Clinton's crisis: To smile and still be president

Twice America has forgiven Bill Clinton his shamelessness, but with charges of perjury and worse he is looking dangerously like Nixon, and we know what became of him
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IT COULD end in several ways. On Capitol Hill, with the machinery of impeachment grinding away inexorably, the men in grey suits could arrive at the White House - just as Barry Goldwater came to Richard Nixon almost a quarter of a century ago to explain that, even in the Senate, diehard Republicans had abandoned him.

This time round, Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader in the Senate, and his opposite number in the House, Dick Gephardt, would bear the bad news. "Mr President," they would say, "even your staunchest supporters daren't stand by you any longer. Politically, they'd be dead meat back home. We've lost it." And just as Nixon did, Bill Clinton would bow to the inevitable and resign.

Alternatively, the 42nd president could find himself at the wrong end of a criminal indictment for perjury or obstruction of justice, which would save Congress much time and trouble.

Or, having gambled his career so often before, Mr Clinton might roll the dice one last time and do what Nixon did not, by forcing a public judgement of his conduct on to the floor of the House and Senate. That hasn't happened since 1868, when Andrew Johnson came within a single vote of being kicked out of the White House, following a purely political quarrel over post civil-war reconstruction.

In reality, impeachment is an agonisingly slow process. First the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives turns itself into a grand jury, and determines whether there is enough evidence that the President has committed the requisite "high crimes and misdemeanours". If Congressmen think there is, they draw up formal "articles of impeachment" - in other words, indictments. If these are voted through - and that was the moment at which Nixon threw in the towel in 1974 - "trials" would take place before the juries of the full House and Senate, with two-thirds majorities needed for "conviction".

Or, of course, the rascal might get away with it - again. But even in a presidency that is a political enactment of the Perils of Pauline, there's been nothing to match the peril embodied by the 24-year-old Monica Lewinsky. Not because Mr Clinton allegedly was carrying on for more than a year in the White House with a girl young enough to be his daughter. He is, after all, not a man who ran for office as an advertisement for marital fidelity, and if he walks the plank it will not be for serial adultery per se.

This time the putative charges are perjury and obstruction of justice, the very offences that destroyed Nixon. True, the Clintons may have done precisely that in Whitewater, those long-ago financial shenanigans in Arkansas. The problem is that Whitewater, like the Schleswig-Holstein question, is beyond the comprehension of ordinary mortals. But the only mystery with Ms Lewinsky is: did he or didn't he? If it is proved that he did, then Mr Clinton (and she) lied under oath. And if the secret tape recordings taken by the remarkable Linda Tripp are correct, then the President pressured Ms Lewinsky to lie. Just like Richard Nixon pressured his aides to lie.

Allow Mr Clinton his moment of self-pity. He is certainly not the first president to stray from the marital bed - even George Washington was alleged to have had a passion in 1758 for the wife of a Virginia neighbour, and Thomas Jefferson made a mistress out of a black maid. Bill Clinton's catalogue of sins proven and unproven do not - yet - measure up to those of his political hero, John F Kennedy, whose girlfriends included the likes of Marilyn Monroe and a Mafia moll named Judith Exner. While having his way with one conquest in the wardrobe of a Washington hotel, JFK is said to have regaled her with tales of how one of his predecessors, Warren Harding, once performed it in a coat cupboard outside the Oval Office.

Lyndon Johnson is said to have boasted once that he had had more women by accident than JFK had had on purpose. Eleanor Roosevelt left the marital bedroom when she allegedly found out about Franklin's philanderings. FDR is said to have had at least two mistresses. One of them moved into the summer White House, and on train rides back to his Hudson River home, the president would step off at a siding for trysts with a lady in New Jersey, while the travelling press waited for him to reboard. As with his disability, the reporters knew but did not tell.

There lies the difference. Bill Clinton shares Kennedy's recklessness, buttressed by the conviction that they could get away with anything. But even in Kennedy's time the government was still trusted, and the White House press corps consisted of respectful gentlemen who kept secrets.

No longer. This is the age of celebrity, in which politicians and TV stars are interchangeable, where nothing is private and everything is transient. Bill Clinton thrived on this culture of trivia, indeed he made the modern presidency dance to its rhythm. It was he, incapable of embarrassment, who volunteered the style of his underpants, who endured revelations about his sex life that would have floored any other politician. But the price was a cheapening of an institution Americans still revere. If the Lewinsky affair proves true, they may feel the debasement of the currency has gone too far.

In that case, Mr Clinton is doomed. Shamelessness is his hallmark, the belief that charm and legal sophistry, judiciously dosed with misty-eyed repentance, can expunge any sin. Hitherto the recipe has worked, and the longer the affair drags on, the greater his chance of obfuscating the issue. Cunning lawyer and mesmeric talker that the President is, he may yet succeed in reducing the conflict to "my word against hers" (a phrase that pretty much sums up his amorous career).

Twice America has forgiven him by electing him to the presidency, knowing full well it was not choosing a saint. Will it forgive again? Maybe. But perhaps public opinion will heave a giant retch, collective and conclusive - enough is enough, he must go. In which case, forget grand juries, the technicalities of impeachment, the men in grey suits. He will.

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