The Two Faces of Bill Clinton

By Postrel, Virginia | Reason, December 1998 | Go to article overview

The Two Faces of Bill Clinton


Postrel, Virginia, Reason


Is the personal political?

It has been the year's great mystery: How is it that Bill Clinton is holding at about 60 percent support in public opinion polls - a lot better than he has ever done in a presidential election - while the political establishment sees him as an utter disgrace, a problem that needs to be purged from American political life?

The "utter disgrace" view is by no means confined to Republicans. After the videotape of Clinton's grand jury testimony was released, The Washington Post editorialized: "By just about any standard but, apparently, his own, the President pretty plainly lied under oath in a court proceeding and repeatedly in public and private thereafter.... Our position continues to be that Congress needs to open a formal impeachment inquiry and decide as that unfolds what course to take."

After Clinton's petulant pseudo-apology speech in August, David Broder, the dean of Washington political reporters, wrote in the Post that "in one respect what Clinton has done is every bit as bad as what Richard Nixon did.... Instead of owning up and taking 'complete responsibility' as he said Monday night he was finally willing to do, he lied. He not only lied to Paula Jones's lawyers, he lied to the public and to his closest political associates and implicated the leaders of his party and his government in the deception. The selfishness of that act is staggering.... [Clinton] acted - and still, even in his supposed mea culpa, acts - as if he does not recognize what it means to be President of the United States."

The general public also knows Clinton lies, and it is none too keen on his sexual shenanigans. Yet those polls remain high, all the better since the release of the videotape that Clinton's partisans fought so hard to keep secret. His personal approval ratings have dropped precipitously, but outside the political establishment and diehard Clinton haters, there is no clamor for his impeachment or resignation. Why such double standards?

The difference lies in whom you see in Bill Clinton: the man, or the president. The public sees the man, a citizen pursued by the power of the state and put in a frightening and humiliating position. Without approving his perjury, ordinary Americans excuse it. They see Clinton's sexual misdeeds as private matters, just as the president and his defenders claim, because they regard sex as inherently private - not an appropriate matter for government prying. They nod when Rep. John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, opines that "Even worse than an extramarital relationship is the use of federal prosecutors and federal agents to expose an extramarital relationship."

Clinton, in this reading, represents Everyman - not in his actions, which people deem immature, sinful, or sick, but in his relationship to government power. Lawyer-filled Washington forgets how frightening the legal process is to nonlawyers, and how easy it is to get Americans to root for the underdog - even when that underdog is the president of the United States.

The public is right about this much: Bill Clinton the man has indeed become embroiled in a scary and fundamentally unjust process. It is wrong to let prosecutors loose to pursue individuals, rather than crimes, until they find something that sticks. It is also wrong, except in extreme cases, to force people to testify about the intimate details of their private lives. Both practices severely erode the protections citizens expect to enjoy in a free society.

But Washington is also right. Clinton is not just a man. He is president of the United States. As I've noted in an earlier editorial, Clinton the president actively supported the very laws and procedures from which he now demands exemption. (See "License to Grill," April.) In all his appeals for sympathy, the man who cruised into office hailing "the year of the woman" and condemning Clarence Thomas has never suggested that what has happened to him should never happen to another American. …

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