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Clinton Agonistes

Referral to the United States House of Representatives pursuant to Title 28, United States Code, å¤595(c)

Submitted by the Office of the Independent Counsel


No one who ever passed through an American public high school could have watched the current president of the United States running for office in 1992 and failed to recognize the familiar predatory sexuality of the provincial adolescent. The man was, Jesse Jackson said that year to another point, “nothing but an appetite.” No one who followed his appearances on The Road to The White House on C-SPAN could have missed the reservoir of self-pity, the quickness to blame, the narrowing of the eyes, as in a wildlife documentary, when things did not go his way: a response so reliable that aides on Jerry Brown’s 1992 campaign looked for situations in which it could be provoked.

The famous tendency of the candidate to take a less than forthcoming approach to embarrassing questions had already been documented and discussed, most exhaustively in the matter of his 1969 draft status, and he remained the front-runner. The persistent but initially unpublished rumors about extramarital rovings had been, once Gennifer Flowers told her story to the Star, published and acknowledged, and he remained on his feet. “I have acknowledged wrongdoing,” he had told America during his and his wife’s rather premonitory 60 Minutes appearance on Super Bowl Sunday of that year. “I have acknowledged causing pain in my marriage. I think most Americans who are watching this tonight, they’ll know what we’re saying, they’ll get it, and they’ll feel that we have been more than candid. And I think what the press has to decide is, are we going to engage in a game of gotcha?”

Nothing that is now known about the current president of the United States, in other words, was not known before the New Hampshire primary in 1992. The implicit message in his August testimony to the Office of the Independent Counsel was not different in kind from that made explicit in January of 1992: I think most Americans who are watching this…they’ll know what we’re saying, they’ll get it, and they’ll feel that we have been more than candid. By the time of the 1992 general election, the candidate was before us as he appears today: a more detailed and realized character than that presented in the Office of the Independent Counsel’s oddly novelistic Referral to the United States House of Representatives but recognizably drawn to similar risk, voraciously needy, deeply fractured, and yet there, a force to contend with, a possessor of whatever manna accrues to those who have fought themselves and survived. The flaws already apparent in 1992 were by no means unreported, but neither, particularly in those parts of the country recently neutralized by their enshrinement as “the heartland,” were they seized as occasions for rhetorical outrage: “With 16 million Americans unemployed, 40 million Americans without health care and 3 million Americans homeless, here’s what we have to say about presidential aspirant Bill Clinton’s alleged previous marital infidelity,” the Peoria Journal-Star declared on its editorial page at the time of the 60 Minutes appearance. “So what? And that’s all.”

There were those for whom the candidate’s clear personal volatility suggested the possibility of a similar evanescence on matters of ideology or policy, but even the coastal opinion leaders seemed willing to grant him a laissez-passer on this question of sex: “To what degree, if any, is the private action relevant to the duties of the public office?” the Los Angeles Times asked on its editorial page in January 1992. “Shouldn’t our right to know about a candidate’s sex life be confined…to offenses such as rape, harassment or sex discrimination?” The New York Times report on the 60 Minutes interview, which was headlined “Clinton Defends His Privacy And Says the Press Intruded” and appeared on page A14, was followed the next day by an editorial (“Leers, Smears and Governor Clinton”) not only commending the candidate for having drawn a line “between idle curiosity and responsible attention” but noting that “he won’t provide details and he need not, unless it develops that his private conduct arguably touches his public performance or fitness for office.” The same day, January 28, 1992, A.M. Rosenthal wrote in the Times that Governor and Mrs. Clinton had “presented to the American public a gift and a testing opportunity”:

The gift is that they treated us as adults. The opportunity is for us to act that way…. We can at least treasure the hope that Americans would be fed up with the slavering inquisition on politicians’ sexual history and say to hell with that and the torturers. That would be a thank-you card worthy of the gift from the Clinton couple—the presumption that Americans have achieved adulthood, at last.

