News

The Fallout

The end is finally in sight. The cast of the Bill & Monica show will soon be consigned to history's footnotes, odd refugees from a surreal crisis. A damage report on how the scandal may change the things that matter most.

The country is tired--deeply tired--of the Lewinsky affair and the resulting impeachment mess. The people want someone to send them a postcard when it's over, and if there's no stamp, skip the postcard. But as Vernon Jordan might say, it's ""indubitably true'' that the whole story has been a shock to the body politic and to the larger culture.

With the end finally in sight, it's not too early to begin figuring just how big a shock, and how far the reverberations might extend. Maybe the story will evaporate overnight--Dow Jones trumping Paula Jones yet again. Or maybe, after thong underwear jokes grow stale, the whole saga will insinuate itself into our consciousness in ways we just dimly understand.

Only when the guns fall silent can we fully assess what happened in the fog of battle. This was not just partisan skirmishing and legal wrangling but the culmination of a 30-year ""culture war''--a struggle over moral and ethical values and who gets to impose them on whom. By deciding to keep Bill Clinton as president, the public has decisively tipped the balance toward one side. The metaphors are endless: the 1960s beat the 1950s, forgiving earth mothers beat disciplinarian fathers, Wascally Wabbit (Clinton) beat Elmer Fudd (Ken Starr).

To conservatives, still smarting over why the public doesn't see it their way, the lesson is simple. Moral relativism and criminal conduct is triumphing over ""the rule of law.'' No, say those who oppose impeachment, ""proportionality'' is winning, though just barely. The cure--Starr and zealous House prosecutors hellbent on reversing an election--is worse than the disease. Soon enough, all the familiar arguments over who harmed the Constitution, who coarsened the culture, who prolonged the agony, will finally subside. Then we'll be left with the harder questions of how the whole mess changed the country.

Clearly, the conduct of the president, the prosecutor, the Congress and the news media has legal and political consequences. If you loathe Clinton and his defenders, if you loathe the GOP attack squad, if you loathe the windy TV chuckleheads, if you loathe all or none or simply don't care--each of those responses has consequences, too. Here's an early damage assessment:

THE LEGAL SYSTEM

AFTER ALL THE HEAD-SLAPPING, THE AMERICAN CONSTITUTIONAL system remains resilient. President Clinton has diminished the office of president, and the Republican House has diminished the stature of Congress. By heedlessly putting the presidency ""in play,'' each may have edged the United States closer to a parliamentary system. But both institutions can recover public trust soon under new leadership. The presidency in particular is as strong or as weak as the person who holds it.

Even so, we're in the land of a thousand precedents. The gold stripes on Chief Justice William Rehnquist's robes will be hauled out again in some 22d-century impeachment trial. More immediately, the old inhibitions about impeachment talk will be loosened the next time a president runs into trouble. Some fret that a future Democratic Congress might hastily try to impeach a Republican president. But if the GOP's current unpopularity is any indication, there's no political payoff in payback--not yet, anyway.

One easy legal prediction: the demise of the Office of Independent Counsel. Last week Attorney General Janet Reno declined to appoint an independent counsel to probe former Clinton aide Harold Ickes over campaign-finance irregularities. Even without that jab, the office will officially expire in June. There's a rough consensus that Justice Antonin Scalia's now famous 1988 dissent was right--the independent counsel is unaccountable and unconstitutional. But plenty of disagreement remains over exactly how the statute should be amended. There's less dispute about what Clinton did to executive privilege. By filing flimsy claims, he weakened it for future presidents.

The more potent legal fallout may be out in the rest of the country. If Clinton isn't convicted and removed, the House managers argue, defendants in future civil and criminal cases will lie with impunity. But will they? The idea that the president's case will open the floodgates to wholesale mendacity rests on certain assumptions about why people lie under oath in the first place.

NEWSWEEK interviews with 10 current and former prosecutors yielded no consensus on the impact of the Lewinsky case on the justice system. ""People don't lie because the president lied,'' says Washington lawyer Alan Strasser, a former federal prosecutor. ""They lie because they think they can get away with it and it's better than the alternative.'' Other prosecutors disagree, worrying that defendants will take their cue from the Prevaricator in Chief, wriggling through depositions and grand-jury appearances with contortionist language.

