Seven months too late, President Clinton has offered a semi-honest account of his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky in a desperate bid to hold onto his office and avoid legal charges that could lead to impeachment.
He said in that brief and tight-lipped speech on Monday night that it was time to put this behind us and move on to the serious work of the nation. He also said, "It's nobody's business but ours," meaning himself and his family.
Would that it were so. But he made it our business -- the nation's burden -- first by showing utter disrespect for the office he holds and second by refusing all this time to do what he alone could do: clear up the matter.
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who reported the Watergate story for the Washington Post, have been arguing for months for "a sense of proportion." Consensual sex between adults, they rightly point out, is not the same thing as organizing a secret police operation in the White House and involving the FBI and the CIA in the coverup of officially sanctioned crimes.
But in one respect, what Clinton has done is every bit as bad as what Richard Nixon did.
Like Nixon, who knew from the moment the Watergate break-in occurred what had really happened, Clinton knew from the first moment he was questioned about the White House intern what had been going on between them.
Instead of owning up and taking "complete responsibility," as he said Monday night he was finally willing to do, he lied. He not only lied to Paula Jones' lawyers, he lied to the public and to his closest associates and implicated the leaders of his party and his government in the deception.
The selfishness of that act is staggering. Two men who had served him loyally and well -- former chief of staff Leon Panetta and former counselor George Stephanopoulos -- were among the first to call on him last January to make a clean breast of whatever he knew. Both of them had served on Capitol Hill -- Panetta as a member of the House, Stephanopoulos as a staffer -- and they recognized instantly the peril to their party if Clinton thought only of saving his own skin.
Others still in government were equally heartsick, but less outspoken. A member of the Cabinet who heard Clinton deny the charges to the assembled department heads said privately at the time, "He sat there and lied to us, and no one said a word."
Vice President Gore, who must have had his private doubts, publicly and repeatedly proclaimed his faith in his leader, doing incalculable damage to his own chances of being elected president.
After the speech, White House spokesmen said the president "felt as if a burden had been lifted from his shoulders." It is light, compared to the burden of falsehood he placed on others who put their trust in him.
In all those respects, Clinton's behavior is truly Nixonian. And it is worse in one way. Nixon's actions, however neurotic and criminal, were motivated by and connected to the exercise of presidential power. He knew the place he occupied, and he was determined not to give it up to those he regarded as "enemies." Clinton acted -- and still, even in his supposed mea culpa, acts -- as if he does not recognize what it means to be president of the United States. This office he sought all his life, for what? To hit on an intern about the age of his own daughter, an act for which any business executive or military officer would be fired immediately?
The issue of his marriage vows truly is between him and Hillary Rodham Clinton. But the Oval Office, where he conducted his meetings with Lewinsky, belongs to the nation.
When he told the American people, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky," he was speaking at an official ceremony held in the White House, our White House. Betty Currie, the secretary whom he tried to involve in the coverup, is on the public payroll. So are the White House lawyers and aides and the Secret Service agents whose successors will be much less useful to future presidents because of the futile legal fight Clinton conducted to shield their testimony.
Like Nixon, he has done things of importance for the country. But in every important way, he has diminished the stature and reduced the authority of the presidency. He may hold on, but when he said of the investigation of his activities, "This has gone on too long," his words could equally well have applied to his own tenure.
Washington Post Writers Group