26 SEPTEMBER 1998, Page 13


Mark Steyn says it was none other than the

White House itself which put it around that the video would make Mr Clinton look bad

New Hampshire AFTER the third hour or so, it starts to seem perfectly normal to see the Presi- dent of the United States with a 'Sexually Graphic Material' network warning slapped across his chest as he attempts to explain what sex isn't: 'If the deponent is the person who has oral sex performed on him, then the contact is not with anything on that list, but with the lips of another person,' asserted Bill Clinton. 'It seems to me self-evident that that's what it is. Let me remind you, sir, I read this carefully.' Like Groucho and Chico, Clinto has fine- combed the small print: if the party of the first part is apart from the parts of the party of the second part while the party of the second part is partaking of the parts of the party of the first part, then even though the party of the second part is tak- ing part with a particle of the party of the first part, unless the party of the second part is partly parturient, the party of the first part plays no part — though whether this will fly with the party of the first part's party (the Democrats) is another matter.

By the fourth hour, I was bored stiff: `Let's go into the anteroom,' I said to my secretary, 'and play Deponent and Intern.' We couldn't find the word 'deponent' any- where in the Kama Sutra — and we've got the original edition, not the revised Clinta Sutra, which is a slim pamphlet containing a brief description of the missionary posi- tion; on the other hand, its companion vol- ume, The Joy of Non-Sex, goes on for thousands of pages.

Unfortunately, in the Clinton video, as with most sexually graphic material, to get to the hot stuff you have to sit through a ton of perfunctory, implausible dialogue: 'I don't recall . . . I have no recollection whatsoever of that . . . I don't remember anything I said . . . I'm not saying I didn't, but I have no recollection . . . I have no specific memory . . . I remember specifi- cally I have specific recollection of two times, but I don't remember when they were . . . I've told you what I remember. It doesn't mean that my memory is accurate . . . I do not remember when they were or at what time of day they were or what the facts were . . . I do not know what I meant. . . . '

Understandably, perhaps, he found it hard keeping track of his women: at one point, he referred to the Jones deposition as 'the Lewinsky deposition'; at another, `the Flowers deposition'. So many gals, but only one hard-pressed deponent. 'I have been blessed and advantaged in my life with a good memory. Now, I have been shocked, and so have members of my fami- ly and friends of mine, at how many things that I have forgotten,' the President revealed. 'Compounded by the pressure of your four-year inquiry, and all the other things that have happened, I'm amazed there are lots of times when I literally can't remember last week.' In other words, I'd be able to remember everything you guys wanted to ask me about if only you'd quit asking me about it.

For the benefit of the President, what happened last week was this: Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle and other senior Democrats told him he had to cut out the evasions and legal hair-splitting; it was an insult to the public. But on Monday, the public saw four hours of evasions and legal hair-splitting and what happened? His approval rating bounced from 59 per cent to 68 per cent, and even his personal approval rating went up from 37 per cent to 44 per cent — the first halt to the steady erosion in his poll numbers since the mea- sorta-culpa of 17 August. The wise old Watergate hands point out that public opinion coalesces slowly — which is more or less what's been happening over the last month. But now, even this painfully slow trickle away from the perennial Comeback Kid has been reversed. Why?

Well, for one thing, although recorded only a few hours before that disastrous address to the nation, his grand jury testi- mony was very different: he was more con- trite, he actually uttered the words 'I'm sorry', and he expressed sympathy for `Monica'. 'She's basically a good girl,' he said, and, though mindful of feminist sensi- tivities he quickly corrected himself to `good young woman', the original formula- tion humanised him in a way that his `National Prayer Breakfast' and signing Jesse Jackson as his family's spiritual adviser failed to. Granted that he's a shifty lyin' four-flushin' crock-peddlin' jive-ass sonofabitch, had he adopted the tone of his grand jury testimony in his subsequent speech to the nation, he would have spared himself this last wretched month.

Alas, the other reason for the Presi- dent's revived numbers is more prosaic: his spinners are spinning again. They were thrown from the runaway horse for a while, but they're back in the saddle now. Last weekend, the consensus was that the White House had been outspun. If only they'd agreed to let the President go to the grand jury in person, there'd have been no videotape for the 'partisan' Republicans to release in the first place. `Authoritative sources' who'd seen the recording assured the networks that Mr Clinton was profane, he lost his temper, he stormed out of the room, but on Monday morning when the tape rolled President Godzilla was nowhere in sight. Indeed, it was obvious from Mr Clinton's performance that he knew the video testimony was likely to leak out and was at pains to behave himself.

