Quite simply, I gave in to my shame," President Clinton said recently, during another in his series of not-quite-apologetic apologies about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
If Mr. Clinton knew anything about shame, he wouldn't be in this predicament -- nor would we as a mortified nation.
And if Mr. Clinton were genuinely interested in giving in to his shame, there might be an opportunity for him to restore a shred of his own decency and the dignity of the United States.
Mr. Clinton has confused shame with guilt, as so many people who have "gotten in touch with their feelings" do. A guilty person thinks he can just apologize (or sort of) and go on as if nothing happened. A person with a guilty conscience can "compartmentalize" his life -- as we keep hearing about Mr. Clinton -- without recognizing that one's character informs all aspects of one's life.
Hence we see a guilt-ridden Mr. Clinton shuffling around the world halfheartedly acknowledging his sins while trying to look presidential. The result is a demeaning spectacle: The president of the United States trying to advance the Wye River Middle East peace accord while being interrogated only about impeachment and the timing of the bombing of Baghdad.
Cop a plea
Guilt, not shame, leads a president on a state visit to engage in unseemly media efforts to cop a plea with Congress for censure.
Guilt tells people what not to do -- like hit on interns. On the other hand, paying attention to shame can offer rules to live by.
If Mr. Clinton were, in his words, to "give in to" his shame, he would cease his hang-dog countenance. He would stop looking for ways to make a deal with the Senate. He would recognize issues of character must transcend politics.
Even House Speaker Newt Gingrich understood these issues well enough to resign quickly after the November elections. As a "bleeding heart liberal," it is not easy for me to consider that Mr. Gingrich may have shown more character, class and shame than Mr. Clinton. If Mr. Clinton genuinely wants to "give in to" his shame, I offer an eight-step program for him to save face:
1. Mr. Clinton must publicly apologize -- truly and deeply.
2. Mr. Clinton must accept full responsibility and stop trying to shift the blame.
3. Mr. Clinton must resign. I'm not sure that his offenses are impeachable, but he must resign to save his face -- and ours. With such issues as Iraq on the table, it is imperative that the United States have a president who can be taken seriously.
4. Mr. Clinton must pay all the personal legal bills incurred by his friends, staff, Cabinet members and subordinates, including Ms. Lewinsky herself. He will undoubtedly land on his feet among Hollywood friends, but White House secretary Betty Currie may not do so well.
5. Mr. Clinton must reimburse the government for all expenses related to his personal and private transgressions. Any business would seek redress and reimbursement from an employee implicated in such gross, intentional malfeasance. Few corporate insurance plans provide coverage for sexual misconduct.
6. Mr. Clinton must publicly apologize to Ms. Lewinsky and offer to settle any sexual harassment lawsuit that she should file. His administration has developed laws and policies that clearly define his behavior as abusive and criminal, regardless of whether Ms. Lewinsky flashed her thong.
The laws require Mr. Clinton to say "no," regardless of Ms. Lewinsky's efforts at seduction. She has clearly suffered damages as a result of their liaison.
7. Mr. Clinton must admit he is powerless over his impulses. He must seek treatment. This will not only help him control himself in the future, but will set a powerful example.
Not long ago, a past-president of American University resigned after it was determined he had made obscene and harassing phone calls from his office. After treatment, he has become a sympathetic advocate for the honest treatment of sexual disorders.
8. Finally, Mr. Clinton must disappear for a while. By gracefully retreating from the public stage, he can make amends and do penance. This poses a problem for someone like Mr. Clinton, a child of the culture of therapy (despite avoiding it). He thinks that by talking about everything with everyone, he can talk his way out of anything.
The inner child
Getting in touch with his shame, rather than just with his feelings, would require Mr. Clinton to find "the adult within," not just get in touch with his so clearly wounded inner child.
The only way the country can move on and begin a process of genuine redemption and reform is for Mr. Clinton to resign, follow this program for saving face and "quite simply" give in to his shame.
Daniel L. Buccino is a Baltimore psychotherapist.
Pub Date: 12/22/98