Depleting His Account: This Scandal Has Imposed a Long-Term Opportunity Cost - for Clinton and for Us

By Alter, Jonathan | Newsweek, April 13, 1998 | Go to article overview

Depleting His Account: This Scandal Has Imposed a Long-Term Opportunity Cost - for Clinton and for Us


Alter, Jonathan, Newsweek


This scandal has imposed a long-term opportunity cost--for Clinton and for us

Slept with the Governor back in the '80s? Zzzz.... His bimbo-busters told you to lie? Old news. We'll get a few more jolts down the road--the first Monica interview, the juicy details of the Starr report--but the weather for scandal-gazers is bleak. The biggest questions now revolve around the long-term consequences of this sordid season--for the legal system, for Clinton's legacy and for the rest of us.

One positive result: more summary judgment, which is a good way of saying to litigants, "Get a life." Judges less decisive than Susan Webber Wright are often afraid to impose summary judgment; it's easier to pass the buck to a jury. But throwing out groundless cases of all kinds helps to curb litigiousness and return some sanity to the system. As for sexual harassment, the message sent by Wright's decision is not that such behavior isn't serious, but that you'd better show genuine damage before wasting public money in a courtroom. She ruled that "although it is not clear why plaintiff failed to receive flowers on Secretaries Day in 1992, such an omission does not give rise to a cause of federal action." Glad we got that straightened out before it brought down a president.

While we're at it, let's agree that the independent-counsel statute should be allowed to expire next year. It's an insult to the integrity of career prosecutors, who can do the job in almost every case. It violates one of the cardinal rules of prosecutions--that they should be directed at lawbreaking, not government-targeted individuals. And it symbolizes a capital culture of investigation that is simply out of hand, with more focus and energy expended on issuing and responding to subpoenas than on solving the problems of ordinary people. Starr said last week that he's simply trying to be Joe Friday from "Dragnet" ("Just the facts, ma'am"). But the 1960s TV character he most resembles is Gladys from "Bewitched," the busybody neighbor who peers through the window all day trying--and failing--to nail the stars of the show.

Clinton, by contrast, is like the Titanic--but in this story it's the iceberg that always sinks. His survival is simultaneously exasperating and inspiring. We want our children to know nothing about what he did--but we'd love them to have his resilience. He's a permanent laughingstock--and a handy example of fortitude amid adversity. He's stupid and smart; transparently dissembling while ably running a government that leaves most Americans satisfied.

Legally speaking, Clinton was both terribly unlucky and, now, highly fortunate. For even if Monica Lewinsky or someone else comes forward to confirm that she and the president had sex, it would no longer hurt Clinton legally. Without the underlying Jones suit, any perjury in a deposition would be deemed "immaterial." Suborning perjury and witness tampering don't have to be material, but proving them against the president has always been the longest of long shots.

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