Only five years ago, when he was Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton held a meeting with his closest advisers to discuss whether he should run for the Presidency. One suggested that he might forestall future dangers by coming clean about the murkier aspects of his past. "I can't open my closet," Mr Clinton replied. "I'll get crushed by my skeletons." His judgement has been proved right.
But the price destiny will exact for the evasions and dissembling Clinton practised to keep grubby old bones from rattling his hopes of re-election, is that while in office he will never enjoy peace. He has battled to keep the closet shut, but his enemies have prised it open. As the inauguration dream fades, as the weeks and months of his presidency unfold, expect him to grow haggard, to wear the look of a haunted man.
Never has a president come to office groaning under the weight of so much accumulated scandal. It is almost as if the public craved from a second Clinton term a soap opera, something more like the British Royal Family, or perhaps a cliff-hanger where the suspense would reside in the question, "will the president be impeached?"
But how plausible is the notion that the president will pay the ultimate price? Let us look at the scandals one by one.
The freshest is "Indogate" whose emergence in the dying days of the presidential campaign offered Bob Dole the opportunity to imagine that the impossible would happen. Press reports told that the Democratic Party had received large campaign contributions from an Indonesian family business empire one of whose leading figures had forged a personal relationship with the president. The Republicans, conjuring shades of the yellow peril, frothed with indignation. "Where is the outrage?" clamoured Mr Dole.
That is the problem congressional Republicans will face when they sit down in the coming months to conduct hearings into suspicions of illegal or unethical behaviour on the part of the Democrats. There is no outrage. Mr Dole was dreaming if he thought Indogate would win the election and the Republicans are dreaming today if they imagine it will bring about Mr Clinton's downfall. Partly because the details of the case - suggestive as they undoubtedly are of cronyism and White House skulduggery - are lost on the vast majority of Americans whose priorities in life do not include an obsessive attention to the goings-on within the Washington bubble. But the main reason there is no outrage is that on those rare occasions when the American public does turn its gaze on national politics the lament is always the same, "They're all corrupt. What else is new?"
As for those whose burden it is to submit the presidency to close scrutiny, they have found that the public's instincts are justified. Jesse Helms, the ante-deluvian right-winger who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has himself received funds from Taiwanese donors. Whether it is Philip Morris cigarettes, or a Far Eastern conglomerate or the man on the moon who is buying the politicians their jobs, government by the people of the people is slowly perishing from the face of the earth.
The congressional investigations are no more likely to find a paper trail leading to the Oval Office than they have been to nailing down any evidence of criminal wrongdoing during the four years of investigations into Mr Clinton's role in the Whitewater land deal. Did then Governor Clinton use his influence to help a friend raise a loan for what turned out to be a failed exercise in property speculation? Maybe. How many politicians could declare in all conscience that they had never in their careers exploited their influence to dispense favours? Not many.
The present status of Whitewater is that a tremendous amount of time and money has been devoted to establishing whether the President might have done something wrong without ever establishing what exactly that something might have been. It is a criminal investigation with a suspect but no crime. Even if Kenneth Starr, the special prosecutor to whom a weary Congress has consigned the Whitewater case, were to find that Mr Clinton had committed a breach of ethics - for that is as far as it would go - that would not be grounds for impeachment. For whatever the nature of the supposed wrongdoing it happened before he entered the White House.
Filegate and Travelgate, on the other hand, have erupted while Mr Clinton was President. In the first it was revealed that members of the White House security staff had procured 900 FBI files, some of which included background information on senior Republicans. But the requisite congressional hearings last year failed to unearth any evidence either that the staffers involved had acted with presidential permission or that the information in the files had been put to sinister political use. Since then the issue has shown little sign of revival, although the diligent Mr Starr is still on the case.
Travelgate concerns whether Hillary Clinton played a role in firing the White House Travel Office staff and replacing them with old pals from Arkansas after her husband came to power. She has said that she did not. A memo by a White House aide suggests that she did. Mr Starr is looking into this one too. He may conclude that the First Lady lied - but then what? She will stick to her story and, besides, is America - the world - expected to be shocked by the discovery that the Clintons reshuffled the pack upon their arrival in the White House, that they hired and fired to trade in past favours? Unlikely.
