Comment: Republican wrongs don't make Bill Clinton right

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The Independent Culture
I MAY have given the impression last week that I regarded Bill Clinton as the most reprehensible public figure in America. Wrong. In fact, these days, he's standing on a pretty crowded shelf. Right there next to him are Kenneth Starr and Newt Gingrich and the other centurions of the American right.

After watching the wretched video interrogation of Clinton, I was almost tempted to set my scorn for the embattled President to one side. Starr's interrogators came across as the most odious kind of salacious inquisitors. That they managed to arouse so much public hostility in spite of a dreadful performance from Clinton - hair-splitting and evasive - says something for their collective reptilian character.

As for the Special Prosecutor, he has simply confirmed what most people always suspected: he is driven by deep animus for Clinton. His hatred of the President far outweighs any commitment he feels to the higher obligations of justice and truth. Thus his presentation of the evidence in the Lewinsky case has been riddled with bias from the very earliest stages.

I have no evidence to support this, but I suspect Starr was a nasty piece of work at school. You can imagine the type. The creepy prefect who confiscates your Playboy and then runs off to the toilets for a spot of drooling and self-abuse. The kind of fellow who would take a twitching pleasure from administering beatings.

As for Gingrich. The bouncing bully of American politics has been trying to make Clinton's life as difficult as possible, struggling to conceal his glee when he addresses the cameras. That is what his constituency expects and what his own pygmy's vision of politics demands.

Gingrich will never be President and he knows it. He is frustrated and bitter and he sees in Clinton the clever and charismatic man he cannot ever be. So don't misunderstand me. Criticism of Clinton does not imply any approval of Starr and his political Godfathers. They come from a political tradition that celebrates greed and regards the notion of "society" as laughably naive. They are not my tribe and they are the last thing America needs.

None of this, however, mitigates what remains for me the principal charge against Clinton: that he has grievously abused his power. Again, let me make clear what I am objecting to here. What Clinton does with consenting adults is entirely his and their own business. I don't believe that politicians or public figures deserve to be hounded because of their sex lives.

By writing critically about Clinton and sex, one runs the risk of sounding like a sanctimonious prat. So understand, please, that I too regard the relentless pursuit of politicians and celebrities because of their sex lives as loathsome. I don't care if Clinton is sexually driven. I couldn't care less if he had an orgy with 20 Lewinskys. That should be a matter for himself and those immediately affected, like his family. The key word here is "consent".

And that is why I come back again this week to the cases of Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey. The former says that Clinton exposed himself to her in a hotel bedroom at a time when she was just a lowly state employee. Willey alleges that Clinton tried to force himself on her in that famous corridor next to the Oval Office.

You may not like these women, you may believe that they have become tools of the far right. But given Clinton's status as a proven liar - a liar who lies under oath - do you refuse to believe that they are telling the truth when they claim to have been harrassed and assaulted by him? If you don't believe them, there is no problem. You don't need to get that upset about his antics with Monica Lewinsky. They were, as I've said, two adults doing what a great many adults do and lie about.

The difficulty comes if you do believe Jones and Willey. Then you really do have a problem. Then you must ask yourself whether you can lend moral support to a man who has physically abused at least two women. And however much he tries to portray himself as an ordinary Joe, the President is not just any man. He is the upholder of a constitution which promises to protect all of its citizens from any arbitrary abuses of power. That is the heart of this matter.

And lest anybody feel too worn down with pity for Clinton, I would ask you to remember his own record of compassion when it came to the issue of executions in his home state of Arkansas. Here was the man who proudly boasted that he always liked to be home for an execution in Arkansas, a man who played the law- and-order card as hard as any right- wing Republican.

Do I feel sorry for him? Yes, of course there is a natural element of human pity for somebody who is so relentlessly humiliated, somebody whose private life is clearly an unfulfilled torment. But my pity is mitigated by the knowledge that we are dealing with a supremely ruthless politician. I have far more pity for the Sudanese families who suffered when Mr Clinton dispatched his cruise missiles on their mission of distraction on the day that Monica Lewinsky was recalled to the grand jury.

The vast majority of ordinary Americans appear to support him. After all the dire predicitions about the video, it is Messrs Starr and Gingrich who have suffered most. Clinton's popularity just rises and rises. I was queuing to purchase a copy of the Starr Report in a New York bookstore last week and I asked the cashier, a young black woman, what she thought about the scandal.

"He's a man, honey," she replied. Was she bothered that he had lied to the American people, I wondered. "Like I said, he's a man."

Indeed, the cashier was far more upset with Mr Starr for wasting taxpayers' money on his investigation.

It has been a good week for the "Comeback Kid", a bad one for his critics. It has been the week in which the liberal press (the most self-regarding of all American institutions) in Washington and New York has seemed well out of touch with the feelings of the people. In short, it has been a bad week for Mr Clinton's enemies.

I have had liberal friends say to me during the week that I was wrong to criticise Clinton in such vehement terms last week. They have pointed out, quite correctly, that his role in the Irish peace process was crucial; he was, I have been told, a man who allowed minorities to feel truly American for the first time in a generation. Some went so far as to suggest that, as a liberal, I had no business attacking him.

Indeed, I share David Aaronovitch's horror (expressed on this page earlier this week) at the thought of the ultra-right climbing to power amid the ruins of the Clinton presidency. But where I differ with my liberal friends is in accepting the notion that because he is "our lying bastard" we should protect him. That suggests to me a political tribalism which represents as much a threat to democracy as Newt Gingrich and his right-wing chums. It is precisely because he is "our lying bastard" that we need to give him a hard time.

It is worth recalling a speech given in 1995 by an American politician to a group of students. "The road to tyranny," he said, " begins with the destruction of truth." That politician's name was William Jefferson Clinton.