by Wendy McElroy
In his four minute Address to the Nation that followed his grand jury testimony of August 17th, President Clinton repeatedly made a specious claim: namely, that he has a right to privacy concerning his sexually inappropriate relationship with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky. "[I]t is private," he declared. "Now this matter is between me, the two people I love most, my wife and our daughter, and our God. ...It is nobody's business but ours."
The belated Presidential demand for privacy was finely honed to appeal to the emotions of the American public, 63% of whom wish to see the matter dropped according to an August 17th CBS poll. But respecting Clinton's appeal for a private life, however reasonable the request may appear on the surface, would cloak the far more important issues that lurk beneath. Namely, did Clinton perjure himself, suborn perjury, destroy evidence, or otherwise obstruct justice? The public and media know no more about this potentially impeachable question than they did before Clinton's address. And there is every reason to suspect that he will now indignantly draw a curtain over these dangerous matters and rebuff future questions by insisting on privacy and hiding behind a sudden concern for the feelings of Hillary and Chelsea.
Yet the truth is: President Clinton has no right to privacy -- politically, morally, or legally -- on the Lewinsky matter.
There are at least two political reasons why Clinton has no right to claim privacy regarding Lewinsky. First, he has vigorously pursued a policy of using the images of his personal life when they are to his political advantage. From throwing frisbees to his puppy Buddy to dancing on the beach with Hillary in what was widely regarded as a staged display, Clinton has used the media to 'leak' his personal life to the American public. Or, rather, he has leaked those images that present him as a man of the people, as a loving husband and father, as just folks. Having shrewdly used his personal life to further a political career, Clinton has no right to object when others question whether the carefully scripted images are accurate.
Just as Clinton betrayed associates who accumulated heavy legal bills and endangered their credibility in order to defend him against valid accusations, if Clinton hides behind privacy he will be betraying Democratic candidates in the upcoming election. Already, Republican candidates are on the attack. On August 10th, for example, Congressional candidate and two-term Senator Dan Page began running ads aimed at discrediting the seated Democratic Congressman Bob Etheridge. The accusation: Etheridge stands by Bill Clinton. The question now is whether Clinton will stand firmly beside candidates, such as Etheridge, or leave them to flap alone in the cold electoral winds to come. Or will they share the sentiments of the formerly die-hard loyal Dee Dee Myers who said, "I think the President owes members of his staff that went out and defended him an apology... I think he sent them out there, put their credibility at risk."
On January 26th, President Clinton faced the nation, shook his finger in the air, and declared: "I want to say one thing to the American people... I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky." On August 17th, without using the word sex or wagging an appendage, he admitted to having had an inappropriate relationship with "that woman." In other words, Clinton will- fully dragged the American public through seven months of turmoil and expensive court proceedings in order to spare himself what he referred to as "the embarrassment" involved in telling the truth. As Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch commented, "The American people aren't stupid. They know that he could have done this seven months ago... They known that the reason he's doing it is because he has to." If Clinton had maintained silence from the beginning instead of publicly slandering Lewinsky and other women as liars, then he might have some moral grounds to demand privacy.
Moreover, Clinton is attempting to claim a right of privacy that he and his administration have actively denied to others. Feminists have generally refused to apply the phrase 'sexual harassment' to the 50 year old President's sexual dalliance with the 21 year old intern, claiming that the sex was "consensual" and, thus, did not fall within the category of harassment.
But the standard of consent is applied only to employment positions and not to mentor situations, such as an academic setting in which sex occurs between a professor and a student. In the latter, consent from the woman is irrelevant as are threats or promises of advancement from the man. Sexual harassment is deemed to be present simply because of the power differential. It is, by the definition now used as policy in virtually all American universities, an act of harassment and abuse for a man in a position of power to engage in sex with a woman, no matter how eager she may be. The President's relationship to a White House intern is clearly more of a mentor than an employer one. When the most powerful man on earth repeatedly entertains 'a certain kind of sex' from a young woman naive enough to believe they are having a 'relationship' thereby, the situation meets the standards of sexual harassment by a mentor. Clinton aggressively advocated exposing and punishing such powerful and abusive men through law and public policies. He is morally constrained from hiding behind privacy when such punishment comes knocking on his own door.
In the summer of 1974, as the Watergate scandal raged around President Nixon, political-hopeful William Jefferson Clinton proclaimed, "If a President of the United States ever lied to the American people he should resign." Six days after the Drudge Report broke the Lewinsky scandal on January 21st, Hillary Clinton went on the Today show and declared of her husband's alleged adultery, "Well, I would think if all that were proven true, I think that would be a very serious offense."
The offense has become more serious with time. It now involves possible perjury on the part of the President, who denied the Lewinsky matter under oath during the Paula Jones deposition. It involves discussions with Lewinsky on how to hide their sexual relationship, which discussions may or may not constitute subornation of perjury. It involves refusing to answer many of the questions posed before the 23 grand jurors and answering others in an unsatisfactory manner. As the Drudge Report of August 18 states: "He had major trouble with the time line [of his contacts with Monica Lewinsky]...he stumbled all over the Vernon Jordan questions and his Betty Currie story was full of inconsistencies." At one point during the grand jury testimony, Clinton reportedly broke for over an hour, perhaps to consult with attorneys standing-by regarding what was called "an unexpected line of questioning" from Starr.
Clinton would like to obscure any investigation into impeachable allegations by falling back upon a right to privacy. There is no right to privacy against answering legal charges. There is only a right against self-incrimination, which Clinton has surely waived at this juncture of his public and legal protestations.
It is easy to understand the appeal of silence, however. Clinton assumed his first term as President with the promise of a squeaky clean White House that would suffer from none of the moral ambiguity of predecessors. Since then there has been the scandals of Whitewater, Travelgate, the requisitioning of FBI files on political opponents, and the suicide of Vince Foster. Since then Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy resigned and is awaiting trial for allegedly taking gifts. Housing Secretary Henry Cisnero resigned and is awaiting trial for allegedly lying to the FBI. Commerce Secretary Ron Brown's personal financial dealings were under investigation at the time of his death in 1996. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Labor Secretary Alexis Herman are both under investigation for misusing influence for profit.
Clinton is said to care deeply about how history will record his legacy. Whether or not the American people forgive the President for having "misled" them regarding sexual misconduct, history will demand answers to the more substantive legal questions over which no other citizen could pull a veil of privacy. The details of his grand jury testimony will not remain confidential for long. Should the matter proceed to the House of Representatives, as is probable, the House will not hesitate to debate and publicly justify every action or inaction it takes toward impeachment. The Clinton debacle is and will remain a public matter. By appealing to privacy and retiring into silence, all that Clinton can conceivably gain is sympathy from the public and the blurring of information. Perhaps, at this point, it is the most he can hope to accomplish.
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