Comment: When the personal becomes all too political, I tune out

the persecution of bill clinton

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Later today the Clinton presidency could, effectively, come to an end. If Monica Lewinsky - a garrulous young woman with big hair - testifies that the President asked her to lie about an alleged previous affair, in a deposition to a court hearing the Paula Jones sexual harassment case, then it could be curtains for William Jefferson Clinton. He might become only the second US President (after Richard Nixon) to take an enforced early bath. It's quite a story.

Yet even as I write it, I can hardly believe it. Can it really be the case that a contested incident of inappropriate member display will eventually bring down the elected head of the world's foremost democracy? My first reaction, like that of many people, is that if this happens it will represent the greatest victory yet for monstrous triviality over reasoned debate in the political life of the West. Tabloid values will have trounced broadsheet ones, stupidity will have overcome rationality, gossip and tittle-tattle will have deposed analysis.

Bill Clinton is, of course, a flawed vehicle for the hopes of leftish liberals like me. His support for capital punishment alone would make him a difficult dinner party guest in my part of north London. Nevertheless, his victory in 1992 was an important and welcome one. At the very least it meant that the White House would not lend its support to those seeking the recriminalisation of abortion, that there would be sympathy for affirmative action, and that some attempt would be made to deal with the linked problems of the underclass and urban collapse.

Being a Sixties boy added to Bill's attraction. Even his marital infidelity mirrored social reality, rather than mocking it. Besides, if an impressive woman like Hillary could stand a little philandering, so could I.

But they were out to get him. For four years, and at a cost of $30m, the Clintons have been pursued by a Special Counsel (and just about every right-wing conspiracy theorist in the world) over the Whitewater land sale affair - without anything substantive emerging. Men and women who tolerated - no, cheered - J Edgar Hoover, the Bay of Pigs, the bombing of Cambodia, the systematic falsification of the scale of the Soviet threat, the Iran Contra scam and a million minor corruptions involving powerful companies, have made the destruction of the Clinton presidency their life's ambition. They want the White House back.

It was with all this fresh in my mind that I contemplated Wednesday's news about Monica Lewinsky, and the manner in which she has become so important. As we know, back in 1991, when Bill was Governor of Arkansas, Paula Jones either did or didn't see the presidential plonker. Her suit for sexual harassment, being heard at the moment, allowed her lawyers to seek and subpoena testimony from all those who might have encountered Mr Clinton sexually, and to force the President himself to testify about his sex life. Imagine that! I deploy only a fraction of the Clinton libido, and I wouldn't fancy it.

Some embarrassment may be the penalty one pays for glan-standing, but worse follows. This Monica, it is claimed, confided to a sympathetic older woman, Linda R Tripp, about her recent steamy relationship with Clinton. And, naturally, the older woman sympathetically (but unconsensually) taped these confidences. With the Jones case underway FBI agents wired the conscientious Ms Tripp, in the hope that Monica would reveal that Clinton or his advisors had "ordered" her to lie in her deposition. She didn't, but the hope in the anti-Clinton camp is that - faced with a possible charge for perjury at an earlier stage in the case - Ms Lewinsky will now do the business. If she does, then an impeachment call is bound to follow and Clinton may well decide to walk.

Now here's my problem. I don't care if Clinton showed Jones his willy. Even her account states that, when she made it clear that the sight was not a welcome one, he put it away. So I don't think the case should have been brought in the first place. Second, I believe it was wrong to demand, in pursuit of this case, that everyone who had had sex with Clinton should reveal it. Especially since - judging from CNN - this group appears to consist of most of the long-haired buxom women in America. Anyway, it's private, for Chrissakes, and Lewinsky nowhere suggests that sex between her and Clinton (if it took place) was anything other than consensual.

Finally, let us suppose that Bill and Monica did it. Naughty, yes. Unequal, yes. (Though if you're the President of the US, seducing only those who are your equals would leave an unenviable choice between Madonna, Steffi Graf and Boris Yeltsin.) But no one else's business. So would it really be a hanging offence to suggest to Monica that, if questioned about your nights together, she might like to deny it?

And here I am defeated. You may - as presidents have - lie to the public, with a false tear in your eye, on any matter under the sun. You can - as with Cuba - wage undeclared war for a generation against a small and defenceless Third World nation, whose greatest sin is possession of an education system and health service that are actually better than your own. You are permitted - as has happened - to destabilise democratic governments and then to replace them with blood-soaked tyrants, whose families and followers despoil their peoples. But you may not lie on oath to a court, nor may you suborn another so to do. For that would be an obstruction of justice - the justice that the President is sworn to uphold.

And, though it pains me to say it, this argument is probably unanswerable. Never mind that Clinton (if he's guilty) was only doing what many another might have done, and that he may have been provoked into doing it. In this one situation, the principle - upholding truth in the courts - is everything.

But, my God, the price we pay for this obsession with sex and the minutiae of personal behaviour, with whether a minister can get 8 x 7 right in two seconds, with William Straw's pounds 10 deals, with all these stories that drive out proper consideration of drugs policy, foreign policy, education policy, policy on the environment and all those other complicated, difficult and brain-challenging aspects of modern life.

If Clinton goes, it will demonstrate in the most dramatic possible fashion that today the personal really is political. All right. But, for the sake of our futures, I wish that, a bit more often, the political could be political too.

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