THE GREAT line that fueled the witch hunt was "they just don't get it." Hack politicians who happened to be women could suddenly exude a history of wronged innocence as they demanded the head of Clarence Thomas.
Not "getting it" meant that you believe that everyone, including a man accused of sexual harassment, is innocent until proved guilty. Not "getting it" meant holding that there ought to be a reasonable statute of limitations on such charges. Not "getting it" meant believing that a complaint of sexual harassment should not automatically overwhelm judgment of the totality of a person's life.
In short, alleged feminists and others who had claimed a strong commitment to due process were suddenly willing to toss principle aside. Others, myself included, were simply cowed by the endless repetition of the historic crimes of a male-dominated society. Even the American Civil Liberties Union, with its proud -- history of defending due process in the most difficult of circumstances, copped out.
The result was to abet an increasingly irrational climate in which the very legitimate effort to reverse sexual discrimination and exploitation has been engulfed by an end-justifies-the-means hysteria.
Now, if we are to be consistent, President Clinton must be sacrificed at this same altar.
It is insulting to our intelligence to suggest that the charges raised by these two women are dissimilar. Any honest person must concede that Paula Jones has as good a case as Anita Hill and that a presidential candidate should be held to a higher standard than a nominee to the Supreme Court. The only serious difference concerns the politics of the accused.
The trap is that a major error in judgment by liberals is now being compounded by conservatives. Both sets of charges were poorly documented, offered in a suspiciously untimely fashion and just not that important to judging a Supreme Court nominee or a president.
Unfortunately, the ultrafeminists who pilloried Judge Thomas will now, after some indecision, do the same to Mr. Clinton. We know this because of the shabby treatment of Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., by those who had long cheered his voting record on "women's issues." We know this because every profoundly felt social movement self-destructs when the purists get the upper hand. When that happens, the world comes to be divided between "us" and "them," and "they" are no longer guaranteed human rights because they are no longer perceived as fully human.
Do I exaggerate? How else to explain the venom unleashed on Clarence Thomas? A harsh critique of his legal opinions or limited judicial experience is one thing, but this man was personally vilified. Instead of being viewed as an imperfect person who nonetheless overcame great odds, he is even now, to many, the object of snickering and contempt; a thing, rather than an individual.
The same process of dehumanization is being applied to Mr. pTC Clinton. It makes no difference that the smear campaign here is led mostly by men who probably spent more of their lives celebrating sexual harassment than combatting it. The point is that Mr. Clinton, like Mr. Thomas, is being denied any sense of a personal history that is complex, contradictory, but ultimately redemptive. Who among us, male or female, could not be similarly turned into a tin person to be contemptuously swept off the table of the honorable ones?
Where are the pure souls who have never in a private moment been racist, homophobic, ageist, insensitive to the disabled or exploited undocumented labor? How many politicians have not dramatically failed their children and spouses, how many journalists have ignored the needs of their parents? We are all exploiters; the issue is whether we are capable of transcending our limitations and becoming something better.
Does anyone seriously believe that either Mr. Clinton or Mr. Thomas failed that test? No, they were attacked on the character issue precisely because they stood for and achieved a great deal that their opponents disapprove of. Instead of battling them on the firm grounds of their public actions and positions, the character issue was brought to the fore as a flanking motion around arguments that are more difficult to tackle.
It is time we recognize the character issue for what it is -- nothing more than the logical fallacy of the ad hominem argument. Our focus should be on public policy. If Mr. Clinton's relations with women led him to implement sexist policies, then produce the evidence. Perhaps it is too much to hope for, the common ground that Jesse Jackson is always preaching about. But at the very least, we should learn to fight fair.
Robert Scheer, a is a former national correspondent for the Los Angelese Times who has written extensively on politics.