Few in the mainstream press, in 1992, demanded a demonstration of “contrition” from the candidate. Few, in 1992, demanded “full remorse,” a doubtful concept even in those venues, courtrooms in which criminal trials have reached the penalty phase, where “remorse” is most routinely invoked. Few, in 1992, spoke of the United States as so infantilized as to require a president beyond personal reproach. That so few did this then, and so many have done this since, has been construed by some as evidence that the interests and priorities of the press have changed. In fact the interests and priorities of the press have remained reliably the same: then as now, the press could be relied upon to report a rumor or a hint down to the ground (tree it, bag it, defoliate the forest for it, destroy the village for it), but only insofar as that rumor or hint gave promise of advancing the story of the day, the shared narrative, the broad line of whatever story was at the given moment commanding the full resources of the reporters covering it and the columnists commenting on it and the on-tap experts analyzing it on the talk shows. (The 1998 Yearbook of Experts, Authorities & Spokespersons tellingly provides, for producers with underdeveloped Rolodexes of their own, 1,477 telephone numbers to call for those guests “who will drive the news issues in the next year.”) In Spin Cycle, a book in which Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post endeavors to demonstrate the skill of “the Clinton propaganda machine” (similarly described by Joe Klein, despite impressive evidence to the contrary, as “the most sophisticated communications apparatus in the history of American politics”) at setting the agenda for the press, there appears this apparently ingenuous description of how the press itself sets its agenda:

A front-page exclusive would ripple through the rest of the press corps, dominate the briefing, and most likely wind up on the network news. The newsmagazine reporters were not quite as influential as in years past, but they could still change the dialogue or cement the conventional wisdom with a cover story or a behind-the-scenes report. Two vital groups of reinforcements backed up the White House regulars…one was the columnists and opinion-mongers—Jonathan Alter at Newsweek, Joe Klein at The New Yorker, William Safire and Maureen Dowd at the New York Times, E.J. Dionne and Richard Cohen at the Washington Post—who could quickly change the zeitgeist…the other was the dogged band of investigative reporters—Jeff Gerth at the Times, Bob Woodward at the Post, Glenn Simpson at the Wall Street Journal, Alan Miller at the Los Angeles Times

Once the “Zeitgeist” has been agreed upon, any unrelated event, whatever its significance, becomes either non-news (Robert Scheer, in his Los Angeles Times review of Spin Cycle, noted that its index included eighteen references to Paula Jones and sixteen to John Huang but none to Saddam Hussein) or, if sufficiently urgent, a news brief: on August 16 of this year, after hearing flash updates on the Omagh bombing in Northern Ireland (“worst attack in almost thirty years of violence…latest figures as we have it are 28 people dead…220 people injured, 103…still in hospital”) and on the American embassy bombings in East Africa, Wolf Blitzer, on a two-hour Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer otherwise exclusively devoted to the “legal ramifications, political considerations, and historic consequences” of Monica Lewinsky, said this: “Catherine Bond, reporting live from Nairobi, thanks for joining us. Turning now to the story that has all of Washington holding its breath….”

In 1992, as in any election year, the story that had all of Washington holding its breath was the campaign, and since the interpreters of the campaign, taking their cue from the political professionals, had early on certified Governor Clinton as the most electable of the Democratic candidates, his personal failings could serve only as a step in his quest, a test of his ability to prevail. Before the New Hampshire primary campaign was even fully underway, Governor Clinton was reported to be the Democratic candidate with “centrist credentials,” the Democratic candidate who “offered an assessment of the state of the American economy that borrows as much from Republicans like Jack Kemp as it does from liberals,” the Democratic candidate who could go to California and win support from “top Republican fundraisers,” the candidate, in short, who “scored well with party officials and strategists.” A survey of Democratic National Committee members had shown Clinton in the lead. The late Ronald H. Brown, at the time chairman of the Democratic Party, had been reported, still before a single vote was cast in New Hampshire, to have pressured Mario Cuomo to remove his name from the New York primary ballot, so that a divisive favorite-son candidacy would not impede the chosen front-runner.

By the morning of January 26, 1992, the Sunday of the 60 Minutes appearance and shortly after the candidate sealed his centrist credentials by allowing the execution of the brain-damaged Rickey Ray Rector to proceed in Arkansas, William Schneider, in the Los Angeles Times, was awarding Governor Clinton the coveted “Big Mo,” noting that “the Democratic Party establishment is falling in line behind Clinton.” In a party that reserves a significant percentage of its convention votes (18 percent in 1996) for “superdelegates,” the seven-hundred-some elected and party officials not bound by any popular vote, the message sent by this early understanding among the professionals was clear, as it had been when the professionals settled on Michael Dukakis for 1988: the train was now leaving the station, and, since the campaign, as “story,” requires that the chosen candidates be seen as contenders who will go the distance, all inconvenient baggage, including “the character issue,” would be left on the platform. What would go on the train was what Joe Klein, echoing the note of romantic credulity in his own 1992 coverage of the candidate Bill Clinton (that was before the Zeitgeist moved on), recently recalled in The New Yorker as the “precocious fizz” of the War Room, “the all-nighters…about policy or philosophy,” the candidate who “loved to talk about serious things” and “seems to be up on every social program in America.”

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