But there is at least one area of common ground: every lawyer interviewed argues that, at least in the short run, it will be harder for prosecutors to put together successful perjury and obstruction-of-justice cases where the underlying offenses aren't considered grave. Those cases were already tough to win; that's why House Republicans had so few to choose from when finding examples. Now they will be even tougher.

Long before the Clinton scandal, jurors were suspicious of perjury prosecutions stemming from lies about sex. ""The vast majority of people understand that people lie about sex in divorce cases, they lie in sexual-harassment cases, they lie to protect spouses, they lie to get in and out of relationships,'' says E. Lawrence Barcella Jr., a former federal prosecutor. Barcella notes that most jurors can intuitively distinguish between lies about serious criminal behavior and lies to conceal shameful personal behavior.

The biggest legal consequence of the whole scandal may be that jurors are newly skeptical of prosecutors. Traditionally, jurors lean heavily toward the prosecution, which leads to high conviction rates. But several former prosecutors believe Ken Starr gave certain prosecutorial tactics--from leaking to the press to subpoenaing a witness's mother--a bad name. They argue that Starr's legacy will be weaker law enforcement. On the other side are critics who believe prosecutors have too much power. They hope the Clinton case has highlighted the gotcha games that lawyers sometimes play with other people's lives.

THE WORKPLACE

THE PRESIDENT WHO WON TWICE WITH THE WOMEN'S VOTE HAS already done harm to the fight against sexual harassment. Several workplace consultants say they've seen an increase in harassment defendants' going on the offensive--threatening to countersue their accusers for violating their privacy.

Unlike the Clarence Thomas case in 1991, the Clinton-Lewinsky affair has not affected the number of harassment claims or verdicts. But ""from an emotional point of view, there's been a tremendous effect,'' says Dennis M. Brown, a partner at Littler Mendelson, the country's largest law firm specializing in employment issues. ""The natural reaction of a defendant is to minimize [his or her conduct]. But since the Jones case, some think the appropriate defense strategy is to lie about it. They say everything they're hearing says that everyone lies about sex, so "why should I be the idiot who tells the truth and gets hung?' ''

To lessen lying, more companies are requiring their employees involved in workplace romances to tell their supervisors. Some company lawyers are even asking those in consensual relationships to sign ""love contracts'' where both parties are briefed on a company's sexual-harassment policy and agree not to sue each other or the company. And the Clinton case has led some firms to amend their rules to say that anyone caught lying to investigators will be fired outright, even if what he lies about is not a firing offense.

Still, the oft-repeated line that ""a CEO would be fired for what Clinton did'' is simply not borne out by the facts. ""It's very rare for a company to terminate one or the other of the people involved,'' says Brown. ""They're usually called on the carpet and moved from the direct authority of the other.'' College presidents have been removed for affairs, but few, if any, CEOs, even if they were caught in relationships with much younger employees. Managers who have sex with employees risk embarrassment and possible dismissal if the affairs become disruptive enough to the workplace. But their jobs are still mostly safe. In a competitive market where retaining a qualified work force is already difficult, consensual sex will continue to be tolerated.

As for the rest of Clinton's conduct, involvement in a civil suit is not usually a ground for firing. And there are apparently no directly comparable cases of CEOs prosecuted criminally for perjury and obstruction stemming from a civil suit. In fact, one of the dirty little secrets of this case is that defendants in civil suits often dodge discovery, contact potential witnesses and otherwise hassle the other party without much fear of criminal prosecution.

The NEWSWEEK Poll found that most Americans believe the scandal will have little effect on truth-telling, sexual harassment or the overall treatment of women in the work force. But it has clearly led to more blushing around the water cooler. What was once a suggestive comment can now be rationalized as a discussion of the news. Office flirts (and gropers) are feeling a bit less inhibited. At the same time, Clinton's humiliation has helped drive home the consequences of having sex at work.

One of the great puzzlements of the story is why Clinton still benefits from a large gender gap. Feminist hypocrisy is an incomplete explanation, given that most women are not active feminists. Part of the answer might be a cold-eyed assessment by women that, on balance, they've won more than they've lost from the Clinton administration. But there's another element in the gender gap. For men over 40, the Clarence Thomas hearings were an important part of their formative training as managers. These men took the lesson to heart and became far more careful about how they treated women in the workplace. Now they're smoldering that Clinton has not paid a steeper price.

