Clinton Trial: Day One: America still hails `likeable' Billy Liar

Click to follow
The Independent Online
AS THE Clinton trial begins, the mood across the United States is not only calm but almost uninterested. However much constitutional historians and television commentators try to talk up the perils of the moment, the emotional charge generated by a true national crisis is not there.

This is largely because Bill Clinton's authority as national leader is still remarkably intact. When a group of Washington political analysts gathered this week to address the theme of "Life under a weakened presidency", they concluded that, while the institution of the presidency might be weakened, the presidential authority of Mr Clinton himself was largely intact.

They also agreed that even if, as they tended to believe, the institution of the presidency had been diminished in recent years, the fault could not be laid primarily at Mr Clinton's door.

The solidity of his political authority may be a product of the flourishing economy - and vice versa. The Wall Street Journal noted that New Yorkmarkets fell 20 per cent in the two years between the Watergate break-in and Richard Nixon's resignation in 1974.

In the year since the Clinton scandal broke, markets rose 20 per cent. Whatever happens on Wall Street, the paper said, "few would have predicted this kind of resilience in the face of this much scandal".

Commentators have started to look beyond the economy for why so many have remained loyal to Mr Clinton for so long. The most recent polls put his job-approval rating at 62 to 67 per cent; more than 60 per cent said he should not be tried and a similar proportion said he should not be removed from office. They believe this even though a similar majority (though not necessarily the same respondents) say they believe him guilty of the two charges - perjury and obstruction of justice - the seriousness of which no one contests.

The new explanation for Mr Clinton's ratings, to quote William Safire in The New York Times, is "a widespread affection for this likeable lame- duck liar ... His many weaknesses become his strength". Correspondents to The New York Times, in response to Mr Safire's column, concurred, also citing unacceptable invasions of his privacy and unwarranted pursuit by the independent prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, as additional reasons for sympathy.

Thomas Mann, director of governmental studies at the liberal Brookings Institution, said:"It is a style of governance, of seeming to connect with the concerns of ordinary people in this country, that is also a source of the presidential strength, together with his very effective counter- punching in dealing with the majority Republicans in Congress." In other words, a lot of Americans like him, despite his faults, and he is a highly adept politician.

Even if Mr Clinton's stature and effectiveness as president have been affected by the Lewinsky scandal and impeachment, the damage to his presidency is marginal. The respect Mr Clinton continues to enjoy as president is perhaps his strongest suit. Impeachment has always been regarded as having a political as well as a judicial aspect, and even some of his harshest Republican opponents believe they must take account of this when they deliberate on their verdict.

Even though Mr Clinton conducted his "inappropriate relationship" with Ms Lewinsky in the White House, sometimes while he was transacting official business on the telephone, and Congressmen on the right of the Republican Party accuse him of "staining" the presidency, most Americans seem to see his behaviour more in personal terms. He hurt the institution less than he hurt himself and his family.

But if the presidency is weaker now and if Mr Clinton's conduct is not primarily to blame, who or what is? Many analysts see the end of the Cold War as one culprit, because it had the effect of leaving US power unchallenged and rendered a strong national leader less vital.