Clinton is not Nixon: he's much worse than that

The President will hang on for as long as he is allowed to, but democracy is being debased
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The Independent Culture
THROUGHOUT THE past few days in America, I kept coming back to a phrase once employed by a biographer of F Scott Fitzgerald. The biographer was linking the alcoholic Fitzgerald to his most famous character, Jay (The Great) Gatsby - the boy from the wrong side of the tracks who had made good and then been destroyed by his own reckless passion. "Spoiled idealism" was how the biographer described the descent of novelist and character - from the promise they once held out, into the sorry defeat and destruction of their later lives.

Spoiled idealism. Promise turned to betrayal, hope turned into something bitter. That was what we witnessed in America this week as a lying President hobbled from one embarrassing public moment to another.

There is one encounter in particular which stands out. Clinton standing beside the Czech President, and human rights hero, Vaclav Havel, at a Washington news conference. A woman reporter goes directly to the point: "Do you still believe, Mr President, that you have the moral authority to lead this country? Clinton's answer was, as ever these days, unconvincing. What was more interesting was the body language, the expression on his face. "Of course I don't," it said. "But I'm damned if I'll admit it, and damned if I'll do anything about it."

What we are learning is that, like the shabby dictators of the Third World whom he professes to despise, Mr Clinton cares more about himself than he does about the notions of democracy and accountability. Set beside a figure like Mr Havel, the American President was reduced to what he truly is: a mendacious chancer who deserves to be driven from office. There are those who have argued in this newspaper, and elsewhere, that Mr Clinton deserves compassion, that we must not rush to judge a man because he had an extramarital affair and then lied about it. I couldn't agree more. But the Friends of Bill in this country miss the point. The scandal and the stink are about a great deal more than Monica Lewinsky. At the root of it all is contempt for the ideal of justice, which we are told makes America great, and a betrayal of the ideals which Mr Clinton insisted he stood for when he was first elected back in 1992.

This, we are repeatedly told, is not like Watergate. It is not about the abuse of power. Clinton is not Nixon. I think he may in fact be something worse. With Nixon there was never any doubt that we were dealing with a political "operator", as distinct from a visionary leader in the mould of JFK or Franklin Roosevelt. He never said it himself, but America knew it was dealing with a political short-timer who refused to embrace big ideas but kept to a narrow, and ultimately terribly crooked, idea of what leadership and government meant.

Nixon was driven from office because he abused his powers. He used the state's security services to hound those he hated, he presided over crooked electoral finances and dirty tricks, and allowed his subordinates to act as if they, and the entire executive branch, were above the law. When Watergate happened it simply confirmed what the political elite had known all along: the man was a crook who didn't deserve to sit in the White House. Nixon got the treatment he deserved.

Clinton began as the man from Hope who would return America to the politics of idealism. Those who whispered about his dubious character in those early days found themselves shut out and ignored.

Now we know for certain that Clinton was what we suspected all along. A liar and philanderer. But he is also a man who has abused his power, who has abused those who were weaker than him. Now that the lies of the Lewinsky affair have been exposed, do you really doubt that Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey (there are doubtless numerous others) were telling the truth. Remember Ms Jones, who said that the President had, in fact, exposed himself to her in an Arkansas hotel room. Or Ms Willey who testified that the President had kissed and groped her against her will in the White House. Both women were in weak positions. Jones was a lowly clerk (later traduced by the Clinton spin machine as "trailer trash"), and Ms Willey was in need of a job. You may take the view that Clinton is telling the truth in denying his assaults on these women, or you can, as I do, accept their version of events. Both have been smeared by the best dirty tricks operation since Nixon's, both have had their reputations shredded in the public media.

The acts of consensual sex with a young intern are shabby, but not the stuff that demands expulsion from political office. It is the abuse of clearly vulnerable women like Jones and Willey that make up the real stuff of impeachment. What makes the removal of Clinton instinctually difficult to countenance for liberals, is the idea that it will represent a victory for the Republican right and all the ultra-conservative loonies who have long harboured a visceral hatred of the President. The snickering pleasure which the Lewinsky affair gives to Richard Nixon's heirs is one of the many depressing facts of this scandal.

Newt Gingrich and his followers hated the promise of a just society which Clinton held out at the beginning of his first term, and they helped to create a climate in which Americans grew to hate the idea of government, which led to the hobbling of Clinton's most ambitious plans to create healthcare and educational services worthy of a hugely wealthy country. Newt Gingrich and his corporate hyenas are not what America needs right now.

And yet, it is to them that Mr Clinton, with his lies and recklessness and abuse, has handed the moral high ground. They have him where they want him, slowly roasting over a spit. They may well keep it up for the next two years, figuring, with epic cynicism, that a catastrophically damaged Clinton will ensure a Republican presidential victory. And so, like Clinton, they have made the pursuit of power for power's sake the defining ideal of American politics.

There is a longer term price to pay for this cynicism. I heard it in conversations on the streets of New York and Boston earlier this week. Repeatedly, I was told that Clinton's sexual carry-on did not matter. The economy is doing fine, so why worry? It is as if the events in Washington are a Hollywood movie, disconnected from the real lives and concerns of ordinary everyday America. This is understandable. but tragic. Something bigger than Bill Clinton or Lewinsky or Gingrich is being dragged through the gutter. Democracy itself is being debased.

I suspect that Mr Clinton will hang on for as long as the Democratic Party allows him to do so. Only when the polls slip - and so far they are holding up just fine - will the grey men come and tell him it is time to go. They are a weak and divided bunch, mesmerised by the polls and slaves to their own ambitions.

If Clinton did care about America, if he had a scintilla of concern for the contempt with which the next generation of Americans will view politics and government, he would resign now. By hanging on, Clinton is doing more than spoiling idealism. He is killing hope.