THE MEDIA

FOR THE TRADITIONAL NEWS MEDIA, THAT LIGHT AT THE END OF the Lewinsky tunnel is an oncoming train. New technologies are bearing down at high speed on the old engines of information. This scandal may be remembered as the moment at which the status quo in the news business finally crashed and burned. The outlets often associated with the story--Matt Drudge, Salon, MSNBC, Don Imus--all take a looser approach to the news, full of argument and attitude. Older, weightier sources are having to adapt. And throughout, the saturation coverage has carried a price. All Monica, All the Time has meant too little time for other news.

The Lewinsky story also marks the journey of rumor and innuendo to the center of the media universe. In fact, the first word of the president's affair with the intern broke when Drudge used his Web site to convey a rumor he heard about NEWSWEEK'S working on the story. (Reporter Michael Isikoff unearthed the whole story, but NEWSWEEK didn't have enough confirmation to publish it yet.) In that case, the purloined scoop was partly accurate. Many other rumors--like the semen-stained dress--have also turned out to be true.

But that doesn't excuse today's anything-goes news culture. By last month, everyone from Jay Leno to Fox News was spreading an explosive story about Clinton that the supermarket tabloid Star was holding and couldn't confirm. (It turned out to be a hoax.) Even a supermarket tabloid couldn't hold the line. So it's not that news standards have necessarily slipped, it's that news standards are increasingly irrelevant to whether a story gets into the media bloodstream. Nowadays, every American with a computer can establish his own grudge niche.

The Lewinsky story saw partisans on both sides mobilize in cyberspace. While Clinton critics lost their struggle in the country as a whole, they won on the Web. If ""old media'' were often seen as liberal, ""new media'' are materializing as conservative and libertarian. The next big political crisis might see the Internet and cable culture leading public opinion rather than railing against it.

In the meantime, the scores of TV news shows created or popularized by the scandal will have to figure out how to survive. The actuarial calculations of the Social Security trust fund are not going to keep fans of ""Hardball'' or ""Hannity and Colmes'' riveted for long. Cable news ratings and political-Web-site visits are likely to plunge. The question then will be how to bring them back up. A new fixation on a steamy trial? But an O.J. case doesn't come along every day. And it's hard to imagine a political scandal with more sex and drama than this one.

The news has become like a drug habit that demands a stronger and stronger fix in order to satisfy. The president on video discussing sex? Been there. An impeachment trial in the Senate? Done that. So now, under relentless commercial pressure, the media are beginning the search for something new to hype. Their readers and viewers may be able to help. In the new media cosmos, you can move beyond sounding off to stirring up the news. The media beast is so hungry that everyone can be a potential Lucianne Goldberg, dishing not just to friends, but to the whole world.

THE CHILDREN

THERE'S BEEN PLENTY OF HAND-WRINGING ABOUT ""THE CHILDREN,'' some of it valid, some of it misplaced. They've learned not just sex jokes but new words and excuses. One New Jersey 7-year-old complained from the back of the car that his sister ""did perjury'' about chores; one Philadelphia preteen told his father after he was caught lying that ""I'm just doing what the president did.''

Clinton's adultery and lying have offered some ""teaching moments'' that may actually raise kids' awareness of the consequences of misbehavior. But in most homes, impeachment is not a frequent topic of dinner-table conversation. When the subject does arise, younger children tend to be hard-liners. A December survey for the magazine Junior Scholastic found 60 percent of young readers want Clinton booted from office. The president gets higher marks starting in high school.

To kids of all ages, the president is a celebrity and a punch line. In 1992 Vandalia, Ill., was the site of one of Clinton's biggest bus-trip rallies. More than 10,000 people cheered as he quoted Abraham Lincoln. Last week sixth graders reacted with a few laughs, some groans and an air of dismissiveness when their teacher, Rhonda Phillips, brought up the president. ""Do we have to read about him?'' one boy asked. But even his young critics have learned a lesson from Clinton--how to compartmentalize. ""Whenever his name is mentioned, they laugh and show disrespect,'' says Phillips. ""But that has more to do with Clinton himself. If I mention any other president, or the presidency itself, they don't giggle.''

For many young people, the scandal will simply worsen their already jaundiced view of politics. Their natural radar for hypocrisy has a target-rich environment, in the White House, on Capitol Hill and in the media. Millions have already tuned out Washington altogether, which can't be good for the country over time. Their cynicism could eventually corrode the system even further.

