I have a friend, a State Senator, who told me of meeting Bill Clinton midway through his first term as President. He said he told Clinton that he should get a medal for all the hits he had taken on behalf of our generation and I agreed with him. Every societal excess of the 60s was pinned on Clinton from draft dodging to drug abuse. And his progressive stances on gay civil rights and privacy rights in abortion matters made him an instant target for the conservatives who believed that the long-haired protesters of the 60s were the demon's seed. This was before the sex scandal that caused the President's impeachment and near removal from office. With this breach of personal morality, all the hits taken by Clinton for his generation were refocused back on the rest of us, and the cultural conservatives set upon Clinton like Father Damien in The Exorcist.
David Maraniss' fair handed biography of Bill Clinton, "First In His Class," does not refer to Clinton's rank at Oxford, but the fact that he was the first person of the Baby Boom generation to be elected president. My politically involved friends and I rejoiced the night Clinton won the White House from Bush, Sr. Not only because political power was being passed to the post war generation, but because Clinton was one of us. He was raised in the segregated South with a resentment toward racial bigotry and emerged a new kind of Southerner with the abilities to ease the old conflicts. He was a typical college student of the 60s. He grew his hair long, experimented with marijuana, resisted the draft and protested against the Vietnam War. What was not typical was his obvious brilliance and mastery of details within the larger picture. Coupled with his great ambition to live a political life and to make a difference, he was a man capable of understanding every nuance of a policy decision and a born problem solver. More importantly, he was capable of enunciating a vision for a fairer and more inclusive society in the United States. Considering ability alone, he might have been one of our greatest presidents.
The Lewinsky episode changed all that. At first merely shocked, when I learned that the woman involved was a 20 year old intern, I thought certainly Clinton must resign. Clinton's strong public denial caused his supporters to give him the benefit of the doubt, especially when his greatest defender was his wife. Even when the facts were laid bare, many attempted to justify the lie by believing that Clinton was merely speaking in Lawyerese, and in the strict definition of the judge in the Paula Jones case, "sexual relations" meant intercourse. So technically, the argument could be made that Clinton did not exactly lie, but he was actively misleading. I wanted to grab him in a Fredo Corleone embrace and say, "I know it was you. You broke my heart."
Everyone knows a Bill Clinton. Someone who cannot, or will not, manage his impulses and cheats on his wife. No one celebrates such behavior and most consider it a character flaw. But nearly everyone agrees that it is a private matter. The venomous way his opponents attacked him like torch bearing villagers out to kill Frankenstein's monster made his supporters rally to his side. The entrapment, threats, circus testimonials to the grand jury, and the minute sexual detail revealed by the partisan special prosecutor's office were as unseemly as Clinton's behavior. Yes, Clinton lied about sex. So did FDR, Ike, JFK, LBJ, and Reagan. Recent Secret Service testimony has revealed that Nixon beat his wife, but he didn't cheat on her. But these men were not asked about it under oath. And why should any person, much less the President, have to testify under oath about his personal sexual behavior when the prosecutor was appointed to investigate a real estate transaction? Clinton's opponents insist it was about perjury, but it was always about sex, and fellatio out of wedlock is not an impeachable offense.
So Bill Clinton survived but Al Gore didn't. Had Clinton resigned when the scandal was revealed, he would have left Gore with a three year incumbency and retained power within the Democratic Party. I don't blame Al Gore from running away from Clinton. With an eight year record of peace and prosperity, an historic treasury surplus, and the first balanced budget in half a century, Gore should have been able to waltz into the office against any Republican opponent. Gore's experience as honor student, seminarian, soldier, journalist, Senator, and Vice President made him one of the most qualified candidates of the last century to run for the presidency. His belief in, and defense of, his President cost Al Gore dearly, but he should never have lost an election because he was perceived by an image obsessed populace as less amiable or ingratiating as Clinton.
So after waiting until past middle age to see someone of my generation assume power, just as we had discussed all those miserable war years ago, G.W. Bush was elected and promptly turned the reigns of power back to his father's administration. Their Cold War thinking has stalled the progress of American ideas in the world for the foreseeable future. For all of Clinton's talents and administrative accomplishments, his reckless behavior was not merely a betrayal of his wife and family, it was a betrayal of all who trusted in him.
But Clinton's greatest sin was not regarding sex. I still believe that his indiscretion was a personal matter between Clinton, his wife, and his conscience, and that none but his creator have the right to judge him. No, Clinton's greatest sin was in roiling the electorate and creating a backlash against his behavior that allowed the election of George W. Bush. And although I am a believer in redemption, with the current state of chaos in the world, this is a sin I am having a difficult time forgiving.