WASHINGTON -- The message in President Clinton's press conference the other day is that he's just going to brazen it out. And the lesson for the rest of us is that he's probably going to get away with it.
Meeting with reporters five weeks after his impeachment trial, the president seemed alternately defiant and aggrieved but hardly contrite. It was clear that this most skilled politician has digested the opinion polls that show most Americans want to forget Monica Lewinsky and move on to even greater economic success. That's what he's doing, Mr. Clinton said, focusing on his job rather than dwelling on the past.
Indeed, his concentration on the nation's problems is so intense that he didn't even feel obliged to personally deny Juanita Broaddrick's claim that he raped her in a Little Rock hotel room 21 years ago.
That is the kind of thing most innocent men would feel obliged to deny personally and forcefully. But Mr. Clinton was content to note that his lawyer already has issued the denial. "He speaks for me," he said. "I think he spoke quite clearly."
But it is ludicrous to suggest that a statement by a lawyer who couldn't possibly know the truth of the matter carries the same force as a personal denial by Mr. Clinton himself. After all, his lawyers spent most of last year, inadvertently or not, mouthing lies about Mr. Clinton's conduct with women and grand juries. Are we suddenly supposed to start believing them?
Nor is Ms. Broaddrick some bimbo on a quest for money or notoriety. She is a substantial person with friends who can support her story about what happened at the Camelot Inn. Her accusations cannot be brushed aside or, more accurately, would not be brushed aside if brought against someone other than this U.S. president.
We seem to be living in a society and at a time when no one expects anything but the absolute worst from public figures and very few people care so long as the conduct of those public figures doesn't interfere with the good times. The popular mood seems to be, "I'm all right, Jack, I've got mine."
In his press conference, Mr. Clinton acted at times as if he had been victimized. He seemed to suggest, for example, that the Lewinsky case was some aberration. Asked about his legacy to children on lying, he said young people will learn that even presidents must tell the truth and will pay a price if they don't. Then he added:
"But I also think that there will be a box score, and there will be that one negative and then there will be the hundreds and hundreds of times when the record will show that I did not abuse my authority as president, that I was truthful with the American people."
The mind-boggling implication here seems to be that, yeah, he lied about Ms. Lewinsky but otherwise he has been a straight arrow. And he has been a victim, he went on, of "scores and scores of allegations . . . made against me and widely publicized without any regard for whether they were true or not. Most of them already have been actually proved false, and it's very hard to disprove every false allegation against you, but we have had more success, frankly, than I was afraid we would when we started."
The picture of Mr. Clinton as victim is a little hard to visualize. His pattern of conduct has not been one to make anyone confident he would tell the truth unless he was cornered and nailed down either by the press or a prosecutor. He didn't have sex with Gennifer Flowers, then he was forced to admit to a single episode. He didn't proposition Paula Jones but he did pay her $800,000 to settle her lawsuit.
He didn't have sex with "that woman, Miss Lewinsky" but now he has to concede that "one negative."
There are, of course, legitimate reasons for the president to believe that some Republicans and other conservative extremists have been trying to bring him down. Although partisanship was by no means the only driving force in the House impeachment vote, it was part of it.
And the woods are still full of conspiracy theorists muttering about the suicide of Vince Foster and drug dealers back in Arkansas. Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr is still trying to nail Susan McDougal on the Whitewater case in which he could not nail the Clintons.
But the notion that the president will be seen as a chief executive with a box score showing just "one negative" is laughable. Americans focused on good times may buy that line, but history will not.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.
Pub Date: 3/24/99