How Clinton Survived (2/19/99)
Back in January of 1998, the round table participants of This Week With Sam and Cokie on ABC were excitedly discussing the recent revelation about the President's affair with Monica Lewinsky. At that point, the case was only about sex (not perjury) since the media did not know of the details of the President's deposition in the Paula Jones lawsuit which had taken place only a few days earlier.

Nevertheless, Sam Donaldson proclaimed that the allegation was so serious that, depending on the truth of the allegations, either the career of Bill Clinton or Kenneth Starr would be over forever.  "Someone will not survive," he said.

I agreed.

Thirteen months later, it can be concluded that we were both wrong.

Although the President has been damaged, and Starr is finally becoming the focus of those who question his tactics and motives, both of the men will survive. But why? The answer is that the public, as a whole, was not willing to render the political death penalty to either party. But that, of course, begs the question of "why?". If public sentiment saved the President, what was the underlying reason for the public's willingness to spare him? If you will allow me to play pop psychologist for a moment, I think I know the answer.

When the perjury charges first came to light, you were probably able to ask yourself what you would have done if you, like Clinton, had been asked under oath about a private indiscretion. Regardless of reality, most of us would hope and believe that we would have told the truth regardless of the pain and embarrassment that such a revelation might cause.

At first blush, you would think those who would have told the truth would be willing to punish Clinton for not doing the same. But a great number of that group held just the opposite view. For those of us willing to take the high road are not necessarily willing to convict those that do not wish to join us on that journey. 

Once again, why? Because we would have understood the temptation to lie if we had been the President. And although we don't believe we would have succumbed, we know that the apple of dishonesty would have been dangling tastily before us. This is the ironic key: the President's failure did not make us think less of him as much as it made us think more of ourselves. To clarify, Clinton's lies enable us to say, "The President wasn't as strong, ethically speaking, as I would have been, but I can understand how someone would not rise to my high level of character". Count the number of people that subscribe to this philosophy (along with those that would have lied in the first place), and you have the 65% of the population that did not want Clinton removed from office.

Hey, it's not exactly Sigmund Freud but I'm willing to buy into it.

In the end, the Senate trial was truly no different than any criminal trial. A prosecutor is always in danger of failing to obtain a conviction if there is the possibility that the jury might understand what brought about the defendant's actions.  Murdering a convenience store clerk? There is no difficulty obtaining a conviction for no one understands why a man would do such a thing. On the other hand, killing the extramarital lover of your spouse seconds after you catch them in the act is a tougher case. A 95 year old man putting a pillow over the face of his cancer ridden wife of 70 years is an even a tougher one.

It didn't take a rocket scientist to determine that lying about sex, even under oath, is also tough case. It's too bad the House Managers didn't see it coming from a mile away.

Barry Green is the District Attorney for the 271st Judicial District.

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