School for Scandal

Wall Street Journal
Friday, March 25, 1994

By Mark Helprin

Now that the bloom is off the rose, the White House oracles are thumping their naked tails in unison to protest that Whitewater is political. Surely they deserve the Nobel Prize for the discovery that political scandals have a political component, and if they continue their researches perhaps they will also learn that the measure of a scandal is not the material of scandal itself but the political dynamic of which the unfolding scenario is but an expression.

Though liberals hallucinate much about Watergate. Richard Nixon was forced to resign because he was the first American president to lose a war. The rest was merely the instrument of the underlying forces, a shadow play. By the same token, Iran-contra was a result of the complete isolation of Republican political fortunes in the executive, an island in a tide of Democratic power that threatened to wash over it.

The corruptions of Whitewater are like the fruit of a richly bearing tree, and it seems that every day a new dead hand rises from a misty Arkansas lake, but they are not the true measure of Whitewater. Whitewater flourishes only because the Clinton administration is condemned to rest in a politically short-sheeted bed of its own making.

What a bad idea to begin a messianic presidency with only 43% of the popular vote, less than polled by Willkie, Dewey. Stevenson. Nixon, Ford and Dukakis when they lost. And of that 43% many were unaware of Hillary hiding in the bushes to the left of the candidate, like the 900-pound boyfriend of a voluptuous girl hitchhiker. As soon as Hillary got into the car, she bumped out all but -the president's core constituency, the 25% to 30% who will be with him to the end.

You would think that with such a narrow base the White House "Hillalys" (highly inexperienced left-liberal academic righteous yuppies) would have trodden carefully. But they did not, for their abiding faith in the power of their own intelligence to manage the unmanageable amounts to nothing more than abject stupidity, and they acted ccordingly. No president In living memory has exulted in his victory with the same immodesty, the immediate punishment for this being that the early Clinton administration came to resemble a science fiction character who ages 50 years in less than a minute. They were blinded to their limitations by the slavish obedience of a press that, tempting the fates, portrayed the Clintons as saviors, saints, and divine beings, literally with angels' wings. And though flackery is just a rubber band -the more you stretch it out, the harder it snaps back- it did the impossible. It quintupled the arrogance of the most arrogant people in America, a triumphalist coterie of graduate students who accord to the hard left the same uneasy respect that most people reserve for the clergy, and grow teary eyed over bats, squirrels and caribou as with barely concealable pleasure they sacrifice whole regions of rednecks.

This is not merely the arrogance of victory and of youth, but of lawyers. Lawyers, like undertakers. meddle decisively in everyone's business, but only after it fails. Most are redeemed by understanding that their power comes frown this peculiar circumstance, but Clintillians seem to think it comes from a Christ-like glow within themselves. Is it surprising that they believe their first task is to heal the sick? And that to do so they need only redesign the country after they have given it "meaning," banished its greed, and put it on the information superhighway to lap top heaven? They are the missionaries, and we are the Hottentots.

Not everyone in this group is as callow as the president's media director, who told the Journal last year of his plans for " 'BC-TV,' Bill Clinton, 011 TV. 21 hours a day-" And not everyone is a networked crony or a token Zoe or a chicken tycoon, all put in place (if not yet confirmed) in the most incompetent explosion of patronage since Caligula appointed his horse.

For at least half a dozen grown-ups have agreed to help Bill Clinton, mostly eminent retreads who in their days of glory were Carter's Little Liver Pills, and who, even now, after all these years, still move about on little marshmallow feet- Les Aspin, impotent even at his own specialty of gutting the military; Warren Christopher, breaking into every foreign garden and running away when the dog barks; David Gergen, hand welded to the ejections lever; Donna Shalala, praying that at the next state dinner she won't be seated next to George Hamilton; Lloyd Cutler, happy but worried, as if Neil Diamond had been asked to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic.

Even the grown-ups cannot save Bill Clinton from himself, if only because they cannot have any idea of how to carry the quicksilver from the flames. Granted, in questions of sincerity, the president is perpetually condemned to be upstaged by his vice president, though for the country's sake let us hope that Al Gore is not as sincere as he appears to be, for with sincerity like his, who needs fraud? Fraud is what Whitewater, and the administration, are all about: fraud-pious, tawdry, financial, sexual, political, plain, simple and habitual.

Fraud. Somewhere between the core of the left and the 43% plurality that made Bill Clinton commander in chief are the American voters who thought they were supporting a "New Democrat" and wound up instead with a slightly more buttoned-up version of the Village People. Boris Yeltsin, who ought to know whereof he speaks, calls Bill Clinton a "socialist" and General Jaruzelski, the former military dictator of Poland, looking more than ever like one of the three blind mice, says that he still retains the values of the left and that, "Actually, in Clinton's program I see elements I like a lot."

Fraud. Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution states that "We would be condemning him if he didn't pull back (from his campaign promises), because he world be an irresponsible president." That is, the president had to lie to you for your own good. The president lies responsibly. Not only does he remain morally superior when he lies, his lying actually makes him morally superior. This goes beyond the normal corruptions of American politics onto the airless and unfamiliar plains of totalitarianism.

Fraud. In a wonderful reversal of Boss Tweed's immense public outlays for "Brooms, etc.." the president tells the New York Times that he does not want a congressional inquiry into Whitewater because "it would not be worth the money it would cost." He doesn't want a congressional inquiry into Whitewater, because he wants to save money. Does the president think he leads a nation of idiots? The answer is yes, but he is just cautious enough to speak indirectly, when, of his wife, he says: "If the rest of the people In this country - if everybody in this country had a character as strong as hers, we wouldn't have half the problems we've got today.

These are not the words of Louis XVI, Juan Peron, or Nicolae Ceausescu, but of the president of the United States defending his overbearing wife by insulting the rest of the country. Had a Republican president said this, he would have been put in the ice cream case within minutes. Nor has any president of sound mind and body ever had the temerity to install the first lady in a virtual co-presidencyin which she stalks about the country giving speeches, appears before Congress, supervises at least one cabinet department, and is the chief of his (her?) administration's most ambitious initiative. Though in Whitewater mode it is to the Clintons' advantage to dismiss this with offended innocence, they and their supporters have been trumpeting it for more than a year.

The president has reinvented government, and the United States of America now has not one chief executive, but one and a half. This rather profound change is not the result of a constitutional amendment or even informed debate. It just happened. It has embarrassed Congress and escaped the condemnation of an anesthetized press. It is the solid and identifable core of an otherwise mercurial cloud of hubris, arrogance and petty corruption. It is the ultimate expression of tile nature of this presidency, in which the rules exist only for everyone else, because the work of the elect in remaking the world is too importent to fetter with laws and truth.

Were it not for the fact that the president's own party dominates Congress, the press, the universities, public education, Hollywood, publishing, local and state government, the unions, and bureaucracies everywhere, the assumption by Hillary Rodham Clinton of the powers of an office to which she did not accede would be a constitutional crisis. It should be a constitutional crisis. But it is not. It is, instead sublimated in scandal. It is, instead. the driving force in the conflict of which Whitewater is but the instrument, the mere expression. and the shadow play.

Mr. Helprin, a novelist, is a contributing editor of the Journal.

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