But other kids are actually tuning in to politics for the first time because of all the sound, fury and jokes. Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp are now common generational reference points. Some kids get hooked on politics they way they do on sports--through the players. Henry Hyde is not exactly Michael Jordan, but the impeachment story is creating its own subculture of young devotees, especially on cable and the Internet. ""Many people over the years have come to me and said, "I was never interested in politics until I saw you testify','' says John Dean of Watergate fame. While this scandal exerts a lesser pull, Dean thinks it will ultimately draw more young people to public life than it will repel. Some may even figure: these grown-ups scare us; let's get more involved.

Few kids learned anything about sex from the scandal that they didn't already know. ""American kids--even in grammar school--are very sophisticated these days. Listen to all the four-letter words on TV, check the sexually explicit plots on the sitcoms, surf the Net. There aren't any secrets anymore,'' says Dr. David Reuben, author of the newly updated book ""Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex.''

But young people will pay especially close attention to how Clinton's lying is finally punished. ""For kids during their formative years to see dishonesty not dealt with as a serious matter could be disastrous,'' says William Damon, director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence. ""I don't think the only way to punish him is expulsion, [but] if he isn't remorseful, that's really bad news.''

THE POLITICS

PREDICTING THE FUTURE OF AMERICAN POLITICS IS A SURE-FIRE recipe for egg on the face. Right now, it looks as if the scandal fallout will play for the Democrats, who are already reaping a direct-mail fund-raising windfall from it. The NEWSWEEK Poll shows that even Republicans believe the GOP is taking a big hit on this. If Republicans do pay a price in 2000, the ones who will go down are the moderates in swing districts, not the fire-eating, Clinton-bashing conservatives. That means even more polarization in Congress. The one thing the voters want--bipartisanship that reflects the loose party affiliation in the country as a whole--is what they are least likely to get.

In the meantime, Clinton may be paralyzed legislatively by sulking Republicans who resent his Houdini act. The end of impeachment will also mean the end of the Democrats' united front. In a normal year Clinton's decision in his State of the Union speech to reverse policy and back a costly missile defense system would have provoked howls of protest from Democrats. This year? Barely a peep. As the threat of removal from office evaporates, that will change. Democrats will suddenly feel free to whine about him again.

At the same time, there's a chance for some peaceful coexistence. Under this scenario, Congress will be so battle weary and so worried about constituent fury that it will knuckle down to real business: legislation, not recrimination. The new House speaker, Dennis Hastert, says he wants that. The wild card here is the internal dynamic of the GOP. For many party activists, Clinton has become like the old Soviet Union--the focus of all energies and suspicions. Any Republican who deviates even slightly from the anti-Clinton line or negotiates with the enemy risks being labeled ""squishy,'' a cold-war adjective that's been revived in GOP circles. That leaves Republican moderates whipsawed between Clinton-hating activists and more-tolerant constituents. The good news for the GOP is that the next election is 21 months away--an eternity in politics. While the residue of the scandal may motivate some voters, most place a pox on all their houses. That means candidates in both parties are likely to avoid the subject.

But they can't avoid the new media environment. For the 2000 presidential candidates, post-Lewinsky privacy matters are very public issues. The question won't be whether some rag or Web site airs dirty linen, but when. If someone comes forward to say she had sex with candidate X or snorted cocaine with candidate Y, it will be reported and disseminated. The key will be in how the candidates respond.

The handling of scandal and accusation has been radically changed by the Clinton White House. The old theory was that stonewalling the press just made matters worse. That may still be true; by some accounts if Clinton had come clean earlier and more convincingly, it wouldn't have gone as far as impeachment. His slippery but still transparent use of language will be imitated by other politicians only at their peril. But it's also a fact that Clinton looks as if he will survive. He bet that the shock value would wear off, and he was mostly right. That could tempt other politicians to lie, cover up and hope for the best, even if caught. Clinton's greatest contribution to the art of damage control may be his simple doggedness in the face of utter humiliation.

When Clinton at last leaves office in January 2001, the country--even if it still strongly approves of his performance--will probably heave a collective sigh of relief. Well, that's finally over. Or is it? This voyage of damnation has set off ripples and whirlpools that could be felt downriver for years. ""I believe in the God of second chances,'' Bill Clinton said in 1994. He'll have more than a few chances to survey the consequences of his conduct. And so will we.