostly, the press wanted the stories to go away.

The critics’ read of the press is right, though they’re wrong if they think reporters avoid such stories because of any political sympathy for Clinton. The truth is plainer: Most reporters and columnists did not get into this business to write about sex. When the press does write about the sex life of a public figure, it’s almost always done in the name of some other value—whether he’s being honest or not, whether he’s harassed a woman or not, whether he abused power or not, whether he’s “compulsive” or “reckless.” Feminists certainly played an important role in encouraging a more public look at private lives: Sex was not always entirely consensual; women were often used—even abused—by influential men. That was a political, not simply a personal, issue.

I’ve thought about this question more than I wanted to because I’m the reporter to whom Gary Hart issued his “follow me around” challenge in 1987. He was responding to my own fumbling, faltering, uncomfortable questions about his personal life during an interview for a New York Times magazine profile that I was writing.

By the time I posed my questions, the issue of Hart’s infidelities had already entered print, ginned up by some of his opponents’ aides but raised also by journalists themselves.

Before the whole Hart business broke, the subject of what journalists should report about Hart’s personal life was a regular topic of debate at dinners among reporters. Many who had covered Hart in the 1984 presidential campaign (I did not) saw his sexual behavior as—these were the popular words then, too—”compulsive” and “reckless.” Many of these reporters thought politicians deserved a zone of privacy, but worried that this could lead in some cases to a kind of cover-up, an informal conspiracy of silence.

I still lean more to the “I really don’t want to know” school and remain uneasy with my minor role in changing the journalistic conventions on covering matters sexual. Still, I had to ask Hart the questions if my portrait of him was going to be honest. I knew that Hart’s aides and close supporters worried about the public impact of his private behavior. If they were worried, perhaps the rest of us should be worried, too.

Hart made it easy on everyone when he invited us to follow him around. Miami Herald reporters did—on the very weekend my magazine profile appeared. They uncovered his relationship with Donna Rice. Hart subsequently quit the 1988 race.

The worst thing about the Hart eruption is that it short-circuited a real debate about the link between sexuality and public service. Given Hart’s strong statements, any reporting on his sex life could be justified in the name of unmasking “hypocrisy.” That opens up a lot of ground, since few people, public or private, broadcast their affairs.

No one studied this history more closely than Bill Clinton. In 1991, he sought to close off press inquiries by ever so delicately proclaiming that he was not a hypocrite. In September, before he announced his presidential candidacy, Clinton had breakfast with a group of journalists. Clinton lieutenants urged reporters in advance to ask him about his personal life.

While they were reluctant, someone finally popped the question. Here’s what Clinton said: “Like nearly anybody who has been together for 20 years, our relationship has not been perfect or free from difficulties, but we feel good about where we are and we believe in our obligation to each other, and we intend to be together 30 or 40 years from now, whether I run for president or not.”

It was masterful. Clinton didn’t quite admit anything, but made clear he wasn’t pretending anything either. He effectively shut off discussion of sex until Gennifer Flowers announced in January 1992 that she and Clinton had had a long affair. Even then, the September statement served him well: Clinton could always say that this or that accusation amounted to old news, that he had already said his past behavior hadn’t been perfect.

But these are the seeds of his current problem: Clinton never explicitly promised to be faithful to his wife, but he suggested that his present and future would be different from his past. My hunch is that even Americans who might be forgiving of an indiscretion wanted Clinton to promise them that whatever he had done before, there would be no new public embarrassments and media circuses.

It’s hard to imagine that Clinton did not know that he risked precisely this if he had affairs in the White House. The very enemies Clinton often railed against would not let such conduct pass unnoticed, if they ever got wind of it. And when the Supreme Court let Paula Jones’s sexual harassment case move forward, it turned the personal into the legal.

Once Clinton failed to settle the case out of court, he was trapped. He would have to give a deposition and his conduct, both past and present, could be open to scrutiny by everyone. If he did have any more affairs and lied about them under oath, he would be guilty of perjury. If he told the truth, he risked a new media frenzy when the facts leaked out. He would have broken the implicit pact he made to stick to the right and true—or at least to keep things quiet. For all the problems, truth telling remains the better alternative. If no lying or perjury is involved, then the story is about sex. And about sex, the American people have shown a certain mercy.

What did Clinton do wrong? My hope would be that sometime very soon, I can tell my son: nothing at all. My fear is that won’t be true. If this affair did happen, a powerful, middle-aged president slept with a very young aide. That this has been done before is a poor rationalization. In doing so, he risked his presidency at its most promising moment. He embarrassed himself, his family and his country. He will have lied, set up circumstances in which he knew he would have to lie, and he may have done so under oath.

High crimes and misdemeanors? Certainly there’s no comparison with the Watergate break-ins and the attempted subversion of the election process. Especially in the absence of a perjury charge, there is something dreadful and sadly comic in even contemplating an impeachment rooted in a sexual affair. But whatever happens to Clinton, if this story is true, the answer is yes, he did something wrong, and something stupid, and something sad. I hope it didn’t happen.