It's the seven months, stupid. Not the sex. Not the perjury to cover the sex. Not even the witness tampering to cover the perjury to cover the sex. The firestorm created by Bill Clinton's suicidal pseudo-confession Monday night reflects a nation's dumbfounded realization that he was entirely unapologetic about -- indeed oblivious to -- how he had mocked the country these last seven months.
For seven months he made fools not just of his staff, who went out and lied for him, or his Cabinet secretaries, who vouched for him, or his congressional and media allies, who defended him, but of everyone connected with presidential politics who had been engaged in the "war" declared by the White House in defense of a man who all the while knew it was all a lie.
And not only was he oblivious. He actually had the insolence to put the blame for the "spectacle of the past seven months" on Ken Starr. Ken Starr happens to be the one man in America who finally forced Clinton to end this charade.
There is rage across the political class, from staunchly liberal senators like Dianne Feinstein to newspapers and commentators that had never been particularly antagonistic to Clinton. Rage not about the sex or the perjury or the obstruction. These issues had been on the table all along and, by now, entirely bleached of passion. It is the rage of people who for seven months had been toyed with.
Yes, talk show clowns like Geraldo Rivera have reveled in the seven months. But serious people concerned about serious things -- say, the bombing of American embassies or Saddam's triumph over U.S.-backed arms inspectors -- feel they have been put through seven months of sordid idiocy by a man who could have ended it at any moment.
All the while, Clinton was watching. And he didn't watch nervously, sweatily, like Nixon holed up in the White House. He watched smugly and swaggeringly, lighting up his victory cigar in Africa after one small triumph -- the dismissal of the Paula Jones case -- in this pantomime of deceit.
The objective of Clinton's speech Monday night was to rally public opinion to shut down the Starr investigation. He failed, and worse. Yes, his facsimile of remorse was enough to sustain his "job performance" polls. But his "personal approval" ratings have plunged from 60 percent to 40 percent. More important to his survival, however, are his ratings with the country's political actors. His standing with them, left to right, is in shambles.
For Clinton, that is a huge political loss. Who besides James Carville and a few presidential flaks is going to carry on the Starr war now? Who is going to go out there and risk reputation and self-respect for him again?
There are not many people willing to see a president hanged for an office liaison alone. There are more who think the issue gets serious when it involves perjury. Others draw the line at witness tampering and obstruction of justice. But even that constituency is not enough to sink Clinton. The constituency mortified by his seven months of deceit, however, is immense. It might well do him in.
Why? Because the seven months reveals cynicism of a degree rarely seen. It reveals a willingness to manipulate friends, allies, staff, supporters, the entire political culture with a coldness and prodigious selfishness that astonishes. Cynicism, contempt for others, disdain for anything other than his own political welfare -- that has been the charge of Clinton's critics since Day One.
And even now it doesn't stop. After the speech, reports the Washington Post, the White House issued talking points to aides suggesting how they should react to reporters' questions about feeling betrayed by the president's deception.
Sample question: "Do you forgive him for misleading you and the country?"
Answer: "It's been said that 'He who cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself.' Of course I do."
This is the point at which cynicism turns into moral depravity. This president doesn't even allow the feelings of those betrayed by him to go unscripted, unsimulated, unmanipulated, uncorrupted.
Is there no end to the corruption of this man? Is there no dignity left among his staff?
Washington Post Writers Group