MAXWELL:  What might have been for Clinton

8/30/1998- Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


This is my first column about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky following his televised confession. I have been silent on the subject for two main reasons. First, I overdosed on it long ago. Second, as a die-hard Bill Clinton supporter, I have had real trouble formulating my thoughts.

I must write about this scandal now because Clinton-supporting pundits like me, if any others are left, have a duty to tell our readers what we are thinking and feeling. So, let me state from the outset that I like the president. Always have. Always will. And, please, do not call me naive or a lout who condones adultery and lying about it.

And, no, I will not join the bandwagon and bash the president, even though bashing him has become chic in the nation’s newsrooms.

Instead of feeling contempt or disappointment, I feel only regret. I regret that Clinton, a man born to a poor Arkansas family, who rose to become president of the world’s only remaining superpower, has himself probably destroyed what was destined to be a great presidency.

Here is a man who, as a child, dreamed of becoming the president and who, as a teenager, traveled to Washington and had his picture taken with his idol, President John F. Kennedy. At that moment, he knew that he would live in the White House one day.

So, for me, the president’s fall from grace, if it can be called that, is a matter of what might have been.

“Here is a leader,” writes Los Angeles Times contributing editor Robert Scheer, “who inherited a nation that was thought to be terminally second-rate and instead, under his leadership, proved once again to be a beacon of hope for the world. He should be celebrated as the best president since Franklin Roosevelt, but for the moment he seems destined to play the hapless fool in a farce easily exploited by his political enemies. . . .”

When Clinton began his run for the presidency, I was teaching English and journalism at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville. I took 30 of my students to meet Clinton, then governor of Arkansas, when he spoke in Orlando. I will never forget his charm and magnetism, how he captured our affection _ even though we had heard reports of a 12-year tryst with Gennifer Flowers.

I liked him immediately, his youth, his good looks, his exuberance, his intellect _ all traits that reminded me of JFK, another president I liked, another liar and philanderer whose presidency was destined for greatness. JFK’s presidency was also one of what might have been.

When I saw Clinton more than a year ago at the NAACP convention in Pittsburgh, his administration was on a roll. Everything he did made him appear “presidential,” and his GOP enemies on Capitol Hill envied his job approval ratings. Some were afraid of him. From my perch in front of the dais, I had a good view of the man. He was in his element, hopeful, cheerleading a national crowd that loved him and trusted him to usher in a dialogue on race that might help the nation recommit itself to confronting its most enduring moral problem.

I, too, believed _ and still do _ that the president, although flawed, is a good man. Yes, I knew of some of his peccadilloes and fully expected that we would learn about others in time. I have always been prepared to forgive the president. I forgive him now. In fact, I can easily forgive people I like.

Is this not true of each of us?

Unlike many of my colleagues, who feel betrayed and outraged that the president has proved to be a bit too human, I have compartmentalized his foibles. As I did with Kennedy, Nixon, Carter, Reagan and Bush, I did not expect more of Clinton than governance.

I always have believed that he had sex with Lewinsky. His confessing did not change my thinking or diminish my loyalty.

Do I condone his lying? No. Frankly, if I were married and messed around, I also would probably lie until I was forced to ‘fess up. Or I would do what one of my editors said that Clinton should have done: Tell Kenneth Starr that my private life is none of his damned business and that I am not telling him a damned thing. See you in court, pal.

Much of the nation, especially journalists, who again seem to be out of step with the general population, needs to develop a more mature view of what Mr. President is.

“Presidents aren’t like kings,” Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy write in Aug. 24 issue of Time, “but they are not supposed to be like the rest of us either. The office confers a mystic expectation, a combination of Roosevelt’s brains and Johnson’s clout and Reagan’s grace, that helps presidents persuade Congress and the people to follow their lead. The agony of Clinton’s choice was that his best chance for survival demanded that he declare himself less than we expect a president to be and more like the rest of us after all.”

What now? Where do we and our president go from here? Can we put matters behind us and move on?

I have no way of knowing. I hope that Thursday’s school safety speech in Worcester, Mass., his first public appearance since admitting to having sex with Lewinsky, is a sign of the future. According to the New York Times, the audience of 1,200 people gave Clinton “a strong vote of confidence for public policies but a mixed review of his personal conduct” and “gave him sustained applause and standing ovations.”

Like me, the crowd of 1,200 who heard the president, although concerned about his lies, apparently cares more about his governance. This is a bitter pill for Clinton haters to swallow. But reality is sometimes like that _ bitter as hell, as well as untidy and gray.

As a Clinton supporter, I do not want him to resign, and I certainly do not want him to be impeached. LA Times editor Scheer’s observation makes perfect sense to me: “It is now Clinton’s time of atonement, to reward the public’s trust by coming out fighting on the issues people care about. If Clinton can move decisively in the remainder of his term to turn around the free fall of the world economy and narrow the gap between rich and poor, he will be remembered as a great president.”

Still, I wonder what goes through the man’s mind when he sits up in bed at 4 in the morning, alone, in the dark. Does he regret the self-destructive behavior that probably has crippled his once fine presidency? Does he ask himself: What might have been?

How could he not?