The Politics Of Promiscuity

LAST FEB. 11, A FORMER ARKANSAS STATE employee named Paula Jones called a press conference in Washington and claimed that on May 8, 1991, Gov. Bill Clinton asked her to meet him in a Little Rock hotel room--a state trooper had passed along the invitation--and then propositioned her in a manner that might charitably be described as crude. The press conference was held in the midst of a conservative political conference. Jones had been brought to Washington by the Clinton-obsessed, relentlessly odious Little Rock lawyer Cliff Jackson. Her motivation was, therefore, easily questioned. Her story was reported perfunctorily--and roundly dismissed.

And then an odd thing happened: everyone in Washington started talking about it. The alleged details--bizarre, grotesque, outrageous--made the rounds of all the best parties. Paula Jones was said to be a pretty credible witness. She had affidavits supporting her story. The Washington Post was investigating. Soon the conservative "watchdog" group Accuracy in Media (AIM) was on the case: Where was the Jones story? Why wasn't this given the same attention as Anita Hill's more tenuous charges against Clarence Thomas? The Post responded with two stories about the nonstory, acknowledging that a piece was in the works, but that such matters had to be handled with care. Jones, meanwhile, was said to be considering a suit against Clinton. But what sort of suit? She hadn't lost her job, or been offered a better one. Her evidence was, at best, circumstantial. Which raised an interesting point: why was this of any interest at all?

In a sane world and under normal circumstances, it shouldn't be. Accuracy in Media is right: there is no difference between Paula Jones and Anita Hill. Their charges should be held in equal-- minimal--regard. They are equally unprovable. But even as Whitewater mania appears to recede, it seems inevitable that Paula Jones's story will join the rising landfill of allegations of personal misbehavior that Bill Clinton has had to deny, deflect, defend, derail. It has heft only because there have been so many others, and because it reinforces a widely held suspicion about the precise nature of the president's problem.

The national press has been restrained in its accounts of Bill Clinton's private life, and with good reason. Most of those who have made charges against him have been despicable people, jealous, stunted sorts with ideological axes to grind--or money to make, like Gennifer Flowers. If one were to judge Bill Clinton by the quality of his enemies, he'd be a candidate for sainthood. Furthermore, it can be persuasively argued that a politician's private life gives no indication of his or her ability to perform public duties. John Kennedy's flagrantly adolescent attitude toward women didn't prevent him from acting in a sober, measured-- and inspired--manner during the Cuban missile crisis. Indeed, those who have come to the presidency with a prior history of philandering have been more successful than those who haven't, at least in the 20th century (as opposed to those who've come to the presidency with high IQs who've mostly been failures).

But it seems increasingly, and sadly, apparent that the character flaw Bill Clinton's enemies have fixed upon--promiscuity--is a defining characteristic of his public life as well. It may well be that this is one case where private behavior does give an indication of how a politician will perform in the arena. It may be that Clinton's alleged (and it must be emphasized: unproven) behavior toward women is not irrelevant when his behavior toward Haitians, Bosnians-and Americans-is considered, and therefore should be a fit subject for greater scrutiny.

"Promiscuous" is a deliciously ambiguous word. Webster's mentions sex only in passing. The emphasis is on catholicity: "I: composed of all sorts of persons or things. 2: not restricted to one class, sort or person: INDISCRIMINATE ... esp.: not restricted to one sexual partner." It grows more eerily accurate, and worse: "3. CASUAL. IRREGULAR ([as in] eating habits)."

Promiscuity, then, has many implications. It can work to a politician's advantage. It implies inclusiveness, a largeness of spirit. It suggests empathy. Bill Clinton, at his best, appears to be "composed of all sorts of persons or things," and communicates it artlessly. He is never pompous. He can convey sophisticated concepts using simple words without condescending. After his most recent State of the Union Message, a leading Republican said, "I just sat there when it was over, and said to myself, 'This guy is just too good. We're in trouble'."

PRIVATELY, THE QUALITY IS EVEN MORE POWERFUL. CLINTON can take a group of people-people who may disagree with each other vehemently-and convince them that their differences are minor, peripheral (as they often are). He will shave, wheedle, compromise and cajole until he finds-or creates-common ground. He is notorious for his ability to impress strangers and disarm opponents. He is notorious for leading people to believe that he agrees with them entirely ... without ever quite committing himself to their position. This is a gift given only to the best politicians. It is how difficult things get done. It is also easily abused, especially when the practitioner has an imprecise, or relative, sense of moral principle.

