Clinton's Last Laugh

Clinton's Last Laugh

Clinton's Last Laugh

How you look at things.
Jan. 31 1998 3:30 AM

Clinton's Last Laugh

"Frame Game" is an occasional Slate department based on the premise that who wins in Washington is often determined by how the issue is framed. The author neither endorses nor condemns any of the views expressed, however laudatory or repellent.

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William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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Is President Clinton finished? Lots of Washington journalists think so. Evidence suggests that Clinton committed and suborned perjury in the Monica Lewinsky affair. Justice, they say, demands that the president be held accountable to the law.

It's a perfectly logical argument. But so what? In politics, logic is just a small part of the art of framing. While Clinton's critics reason carefully about justice, honesty, and criminal behavior, the president is playing an entirely different game. He is turning the scandal into a debate about sex, political warfare, and the disruption of the nation's business. That's how he's going to survive.

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1 Perjury vs. sex: Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr wanted the Lewinsky case to be about perjury and cover-up. He took it up, and Attorney General Janet Reno approved his investigation, because what had happened to Lewinsky--Vernon Jordan found her a plum job after she thwarted prosecutors' efforts to incriminate Clinton--eerily resembled what had happened to Whitewater-scandal figure Webster Hubbell. Through Lewinsky, Starr hoped to unravel a pattern of cover-up. Indeed, he hoped to wire Lewinsky and thereby catch Jordan--and perhaps even Clinton--asking her to lie.

Starr never got his chance. The Lewinsky story leaked, and the press besieged White House spokesman Mike McCurry with questions about the alleged affair. Reporters initially preserved an air of dignity by couching their questions in terms of perjury, but they soon tossed aside that fig leaf and pounced on the subject everyone wanted to know about: Did Clinton and Lewinsky have sex? If so, what kind? McCurry answered evasively, as did Clinton in an interview with PBS's Jim Lehrer. By evening, the whole country was gossiping about the randy president and the nubile intern.

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Jordan issued a statement the next day denying that he had encouraged Lewinsky to lie. With that, the question of perjury vanished, trampled by the media's sexual feeding frenzy. Reporters hounded McCurry about details of the alleged affair and nuances in Clinton's denials. Network-news anchors and Sunday-morning moderators parsed the semantics of oral sex. Reports that Clinton had confessed to an affair with Gennifer Flowers compounded the titillation.

All these tales about Clinton's sex life are humiliating, but they won't get him booted from office. Polls show that the public is far less willing to impeach Clinton for having an affair with Lewinsky than for committing or suborning perjury about it. What's more, outrage over consensual sex is unsustainable. The public soon tires of the subject. Disgust with the sordid sex curdles into disgust with the sordid investigation and coverage of it. Clinton's spokesmen have accelerated this spin cycle, accusing Starr of launching what Clinton adviser James Carville calls "a scuzzy investigation" to dig up "some kind of sleazy sex."

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Critics assume that Clinton has to explain or repent his sexual sins. But maybe the public doesn't need to forgive or understand them. Maybe it just needs to get used to them, as it has done before. "Everybody knew" Clinton was an adulterer in 1992, argued White House strategist Paul Begala on ABC's This Week With Sam and Cokie, responding to the Lewinsky scandal. According to Begala, voters elected Clinton not because he was "pure" but because he had "good ideas" that are helping the country. Who cares if he's taken another spill off the chastity wagon? All this talk about White House sex is already losing its shock value. Pundits are pointing out that lots of presidents fooled around, that not one of them was impeached for it, and that citizens of many other countries don't care about their leaders' mistresses.

Now that the Lewinsky affair has been reduced from a perjury scandal to a sex scandal, Hillary Clinton can shut the bedroom door on it. "The only people who count in any marriage are the two that are in it," Hillary argued on the Today show Jan. 27. "We know everything there is to know about each other, and we understand and accept and love each other." Unless Starr manages to push the perjury issue back to center stage, Mrs. Clinton's defense of her husband will stifle the public's appetite for further investigation.

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2 Legal inquiry vs. political war: Most journalists who think Clinton is doomed assume that he eventually has to tell the truth about his relationship with Lewinsky. Says who? A political scandal isn't a Socratic, scientific, or legal investigation. To get reporters to stop asking about Lewinsky, Clinton doesn't have to give them the truth, he just has to tire them out. His advisers call this their "rope-a-dope" strategy, referring to the boxing tactic of shielding your head with your gloves and making your opponent exhaust himself by uselessly pummeling you against the ropes. It's effective. On This Week, Cokie Roberts asked Begala six times whether an extramarital physical relationship was improper. Six times, Begala responded by making the case for Clinton in his own terms. Eventually, Roberts gave up.

White House strategists have also taken the heat off Clinton by defining the investigation as a political fight, obliging the press to scrutinize both sides equally. Like Johnnie Cochran, Clinton's defenders are putting the prosecution on trial. Carville launched the attack on Starr months ago. This week, he declared all-out "war" between Starr and the Clinton camp. "The real focus here is on the methods [and] motives of the independent counsel," said Carville, accusing Starr of "wiring" women in hotel bars and plying them with whiskey. Two days later, Hillary Clinton called Starr "a politically motivated prosecutor who is allied with the right-wing opponents of my husband." Clinton's partisans have linked Starr to Jesse Helms, Jerry Falwell, and other bogeymen. Polls indicate that the public is buying this argument. A plurality blames the scandal on Clinton's enemies, not Clinton.

The war metaphor has changed the nature of media coverage. Investigative reporters strive for truth, but political reporters strive for balance. As political accusations against Starr and the right have escalated, the press has devoted a greater share of its scandal coverage to questioning the methods and motives of those who gathered the evidence against Clinton. And ethics aside, reporters like to prolong fights by keeping them even. The more Clinton is afflicted, the more the press comforts him by afflicting Starr.

The psychology of war also causes reporters to focus less on each side's evidence than on its posture. Clinton's Jan. 26 denial of the sex allegations added nothing but anger to his Jan. 21 denial, yet the press called it more persuasive. When White House aides and congressional Democrats reflexively expressed confidence in Clinton's denials, their assurances were portrayed as bolstering Clinton's case. When Clinton lawyer Bob Bennett requested that the Paula Jones trial begin sooner than scheduled, reporters construed it as a display of confidence.

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3 Justice vs. business: To deprive Democrats of the political fight they crave, Republican leaders have kept quiet about the Lewinsky case and confined their comments to topics such as Iraq, taxes, and Social Security. But this plays into Clinton's third strategy. Even if Starr focuses public attention on the perjury issue and represents his investigation as a search for truth, Clinton can defeat him by persuading the public--without explicitly saying so--that impeaching the president for perjury in a civil suit is less important than getting on with the nation's business. As Clinton put it on Jan. 26, "These allegations are false. And I need to go back to work for the American people."

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The press will milk the sex scandal for as long as possible, but the relentless influx of new issues works in Clinton's favor. Skeptics said Clinton wouldn't be able to pull off his State of the Union speech with the scandal hanging over him. He proved them wrong and in the process pushed the issue of Social Security to center stage. Military confrontation with Iraq would instantly supplant the Lewinsky story and would convert Clinton's image from lecher to leader.

Idealists think the public won't accept Clinton's disjunction between justice and business, between his private vice and his public service. But polls show that the public does accept the disjunction. Clinton's job-approval rating has held steady even as his personal favorability and trustworthiness ratings have declined. Americans will overlook his squalid conduct because he makes the trains run on time. They're not going to "shut down the recovery," suggested Begala last week, just "to start asking about whether somebody made a phone call." How cynical. And how true.