No heroes emerge from Clinton's modern tragedy


WASHINGTON -- Of all the surprises, of all the unexpected turns, of all the disappointments in the seemingly endless Washington drama, this may be the greatest: There were no heroes in the impeachment and trial of President Clinton.

In the 13 months in which the president's personal life dominated U.S. national life, there emerged no great voice of reason, no great figure of integrity, no great moment when the principals rallied to the national interest rather than the special, the personal or the partisan interest.

"This thing will end someday, but everyone who climbs out of this swamp is going to have mud all over himself," says Rep. Tom Allen, a Maine Democrat. "Everybody's boots are dirty."

Which is why the Clinton contretemps may be remembered not as a scandal, not as a constitutional crisis, not even as a low comedy, but as a modern tragedy. Indeed, in the whole sorry episode, from the first disclosure of the president's activities last January until the final votes in the Senate chamber this week, not one figure, including the giants in the press, emerged unscathed from the crucible of the Clinton scandal:

Mr. Clinton. Even the Democratic senators who this week will stand by their president and keep him from being removed from office acknowledge publicly that the president's conduct with Monica S. Lewinsky was inappropriate, his efforts to avoid detection were dishonest and his hair-splitting legalisms were repugnant.

The Clinton tragedy: He jeopardized a shimmering view of the national interest and a broad, inspiring vision of a nation of diversity with a tawdry affair and a narrow obsession with his own survival and vindication.

The Republicans. Two years into the Clinton era, the GOP emerged as the party of ideas, an irresistible force that dared to take on the immovable object of Democratic control of Capitol Hill. In their new dawn, the end-of-century Republicans toppled all the assumptions of Washington, vowed to change how the capital worked.

The GOP tragedy: In the short space of five years, the Republican revolution consumed two major leaders, Newt Gingrich and Robert L. Livingston, turned against itself, allowed the fountain of ideas to run dry and cultivated a spirit of partisanship that was as sharp as the Democrats' had been -- and as tyrannical.

The Democrats. Members of the world's oldest political party, heirs to Jefferson and Jackson, began the decade with a new sense of idealism and possibility.

With a young Southern governor as its nominee, the Democrats finally took over the White House, which -- except for a brief post-Watergate pause under Jimmy Carter -- had been denied to them since Lyndon Johnson's presidency ended. But the moderate in the White House and the liberals on Capitol Hill never grew to trust each other, and by the time the Lewinsky scandal broke, the tensions were so great that Democratic lawmakers saw little reason to rally to their president's side. Congressional Democrats support of the president in the past several weeks was more a response to the shrillness of the Republicans' attack than to the persuasiveness of the president's case.

The Democratic tragedy: By coming together only to thwart the Republicans, not to put forward a coherent set of policies, the Democrats avoided the great reckoning they need. The big arguments within the Democratic Party remain unresolved.

The press. In Watergate, the press discovered the scandal and was the engine of its passage from crime to courts to Congress. In the Clinton episode, the press discovered almost nothing new and was used by the principals on all sides. In Watergate, the press provided mostly facts, almost all of which turned out to be correct. In the Clinton episode, the press provided mostly commentary, almost all of which turned out to be confection.

The press tragedy: At a time when public trust of the press was tentative, the Clinton scandal provided newspapers, television and the new electronic media an opportunity to prove their utility and indispensability. Instead they suggested their irrelevance.

And so this episode ends with a whimper, without inspiration, without heroism. If you doubt that, open the pages of John F. Kennedy's "Profiles in Courage." There the junior senator from Massachusetts quotes Edmund Burke's celebration of Charles James Fox, who at the end of the 18th century dared to attack the tyranny of the East India Co.: "He may live long, he may do much. But here is the summit. He can never exceed what he does this day."

No participant in the Clinton scandal will get such a tribute. None will deserve one.

David Shribman is Washington bureau chief for the Boston Globe

Pub Date: 2/10/99

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