Cover Story

Clinton On The Brink

Monica Lewinsky is the talk of the pols and the press in Washington, but out in the country, the "who-cares" factor is settling in-providing what one Christian leader calls "a shocking view of the moral bankruptcy of America."

Issue: "Clinton: Under seige," Feb. 6, 1998

An Hour before Bill Clinton takes the podium for his sixth State of the Union Address, Republican congressmen gather in a nearby hotel for a little networking. A huge oil portrait of George Bush smiles down on the scene as the jubilant Republicans, their spirits undampened by the freezing rain outside, schmooze with the guest of honor, Dan Quayle. It's no secret that Mr. Quayle wants to give his own State of the Union Address in the near future. It's no secret that many of the lawmakers are here tonight because they need the former VP's fundraising prowess in their own reelection efforts. Yet no one wants to talk about November of 2000, or even November 1998. The question on everyone's lips is, "Will she be mentioned in the speech?"

"She," of course, is Monica Lewinsky, the 24-year-old former White House aide who has claimed a long-running affair with President Clinton. She isn't mentioned in the speech, as it turns out, but it hardly matters. Her name may be unspoken, but her presence is unmistakable.

Even in the painfully proper halls of Congress, where politeness is virtually a religion, the accusations fly in whispered tones. When Hillary Clinton strides into the visitors' gallery at 9 p.m., two congressional wives in the second row take the opportunity to vent. "I'd have left him a long time ago," says one, "before he had the chance to do this to me."

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"She made a deal," her neighbor replies. "She got what she wanted."

Ten minutes later, the president finally arrives. The Democratic side of the chamber erupts in hurrahs; Republicans clap politely. After a long walk down the aisle with Democrats straining to shake his hand or clap him on the back, Mr. Clinton takes the podium and looks out over the body that may soon be voting on his political future. "These are good times for Americans," he announces. "The state of our union is strong." He proceeds to lay out a laundry list of proposals for expanding the role of government: 100,000 new teachers here, $100 million in new spending there. He seems to enjoy the speech, and indeed it must come as a welcome reprieve. For one hour, the whole country has to listen to what he wants to say. There will be no interruptions, except for the required ovations. No questions. No accusations.

"No accusations" seems to be the policy of much of the religious establishment toward the president's current woes, as well. Despite a host of ugly charges, the nation's moral outrage has been strangely muted and ambivalent. Thirty years ago things would have been different: A politician caught in a compromising situation would have been quickly hounded out of office. But today, with the economy strong, the national sense of moral outrage seems to be weak.

"God is giving us a shocking view of the moral bankruptcy of America," says Mark Coppenger, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City. "I am amazed at the who-cares factor in this case. We're getting a good reading on America here, and it's not pretty."

No charge against the president has been proven yet, of course, and Mr. Coppenger cautions that "the church's standard should be no lower" than the judicial standard of innocent until proven guilty. Still, the possibility of an affair would have elicited moral outrage a generation ago. A president under a similar cloud of suspicion would have known without a doubt that if proven guilty, his career would be over in an instant.

Why the difference today? Much of the blame can be laid at the feet of ministers who love to counsel and encourage, but avoid rebuke at all costs. "We ought to lay the template of the prophets and the early church over this situation," Mr. Coppenger says. "Some ministers are more prophetic and some more pastoral, but overall I think we would find more rebuke and consternation in the early church than what we have today."

Certainly there was no rebuke or consternation to be found in the First Family's church the Sunday after the scandal broke. J. Philip Wogaman of Washington's historic Foundry United Methodist Church told his congregation, "If I could speak to everyone in the United States today, I would turn to I Corinthians Chapter 13"; he then read the well-known "love chapter" in its entirety. After the service ended with the hymn, "A Shelter in the Time of Storm," Mr. Wogaman told The Washington Post that the nation needed to embrace the central message of I Corinthians 13: "not to look for all the flaws" in others. "People need healing," he added in reference to the president. "This is a man and a family of great love and caring."

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