Bill Clinton, Clarence Thomas, and Charles Robb have more in common than ill-starred acquaintanceships with women.
Their problems raise a question gnawing at our body politic: Is it ever justifiable, or at least forgivable, for one who holds or seeks high office to lie to the public to protect himself?
My gut tells me no. In a political culture increasingly polluted by mendacity of all kinds, it’s tempting to call for a zero-tolerance attitude toward political lying.
But recent experience suggests an exception: We should not judge too harshly those who lie (or whom we suspect of lying) to deflect the ever more shameless intrusions by news media into deeply private matters.
The issues are framed by the Clinton and Thomas cases. We should, of course, be reluctant to judge either of them guilty of deception without very strong proof. But suppose we had conclusive evidence that they lied. Would that alone demonstrate unfitness for high office?
The answer, I submit, should be yes in Thomas’ case and no in Clinton’s.
If I am right, then the judgment of the nation on Thomas and the conventional wisdom on Clinton are both wrong.
Thomas was confirmed even though. I am convinced, a majority of both the Senate and the public did not really believe he had told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth in his blanket denials of Anita Hill’s charges.
While many who sided with him may have believed every word of his testimony, many others-enough, probably, to account for his margin of victory-did not. They (and I) found it difficult to believe that Hill had made up her story out of whole cloth. And therefore they found it difficult to credit Thomas’ assertions that he had never once asked Hill for a date, or mentioned pornography to her, or said any of the things she alleged.
Some of these Thomas supporters privately articulate what I call the justifiable-perjury theory of the case: They believe that "something happened" (the phrase recurs) between Thomas and Hill; that it did not amount to sexual harassment; that Hill betrayed Thomas by embellishing her story and falsely branding him a harasser; and that this left Thomas with no choice but to issue a blanket denial, because a completely candid account would have given his enemies enough rope to hang him.
In other words, they believe that Thomas lied under oath and was justified by the need to protect himself against a bigger lie.
I have heard this view espoused by people of wisdom and integrity. It reveals an alarming cynicism about politics. And I think it is wrong.
For one thing, the assumption that Thomas had no choice but to deny every aspect of Hill’s account to avoid destruction is dubious. If, for example, the truth was that Thomas had asked Hill out a few times and joked with her about racy movies, without the ugly "overtones she described, he could simply have said so. His more extreme opponents would no doubt have portrayed this as a confession of sexual harassment. But it’s far from clear they would have won.
More fundamentally, if ever a public servant should be held to a standard of complete candor, it is a Supreme Court nominee testifying at his or her confirmation hearing. Thomas was seeking life tenure on a tribunal that derives its authority from public trust in its integrity. He had plenty of time to reflect on his-answers. If we can rationalize lying under such circumstances, under oath, where’s the stopping point?
Experience suggests, on the other hand, that we cannot be as fastidious about truthfulness in assessing a presidential aspirant’s statements on the campaign trail as in assessing a Supreme court nominee’s sworn testimony to the Senate.
Those seeking the presidency must run a grueling gantlet in which complete candor about everything would be a crippling liability. To have any chance of winning, they must appeal to diverse and warring constituencies and make promises on which no mortal could possibly deliver. They cannot duck tough questions about contentious public issues by refusing to comment, as judicial nominees do. And every aspect of their private lives is subjected to scrutiny far more merciless than Thomas had to endure.
Which brings us to Clinton. While most people consider past adulteries to be of little relevance, the conventional wisdom is that he’ll be finished if clear proof emerges that he lied when he denied having an affair with Gennifer Flowers. His credibility, it is said, would be destroyed.
But wait a minute. Would a lie of that kind really demonstrate fundamental untrustworthiness? And if not, why should it prompt us to flush Clinton from the pool of possible presidents?
Clinton’s alleged lie is less troubling than Thomas’ dissembling because its purpose was to deflect a barrage of questions that are none of the public’s business and that nobody should have to answer.
Flowers’ claim of a consensual affair, even if true, supplied no justification for public inquiry into Clinton’s sex life. On the other hand. Hill’s claim that Thomas had harassed her while he was her boss (if true) involved serious wrongdoing; it supplied a legitimate basis for questioning him about any advances he may have made.
Clinton tried to draw a line around his private life months ago by implicitly acknowledging past infidelities, while refusing to discuss specifics on grounds of privacy and irrelevancy.
But the supermarket tabloid that paid Flowers for her story would not respect that line. Nor would other trash media. This left the serious press with a difficult choice: They could ignore Flowers’ story, thereby inviting suspicions of a coverup and sending readers starved for details to their less scrupulous competition. Or they could pursue the story, thereby lending themselves to the pre-emption of campaign politics by sexual sensationalism. Most chose the latter.
And so Clinton has faced ever more pointed questions, intruding deeply into his and his family’s privacy and dignity.
The best response to such questions is ordinarily a no-comment not a false denial.
(The worst course may be the one taken by Robb. His denial of beauty queen Tai Collins’ claim of a sexual relationship invited ridicule as well as incredulity, when he appended the explanation that he had stopped at the brink of infidelity after enjoying the famous nude back rub. Not much privacy left to protect there.
By But a no-comment to Flowers’ initial (and rather implausible) allegation of a 12-year affair would have been seen as a tacit admission, and a damaging one.
Instead, Clinton issued a general denial. Its ambiguity stoked the fires of speculation: So was it a 10-year affair, or what? The inevitable follow-up came on Super Bowl Sunday, from Steve Croft of "60 Minutes": "I’m assuming from your answer that you’re categorically denying that you ever had an affair with Gennifer Flowers." Clinton’s response: "I’ve said that before, and so has she."
(Better to have said: "I’m not going to answer any more questions of that kind. I and my family have a right to some privacy, and you should respect it." But that’s Monday-morning quarterbacking.)
Since then, Clinton has been confronted with shouted demands to specify how he defines "affair" and whether he ever had sex with Flowers. The questions will keep coming: Did they ever kiss? Exactly what did they do? How many times, and where, and when? What did he tell his wife? Has he been tested for AIDS? Does he use condoms? Got any on the campaign plane? And so on and on and on.
While Flowers is a contemptible, confessed liar, the tapes that she surreptitiously made of telephone conversations with Clinton do lend indirect (though inconclusive) support to her claims that they had a sexual relationship.
If they did, then Clinton’s denial of an "affair" falls somewhere on the spectrum between lying and semantic evasion.
But if the worst that can be said of Clinton is that he may have dissembled to deflect a mob assault on his family’s privacy, should that be enough to disqualify him?
Not in a world where nobody who always practices what Jimmy Carter preached-"I’ll never lie to you"-will ever be elected president.
And not when the incumbent seems to utter transparent whoppers whenever it suits his convenience. (Examples: (1) July 1, 1991: "The fact that he is black and a minority has nothing to do with, this in the sense that he is the best qualified at this time." (2) Aug. 18. 1988: "Read my lips: No new taxes " (3) Feb. 9. 1982 on his April 1980 description of Ronald Reagan’s program as "voodoo economics"): "I never said it. I challenge anyone to find it"
Politics is, after all the art of the possible. And it’s quite possible-indeed, certain-that we won’t find anyone with a shot at the presidency who’s free of sin.