All the Presidents' lies

Ben Bradlee was editor of The Washington Post in the 1970s when it broke the Watergate scandal. But, for him, last week's events - resignations , a small war and Clinton's impeachment - surpassed even the turmoil of Nixon's final days

AND SO IT HAS COME TO THIS:

Because a flirtatious 22-year-old intern decided not to have the stains from a sexual encounter with the President removed from her dress, William Jefferson Clinton is impeached.

Because America's leading pornographer threatened to out the next Speaker of the House as a multiple philanderer, Robert Livingston throws in the towel, announces he's through with politics, and heads back to civilian life.

Because the same pornographer lets it be known to a favoured few that he has the goods on many other Congressmen, including at least one who has expressed an interest in running for president, other top politicians will soon bite the dust.

Because the secret files of the Starr investigation, not included in the Independent Counsel's public report, but available to members of the House Judiciary Committee, contain more smarmy details about the President's private life, no one can say for sure how this mess will end, much less when.

After perhaps the most extraordinary week in American political history - impeachment, resignations and a small war - the experts still recite their mantra: "This isn't about sex."

Well, you could have fooled me.

ANYONE WHO CLAIMS to predict tomorrow's headlines is crazy. During the impeachment hearings, Democrats were almost as critical of President Clinton as were Republicans. In an effort to persuade their colleagues that censure was a viable alternative to removal from office, one Democrat after another rose to document presidential sins: philandering, perjury, and obstruction of justice. Then, after Clinton was actually impeached, they piled into buses and drove down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. In front of the television cameras they jostled each other for the chance to show their support for the man they had just branded a philanderer, a perjurer and an obstructer of justice.

All this, mind you, when the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll (taken on Saturday and Sunday) shows that more than two out of every three Americans feel the President should not be removed from office, and 79 per cent of them think that too much attention is being paid to the extramarital affairs of elected officials.

This morning, in Washington, almost no one believes that the Senate will really convict the President and remove him from office. Instead there is increasing talk of censuring the President, after his trial has begun but before a verdict has been rendered. (As if impeachment itself somehow is not sufficient censure.)

Opponents of censure point out that a new Congress, with a Democratic majority, can simply repeal any vote of censure taken now. They go on to worry about setting a bad precedent. Could Franklin D Roosevelt have been censured for breaking his promise not to lead America into war? Could Harry Truman, with a popularity rating less than half of Clinton's, have been impeached for firing General Douglas MacArthur?

Since I left the editor's chair at The Washington Post, I have become much more patient. We will know the answers to all questions sooner rather than later. What interests me now is how we got into this mess in the first place. Would President Bob Dole find himself in anything like this predicament? No way, surely. Didn't popular wisdom have it that good people were no longer seeking public office because of the salacious curiosity of the press? Starr and his investigators have surely taken care of that one.

One of the reasons we are in such a mess, I believe, is that society has become increasingly, and almost casually, accepting of lying during the last couple of generations. The cost of lying has decreased. The punishment no longer fits the crime, if it ever did. As we have heard endlessly in the last few months, perjury convictions have become hard to secure. (It depends on what the meaning of "is" is.) The risk of getting nailed for a lie seems to have diminished. The highest public figures, the most respected figures in private industry, routinely lie. It is more genteel to say that they routinely tell less than the truth. That avoids the unpleasant facts and it makes everyone feel better.

In Washington, spin doctors have been elevated to professional status, and spinning has become an art form. But the difference between spinning and lying is in the eyes of the beholder. Whenever the acceptability of lying increased to a point where it became a fundamental change in American ethics, certainly this change was a fact of life by the time of the Vietnam war.

Successive administrations, beginning with LBJ's, grievously damaged the virtue of truth in trying to justify the American presence there.

A few months after he became president, Johnson sent his Defense Secretary to Vietnam for a report on what was really going on. McNamara spoke to the generals and the GIs, to Americans and South Vietnamese, civilian and military. In two press conferences between Saigon and Washington, he told the world that he was much encouraged. There finally was reason for optimism.

But McNamara told President Johnson something quite different. Exactly the opposite, in fact. The war in South Vietnam was going to hell in a handbasket. General Westmoreland was going to ask for 200,000 more American troops, and McNamara was going to support his request. We didn't learn this vital truth until the Pentagon papers were published 17 years later, and only then because two American newspapers fought all the way to the Supreme Court for their release.

Did that lie change history? At that moment only 6,000 Americans had lost their lives in Vietnam. Before the truce seven years later, more than 50,000 Americans had lost their lives, plus countless hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese. The Nixon lies during Watergate produced the greatest crisis in the history of American government, until now. More than 30 of Nixon's closest associates were convicted and jailed, including the country's chief law enforcement officer, Attorney-General John Mitchell.

The lies about the Iran-Contra and arms-for-hostages affairs scarred the Reagan and Bush presidencies. But only Nixon paid any real price for lying. And by resigning before he was impeached and convicted, he "earned" a pardon from his successor. He was able to claim for the rest of his life - with some success - that he had been hounded out of the White House by his political enemies, who had confused the public into thinking that dirty tricks during a campaign added up to impeachable violations of the Constitution.

And then we elected William Jefferson Clinton, the most attractive, the most intelligent, the most charismatic, the most experienced American politician since Jack Kennedy at least. But we knew that he and the truth were often on different pages. We knew he hadn't been called "Slick Willie" for nothing. Before we elected him we knew about his sexual proclivities. One member of his Arkansas gubernatorial staff was put in charge of coping with "bimbo eruptions". We knew he had had at least a chequered military career. First he said he had never been drafted. Then he said that he had been drafted. First he said he had never had sex with Gennifer Flowers. Then he remembered that he had had sex with her. Once. He finally had to admit he had smoked marijuana. But he hadn't inhaled.

All this, BEFORE he was elected President.

And then came Paula Jones's claim that Clinton had sexually harassed her. The President denied everything, a denial for which he was eventually impeached. And then he agreed to pay Ms Jones $850,000 to make her and her claim go away.

And finally, full circle, came the zaftig "Valley Girl" Monica Lewinsky, not really a likely candidate to bring a president this close to disgrace. Was it the sex, or was it the lying?

Here's one vote for lying.

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