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."
"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."
In much the same vein, Tony Campolo, an outspoken evangelical supporter of the administration, told a journalist soon after the allegations surfaced, "I know this president is somebody who is a caring father, a loving husband, and somebody who is concerned about the poor and the oppressed." He told WORLD, "These are tough days are they not? It's a painful time. Whether one loves the president or hates the president or is in between, you have to say the country is going through turmoil that requires incredible amounts of prayer for deliverance from whatever sins are out there, and there seems to be a lot of sin around in this community."
"The reality of the situation with people in power is that it's very difficult to speak the truth when the truth is hard," says Steve Smallman, executive director of World Harvest and until a year ago the longtime pastor of McLean Presbyterian Church, the suburban Virginia church frequented by Vice President Quayle and other prominent political figures. Nevertheless, he says, even when praying with members facing indictment for various political crimes, he always prayed that justice would be done. "I don't pray to what end justice would lead, but only that there would be justice."
The alternative, Mr. Smallman says, is a "sloppy idea of grace. Grace becomes just a sort of 'God overlooks our sins, and why can't we do the same with others?' Biblically there's always a linkage between grace and the cross; it's never a permissive sort of thing."
Some Christian leaders may shrink from confronting the president with hard questions, but the members of the press, on this occasion, do not. Just moments after the State of the Union address, Mr. Clinton's agenda is all but forgotten. In the massive Statuary Hall just off the Rotunda, the press lives up to its name, pressing in from all sides against the lawmakers who've come to offer their spin and soundbites. Several press secretaries try in vain to fight through the crowd in search of their bosses. They say they've never seen such a throng in past years. Strom Thurmond, the grand old man of the Senate, is literally propped up by two aides to prevent the 94-year-old from being crushed by the crowd.
Democratic loyalists, meanwhile, are busy propping up their president. "It was a strong speech," insists Sen. John Kerry (D.-Mass.). "If people were listening, they'd have to be struck by the scope, if not by the substance." But that appears to be a big "if." The hundreds of reporters in Statuary Hall didn't seem to be listening to the scope or substance of the speech. They're more interested in Mr. Clinton's job security than in his proposals for Social Security. If the president had hoped to divert attention from his political woes, he must have been sorely disappointed.
But Mr. Clinton's woes are more than just political. As a second-term president, he doesn't have to worry about re-election anyway. So, many pundits are pointing out, he could conceivably cling to power though thoroughly discredited and unable to advance his agenda. Polls show that Mr. Clinton's job approval ratings remain high, even as more and more respondents say the president is lying. Ultimately, however, none of that will matter much, since Mr. Clinton's future will be decided less by millions of voters than by a handful of grand jurors or a few hundred members of Congress. WORLD asked several Christian attorneys to analyze how the legal case might stand up in court or in Congress.
"There's a remarkable resemblance to Watergate," says Wendell Bird, the senior partner in a large Atlanta law firm. "You've got potential obstruction of justice along with fairly clear perjury and apparent subornation of perjury. Those are very serious offenses for anyone to commit, but particularly for the president of our country."
Serious enough to bring down the Clinton presidency? "Everything depends on what Monica Lewinsky states under oath. Assuming she is truthful, it looks like a disastrous case for him legally. Presidents have survived scandals before, but seldom when they lied about them-and seldom when they repeatedly lied about repeated scandals."
Terry Jones, an attorney in Clayton, Mo., doesn't think independent counsel Kenneth Starr will bring charges if he can prove "only" that the president lied under oath. "The [perjury] charges are morally and politically serious, but they arise from the Paula Jones sex case, not from grand jury testimony," he notes. President Clinton was offering his sworn testimony as part of a civil proceeding, Mr. Jones says, and "the prosecuting attorney never brings charges against witnesses who lie under oath in civil cases ... Think about the lies told in civil suits-divorce cases, neighborhood disputes, auto accidents. If the prosecuting attorney goes after these folks, he won't have time to get to the murderers and drug dealers."
The bottom line, according to Mr. Jones: "President Clinton has his hands full politically…but he's not going to be getting three squares and a cot any time soon."
But St. Louis attorney Mark Hearne says the real legal threat to the president isn't about adultery or perjury, anyway. "[Kenneth] Starr is not interested in the underlying adultery except as it relates to proving a cover-up," he says. "Lewinsky is Starr's path to Vernon Jordan, not Clinton. Vernon Jordan is, in turn, the path to the president." Mr. Jordan, a powerful Washington lawyer and close friend of the president, used his influence to help Monica Lewinsky land a plum job in New York just as the Paula Jones case was heating up in Washington. Ms. Lewinsky has charged that he also encouraged her to lie under oath, promising that she would not be prosecuted.
The key to making any charge stick, then, is to "flip" Mr. Jordan, winning his testimony for the prosecution. "If Starr can prove that Jordan coached Lewinsky to lie under oath-the crime of suborning perjury-then Starr can offer Vernon Jordan the choice of protecting the president…or accepting an offer of immunity and testifying that the president participated in the effort to suborn the perjury." Still more importantly, Mr. Jordan could provide the missing piece to the original Whitewater puzzle. He was the one, after all, who found Whitewater insider Webb Hubbell a job with Revlon just when the impoverished Mr. Hubbell was ready to tell all. Now perhaps Mr. Jordan himself will tell all, establishing a pattern of lies and obstruction by the president. "That is likely what Starr is really after," Mr. Hearne concludes.
In Statuary Hall, reporters are huddled around Bob Barr, an outspoken Republican critic of the president and a reliable source of pithy quotes. "What was your number one reaction to the speech?" a reporter asks.
"When was it ever going to end?" Mr. Barr shoots back, noting that it dragged on far too long. Coming from the first Republican to call for impeachment proceedings against the president, the quote might apply to the speech, the scandal-or the administration itself.