LIKE FEATHERS from a monstrous pillow fight, there are seamy, sinister, soulless ideas loose in the air around our children: Exploitation by the First Father of a girl young enough to be his daughter.
Lying. The betrayal and public humiliation of the First Mother. More lying. Crude sexual servicing beyond the imagination of kids just awakening to the notion of kissing. Still more lying.
Try as she might, no parent can get these feathers back into the pillow now. Failing to protect, at a loss to explain, I did the last, best thing. I gave my adolescent children and their closest friends a chance to talk it through.
What do you think about all this, I asked?
And their answers whipped my head around. Forget him, they said. Dump him and move on.
Their hearts were as cold and hard as stone, and their tongues were quick and cruel. They were unforgiving.
But what if it was your father, I asked, trying to lasso this distant drama and bring it home to them.
Wouldn't you want your mother to try to forgive him and keep the family together? Wouldn't you be sad if your father had to leave?
"No," said one 12-year-old, without hesitation, without compassion. "I'd want my mother to kick him out. He can see us on weekends if he wants to see us that bad."
Out of the mouths of babes, I thought. No managing of the truth. No verbal tiptoeing. No stage-managed sincerity. No poll-driven contrition. No God, no preacher visits, no Bible verses.
In the black-and-white world of children, Bill Clinton has crossed some moral line - a line we arrogant parents thought to paint for them - and these children have cut him bloodlessly out of their hearts.
That has not been true for me. I was in a fury in January when the Lewinsky tapes surfaced because I believed instantly that it was true.
The first president from my generation was showing himself to be the incarnation of every bad thing ever said about us: We are self-centered pleasure-seekers with no sense of personal responsibility.
But that fury turned to tears of frustration days later when he made his State of the Union speech and laid my social conscience before the nation. How could I hate the sin but love the sinner's national agenda?
Since then, I have hoped there was some way Clinton could make it right, make it OK for me to believe in his presidency again. His speech last Monday night failed to do that.
"Misled"? "A false impression"? "Inappropriate relationship"? His words of explanation fell on my heart like hail on a tin roof, and when he began to accuse the accusers, I had the taste of metal in my mouth.
As is so often the case, when you seek to comfort children, it is you who are comforted.
This country should not dignify his crude and compulsive need ** for physical relief by impeaching him for it. And, because she is the first lady and she lives in a world more complex than these children can yet imagine, Chelsea's mother can not dump his clothes out the windows of the White House and change the locks on the doors.
But we can.
We can put an end to our search for a reason to reconcile. We can stop grieving for our tainted past and our lost future with this man.
We can dump him and move on.
! Pub date: 8/23/98