And so, Bill Clinton's greatest strength may be inseparable from his most disheartening weakness. The president truly likes people-his personal affection, and attention, is authentic-but he likes them indiscriminately. He has trouble drawing lines, disagreeing, disappointing them. He conveys an impression of complete accessibility, and yet nothing is ever revealed: "I've had blind dates with women I've known more about than I know about Clinton," James Carville once complained early in the campaign. This wanton affability leads, inevitably, to misunderstandings. It forces him to finagle, which he does brilliantly. it leads to a rhetorical promiscuity, the reckless belief that he can talk anyone into anything (or, more to the point, that he can talk his way out of anything), that he can seduce, and abandon, at will and without consequence. During the presidential campaign, Carville confronted Clinton about this tendency-memorably. The governor had just talked his way out of a tough scrape and Carville, nonplussed, was berating him for always living on the edge, as if he were begging to get caught. "You keep playing this game of gotcha," he said.

"Yeah," Clinton replied. "But they didn't get me that time, did they'?" They haven't gotten him yet. They may never. But a clear pattern has emerged-of delay, of obfuscation, of lawyering the truth. The litany of offenses is as familiar as it is depressing. It begins with marijuana. Not the famous "I didn't inhale," which may well have been an awkward bit of candor. Far more distressing was Clinton's craven, cynical previous position: that he had "never broken a state law." This preternatural cuteness was repeated during the draft controversy, when Clinton never quite admitted to having received an induction letter until confronted with the evidence; and, of course, in response to accusations of philandering, when the Clintons-and Mrs. Clinton clearly is complicit in all of this-pre-emptively admitted that their marriage had not been "perfect." It has been the hallmark of their Whitewater temporizing as well, most notably on the question of Mrs. Clinton's commodities trading-which is probably the redolent embarrassment at the heart of the matter, and which still could be subject to further revision, even after the First Lady's impressive, but not quite definitive, recent press conference. With the Clintons, the story always is subject to further revision. The misstatements are always incremental. The "misunderstandings" are always innocent-casual, irregular: promiscuous. Trust is squandered in dribs and drabs.

Does this sort of behavior also infect the president's public life, his formulation of policy? Clearly, it does. Has it made him any less effective? Not yet, perhaps. It might destroy this administration insidiously, over time-especially overseas, as foreign leaders learn to mistrust Clinton; and domestically, by feeding the public cynicism about the nature of politics and politicians. But in his first year or so, the president has put his seductive qualities to good use, in pursuit of higher goals-his insistence that new taxes should be home mostly by the wealthy; his support for free trade, despite opposition within his party-and this has far outweighed the multitude of petty fudges, retreats, compromises, denials.

A famous bit of promiscuity won the president his budget fight last year: he had promised House Democrats he'd be faithful if they supported a Btu energy tax, but he quickly changed course when the Senate Finance Committee balked. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan is said to have been quite nervous, bringing the bad news to the Oval Office: the Btu tax was dead, the only possible revenue enhancer was a, uh, transportation fuels, that is, ah, a gas tax, and the senator knew that candidate Bill Clinton had clobbered Paul Tsongas for supporting such a tax. "I was against a 50-cent gas tax," the president said. "A small one [it was four cents] is OK."

The House Democrats have yet to pay the price for their Btu votes-that may come when they run for re-election this fall; nor has Clinton paid the price for pulling the rug out from under them-that may come the next time he asks them to take a risk. The president did win, though, and was rather admired for his pre-emptive capitulations. He found a way to get a balky Congress to do his will. He won, and there are no Pyrrhic victories in such wars. But the very quality that enabled Clinton to finesse the legislature can hurt him elsewhere.

It hurts grievously in foreign policy, where this sort of behavior is often called by another name: appeasement. A statesman is known for his commitments, and tends to be mistrusted when he compromises (outside of treaty negotiations, of course). A president's every word, the nuances of each position he takes, must be carefully considered. There is no room for carelessness-or promiscuity; positions can't be casually struck as negotiating ploys and then indiscriminately abandoned. And when the world looks at Bill Clinton, it sees this: he has reversed himself on almost every major foreign-policy position, with the exception of his attitude toward Russia, taken during the campaign. That would not be so bad if his subsequent policies were sober, presidential-but they haven't been; they've been ... indiscriminate, casual and irregular. He has made empty threats. He has tried to finesse his retreats. He has lacked the fortitude to take positions and state principles that might offend; he has not realized that when it comes to world leadership, steadfastness is more important than seduction.