In spinning the media buzzmeisters into buzzing that the spinmeisters had been outspun, the spinmeisters were in fact playing a cunning game of double-spin: the White House was only pretending they didn't want the video released in order to tar the Republicans as vicious and unfair and to lower expectations of their boy's performance. By Tuesday, when the Presi- dent's numbers had perked up, the Wash- ington air was thick with rumours of even more elaborate double-bluffs. On Capitol Hill, Mr Clinton's colleagues were sudden- ly fearful that the White House was planning to leak sex stories about Congres- sional Democrats to make it look as if the Republicans were playing dirty; in yet another example of the President's amaz- ing ability to corner every position on any issue, the White House is now running dirty tricks for both sides. Mr Clinton is no longer Houdini, but he's doing a passable Rasputin: he's been shot, poisoned, throt- tled, held under water till the bubbles cease, but he keeps bobbing back up again.

The question is: where can it get him? By Tuesday, previously wobbly Democrats were talking about letting the President cop a plea for 'Censure Plus': in exchange for confessing his perjury, the President would get away with censure, plus a fine for the $4.4 million cost of the Monica investigation and/or the cancellation of his pension and/or a misdemeanour conviction and/or loss of his parking space, no interns under 73, etc. In return, the President would get to complete his term. The only trouble with this `compromise' is that no senior Republican is in the least bit inter- ested. Henry Hyde, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, says such a deal would be a matter for the Senate; having experienced at first hand White House smear tactics with the leaking of a 33-year- old affair, he's eager to press on with the impeachment process. The insiders say it's all down to November's elections: if the Democrats lose badly, they'll want to dump Clinton; if it's closer to a tie, Repub- licans will draw their own conclusions and settle for a deal.

The flaw in this theory is an obvious one: the dynamic in the Clinton scandals is Bill Clinton himself. Only one thing can be said with certainty: something else always turns up. The most artfully drawn deal in the world cannot immunise Mr Clinton against himself — against the inevitable `second intern' or a new funny-money scandal. The question Americans have to confront is how much longer they're going to subordinate the health of their democ- racy to the appetites of this President.

After watching the video, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa became the first Democrat to voice publicly what many of his col- leagues have been muttering in private: that the guy has some mysterious 'disor- der', albeit one not necessarily known to medical science. 'I'm coming around to the belief that there's something deeper here, that the President maybe has something wrong with him,' Senator Harkin told a television station in Des Moines. 'I don't know whether it's an illness . . . but I don't know how else to explain what he did.'

Whatever it is, it seems to be contagious. By any rational measurement, the Presi- dent's remaining hard-core defenders now sound, in that useful British expression, stark staring bonkers. 'Every morning', said the First Lady the other day, 'he wakes up worrying about how he can do more to make the American people's lives better.' You have demonstrated, at least `I can't eject it.' in my lifetime, a higher commitment to the kind of moral leadership that I value in public service and public policy than any person I have ever met,' said Democratic national chairman Steve Grossman at a $50,000-per-couple fundraiser just a week ago. 'Our prayer for you today', he contin- ued, 'is that you will continue to provide the kind of moral leadership to this coun- try that has enriched the life of virtually every citizen.'

For the first eight months, this scandal was, as theatricals say, Hamlet without the prince. We were obliged to feast on bit players like William Ginsburg, Monica's goofball lawyer, because the star refused to take the stage. Now, at last, Hamlet stands in the spotlight, cradling Vince Fos- ter's skull in one hand and a Hamlet cigar in the other. As in the play, there is much speculation as to whether he's mad. On the day the Starr report was released, the White House press secretary issued a statement denying that the President was under psychiatric care. Yet increasingly his soliloquies are an assault on sanity: 'It depends on what the meaning of the word "is" is' — or, as Shakespeare put it, 'To be or not to be, that is the question.'

To Teddy Roosevelt, the presidency was a 'bully pulpit': words are its currency. Mr Clinton's post-modern deconstruction of language debauches his currency as surely as a Russian president printing new rou- bles to replace the worthless old roubles debauches his. Mr Clinton lies to the American people, lies to his Cabinet, sends them out to disseminate the lie at taxpayers' expense, and then croons his siren song:

You must remember this A kiss isn't necessarily a kiss . The fundamental things Seem increasingly tenuous As Time Goes By... .

Last week, two assistants at the Florida Department of Children and Families' child abuse hotline were arrested for lying in a sworn statement about their job quali- fications and then getting their pals to back 'em up. Doubtless they'd be willing to make a grand Apology Tour, proclaim themselves sinners, receive spiritual guid- ance, etc. Instead, the state attorney-gen- eral is prosecuting them. The unique dispensation being demanded on Mr Clin- ton's behalf would seem grotesque if the bully in the pulpit hadn't somehow per- suaded his fellow citizens to place his wel- fare before that of the Republic: ask not what your country can do for you, ask what your country can do for me.

The President is right not to resign. Ken Starr's case is not as clear-cut as those of us in the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy would like, and its merits can be argued. So let the President argue it — before the House and, if necessary, on the floor of the Senate. If he can't win there, he doesn't deserve to win at all.