Taken in isolation none of these "gates" is going to sink President Clinton. Taken as a whole, together with revelations about his unseemly election guru Dick Morris and his habit of renting the White House's Lincoln Room to generous campaign donors, they add up to a picture of tawdriness. Barring an outbreak of war and an opportunity to do a Roosevelt, he will go down in history not as a great but as a smarmy president.
All the more so if by far the most potentially damaging of all the scandals he faces ever makes it to court. The allegations of sexual harassment brought by Paula Jones refer to events that took place in a Little Rock hotel room in May 1991. There is no question of impeachment should Mr Clinton lose the civil suit she has brought against him. But it is perhaps not beyond the bounds of possibility that Mr Clinton might decide to spare himself, his wife and his teenage daughter further embarrassment and humiliation by resigning. Such a course of action remains unlikely. Mr Clinton has shown himself to have the hide of rhinoceros.
A great deal will turn, however, on the outcome of a Supreme Court ruling on whether a president merits relief from civil proceedings during the duration of his term. Mr Clinton himself lodged the appeal in direct response to Ms Jones' desire to take the matter to litigation. The Supreme Court began its deliberations last week and is expected to rule in early summer. Should the outcome favour Ms Jones Mr Clinton may have to choose between the ignominy of settling out of court or facing the prospect of being ordered by a judge to submit his genitals to examination. Ms Jones' claim says that Mr Clinton dropped his trousers and asked her to kiss his erect member, on which - before fleeing - she spotted some "distinguishing characteristics".
Out in the open already, for all to see, are the distinguishing characteristics of contemporary American politics. If Mr Clinton had stood as a lone blemish on an otherwise pristine Washington landscape he would never have been re-elected. As it is, shamelessness defines the age. When it comes to cynicism politicians even outdo the press - witness the shock and amazement of a New York Times reporter when he discovered that the lobbyists whose companies funded Republican campaigns were writing Republican bills.
Newt Gingrich, not the hapless Bob Dole, has been the dominant Republican of the last two years. The Speaker of the House of Representatives and Mr Clinton define the political times. What consumes them is the electoral game. They tailor their message to the polls not to their convictions, because they have none; their rhetorical pretensions to statesmanship ring hollow, ludicrous. They prefer to follow rather than to lead because that, their marketing people tell them, is the way to win elections. Persuaded in their arrogance that the end justifies the means, believing that the legal restrictions imposed on other mortals do not pertain to them, they have cut ethical corners, sullied the dignity of their high offices.
Mr Gingrich, the darling of the Christian right, has had his tawdry affairs too. The scandals which nearly precipitated his downfall as House speaker also have to do with raising political money improperly. He and Mr Clinton have set the Washington tone and even if not all elected politicians have stooped as low, most have entered with gusto into a spirit of political engagement marked not by debate as to the course the country should follow but by personal attacks, low blows, infantile congressional bunfights. Two years ago when Mr Gingrich's "Second American Revolution" was in full flood he included Chimpanzee Politics, written by a Dutch anthropologist, on a recommended reading list for freshmen Republicans. The book, a study of the struggle for power between apes, concludes that when it comes to the tactics employed for the pursuit of power the main difference between humans and their closest relatives in the animal kingdom is that one species talks and the other does not.
Why is the evolution of American politics turning Darwin's theory on its head? The reasons are twofold. One is that the end of the Cold War has undermined the fundamental solidarity of bipartisan purpose seen when the nation was under perceived threat. The second is that after the public rejected the Gingrich model of "revolutionary" Republicanism and Mr Clinton made his tactical election move to the right the difference between the two main parties has dwindled, in Norman Mailer's phrase, to less than "the thickness of a width of dental floss".
In the absence of ideas to distinguish Republican from Democrat, all that is left to an election candidate is to impugn his rival's character and morality. How else to explain the unrelenting loathing Republicans feel towards Mr Clinton when he himself has become a Republican?
What lies ahead during the Clinton presidency, in short, is the politics of trivia. "Scandals" which could just as easily be ignored will dominate the tabloid debate.
Mr Clinton will bear the brunt of the war of attrition but he will emerge the Pyrrhic victor - bruised by his skeletons but not crushed. He will win for the reason his opponents hate him so much, because he is smarter than they are.Reuse content