NOWHERE IS THIS FECKLESSNESS MORE APPARENT THAN in his policy toward Haiti. During the campaign, Clinton accused George Bush of playing "racial politics with the Haitian refugees. I wouldn't be shipping those poor people back." He reversed this position a week before his Inauguration, as Haitians prepared, by the thousands, to flee by boat to America. The president-elect's decision was political. He didn't want Florida, or his Inaugural week, overwhelmed by Haitian boat people. But his explanation was disingenuous: it was dangerous coming over in those rickety boats. He didn't want to see people drowning. He has seen them murdered by the score instead. He promised to work for a political solution, and he was as good as his word-until it came time, last fall, to implement that solution, and the world was treated to the spectacle of an American warship carrying peacekeepers turned away from Port-au-Prince by a small group of lightly armed thugs. The message to thugs elsewhere was unambiguous, if unintentional: America can be defied, even in its own backyard. It was reinforced by the simultaneous humiliation-General Aidid's defiance-in Somalia.

The administration has been casting about in recent days for a less craven Haiti posture but, as always, appears to be searching for the policy equivalent of a one-night stand-a risk-free intervention, an action with no negative consequences. Last week, in a mind-boggling display of intellectual promiscuity, the president seemed to support a hunger strike conducted against his own policy by Randall Robinson, leader of the lobbying group TransAfrica Forum: "He ought to stay out there," Clinton said. "We need to change our policy." To which Robinson told The New York Times: "It's sad to say, but he appears without moral compass."

THE LACK OF A COMPASS HAS LONG BEEN ASSUMED BY THE Bosnian Serbs. The Clinton policy there has been a nonstop embarrassment. The president is torn between public opinion-largely noninterventionist-and the moral pleadings of those who believe the tribal savagery visited upon the Muslims by the Serbs is a form of genocide. His initial impulse was a halfhearted attempt to cajole the European allies into action, rather than lead them. An escalating series of Serb outrages and halfhearted allied responses has ensued. During the recent siege of Gorazde, the administration hinted support for almost every conceivable policy position-within 48 hours, it toyed with reducing economic sanctions on the Serbs (a French-Russian appeasement strategy) and then announced it favored strengthening sanctions. Now the president has raised his bluff. he has proposed more retaliatory airstrikes, but ruled out the use of ground troops-even though the Pentagon is convinced that air power won't be decisive and the Serbs will doubtless survive to thumb their noses at American "force" again.

Mistrust is cumulative. Each new abdication of American authority, each new attempt to finesse a crisis, reduces the president's future options. Certainly, the credibility of any threat of force from this administration is now severely diminished. And the probability grows that some foreign leader-someone who doesn't know Bill Clinton, someone he hasn't seduced-will call the president's bluff when a significant number of lives are at stake. Given the administration's track record, who could blame the North Koreans if they continued to ignore American threats and went ahead with their nuclear bomb? Given his diminished credibility, how many more empty threats can the president afford? Conversely, will he be locked into unwise policies that give the appearance of toughness-making "good" on his threat of trade sanctions against China, for example-simply because another retreat is unthinkable?

At home, the consequences of Bill Clinton's promiscuity may not be so explosive-but they are equally insidious. Trust is ephemeral; it can't be judged by up or down votes in the legislature. The president has few friends in Washington, but he may yet seduce the bulk of his domestic-policy agenda-crime, health, welfare reform-through the Congress. His advisers think this would make him a "successful" president, and success would render questions of character inconsequential. But there is anecdotal evidence that the opposite is happening: in several recent town meetings, citizens have raised the sorts of questions that indicate they neither trust nor respect the president. A newspaper editor compared the quality of Clinton's excuses to his daughter's when she didn't do her homework. A woman in Charlotte, N.C., challenged the president: "Many of us Americans are having a hard time with your credibility. How can you earn back our trust?"

The president has told members of his inner circle, "Character is a journey, not a destination." This is not an insignificant statement. it is, first of all, an insight into his religious faith. Life is a pilgrimage; sin is inevitable; redemption is always possible (Clinton got into trouble, early on, by proposing that even Saddam Hussein might redeem himself). It is also a matter of personal experience: in the president's life, displays of character have usually involved perseverance rather than principle (which may help explain his surprising affection for Richard Nixon). In the 1992 campaign, Clinton soldiered on after his morality was questioned; ultimately, he was judged more dependable (if not quite more admirable) than his opponents. But this evolutionary notion of character is also something of a finesse: it can drift from explaining lapses to excusing them. There is an adolescent, unformed, half-baked quality to it-as there is to the notion of promiscuity itself. an inability to settle, to stand, to commit. It will not suffice in a president.

This president's charm is a tantalizing attribute. He has other endearing qualities as well, including a good heart and some admirable goals-all of which suggest, when he's at his best, a potential for greatness. But greatness isn't possible without a steadfast character. It's not too much to ask that a leader be mature, fully formed and not flailing about in a narcissistic, existential quest for self-discovery. Life may be a journey; but character, most assuredly, is not. It is a destination most adults reach, for good or ill. And it is both tragic and quite dangerous that we find ourselves still asking if Bill Clinton will ever get there.