Posted on August 17, 1998 in Washington Watch
The Lewinsky affair comes to a head this week with the President’s testimony before a Washington grand jury. Following the President’s appearance, the Independent Counsel, Ken Starr, may call a few final witnesses in an effort to close out his case.
Within a few weeks, Mr. Starr will be ready to issue his report to Congress. From news stories, it appears that Starr’s report will not discuss Whitewater or any of the other matters that the Independent Counsel has spent over four years and $40 million to investigate. Apparently, Starr’s report to Congress will focus exclusively on the President’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky: whether or not he had a sexual relationship with her and lied under oath when he said he did not, and whether or not the President sought to cover-up that relationship by telling Ms. Lewinsky to lie about it.
Once Congress receives Starr’s final report, it will have to decide if the case made by the Independent Counsel warrants beginning impeachment proceedings against the President.
At this point, of course, no one knows what the President will say, or what Mr. Starr will conclude. What is clear, however, is that, regardless of the outcome, the entire episode is a pathetic tragedy that has taken a tremendous toll on the American people and done real damage to the American presidency.
A few observations and criticisms:
1. The Lewinsky affair never should have become grist for the Special Prosecutor’s mill.
The President is being accused of lying under oath about his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky. This “lie” was told during his testimony in the civil suit brought by Paula Jones. That case has since been dropped since the judge ruled that she found Jones’ arguments had no real merit.
Until the Paula Jones case, no President had ever been charged in a civil suit while in office.
It will be recalled that when the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that Ms. Jones could sue Mr. Clinton for actions she alleged he committed against her while he was Governor of Arkansas, they did so because they believed that such a case would not place undo strain on the President’s ability to carry out his responsibilities
It is now clear that the Supreme Court was in error. The President has been crippled by the fallout from the Jones case.
For Ken Starr to have latched onto this issue when he was apparently unable to find any weightier charges to bring against the President is, at best, questionable.
2.The media feeding frenzy is shocking.
During the days leading up to the President’s testimony, the major networks have averaged 15 hours a day of coverage for this story. One newspaper called it “All Monica, All the Time.” The same is true of talk radio. During the month of July the four top ranking news makers talked about on talk radio were: President Clinton, Ken Starr, Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp.
As a result of this non-stop coverage, other political stories cannot break through. Congress, for example, is finding that it is difficult to get coverage of the issues they are currently dealing with and many politicians fear that if they story goes on much longer that they will be unable to focus public attention on the issues of the 1998 congressional campaigns.
Actually, the only brief respite to the Monica mania was in the few days following the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, when the White House scandal story finally was taken off the front pages.
3.The media has become crude and lewd and the public is saying “end it.”
Not only has the coverage of the story been excessive, but the media has indulged in graphic descriptions of the details of the scandal. While it is clear that television and radio have become increasingly crude in recent years, in matters unrelated to politics, the depths to which they have sunk in the coverage of this story is truly shocking.
The damage that has been done not only affects the President, but the society as a whole. Nothing is sacred or respected; everything and everyone are fair game.
The public reaction is quite telling. While two-thirds of Americans feel that the President may not be telling the truth about his relationship with Lewinsky, two-thirds also say that the President should say nothing more about the matter and 80 percent say that they believe the media should drop the case entirely.
What is also interesting is that while the public says that they may not believe the President, two-thirds say they have a favorable view of him. At the same time an overwhelming majority have extremely negative views of Starr, Lewinsky, Tripp and the media who are covering the story.
4.Regardless of the outcome, real damage has been done.
The President has been embarrassed, the nation has been humiliated and shocked and the work of the nation has suffered. Through this entire ordeal, not only President Clinton has been weakened and distracted from his work. The Starr investigation has established some dangerous precedents that, if not corrected by Congress, may have a lasting impact on future presidents.
Should the private life of any public official be so scrutinized? Should the Secret Service be required to testify against the individuals they are honor-bound to protect? Should the President be isolated from his advisors and lawyers and fear that they may be forced to testify against him? If these matters are not resolved, future Presidents may be hounded by partisan attacks and isolated within the White House unable to function with confidence.
With all the endless debate about what the President will or won’t say and what the Prosecutor will or won’t do at the end of the day, Clinton may very well survive this crisis as he has so many other crises in the past. He will not perjure himself before a grand jury–nor will he subject himself to further degradation by the Special Prosecutor. Starr’s report when written will hinge on definitions that may be subject to partisan debate and to a difference of opinion about what constitutes an impeachable offense. The partisan debate will continue, with no real good coming of this entire affair. This was not an investigation like Watergate–where President Nixon was engaged in criminal actions designed to subvert democracy–it was about sex. What will be the results: an embarrassed and weakened President, a disgusted public, a media with an ominous out-of-control power, and a divided partisan Congress unable to act in the nation’s interest.
Nothing justifies this outcome.
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