Nearly five years ago, less than a year into President Clinton's first term as president, I included in this column (Jan. 15, 1994) an item that under other circumstances might have been viewed as salacious gossip.
A WORLD subscriber had told me some months earlier that a friend of his had witnessed firsthand the Clinton propensity for inappropriate advances toward other women. At a dinner gathering in Little Rock, this man's wife found herself being touched indiscreetly by the new president-elect-under the table. The advances continued for a short period of time as the woman whispered her uncomfortable distress to her husband who sat on her other side. The advances stopped only when the woman, at her husband's urging, stomped firmly on Mr. Clinton's foot.
The WORLD subscriber told me this quite specifically, giving me the man's name and phone number. I called him and asked: Would he and his wife be willing to say this for the record?
"Oh, I don't think so," he responded cautiously. "There'd be no end of grief if we did that."
"Don't get me wrong," he continued. "The story is absolutely true. You could also find 100 stories just like it in the area-and they're all absolutely true. But no, I don't see that we'd have anything but trouble by going public with it."
So 56 months have passed since then, and two things have become remarkably clear: First, the fellow in Little Rock was certainly proven right. Had he and his wife chosen to go on the record with their story, they would have faced no end of grief. The president and his team of thugs would have seen to that.
The second remarkably clear thing is that even though this man and his wife, along with hundreds and perhaps thousands of others, chose the safer course, we still have had no end of grief.
But, of course, all of us-even supposedly good people-spend most of our lives, in one venue or another, learning (or simply resisting) the bitter truth that either you pay now or you pay later. It is a totally human response to put off the day of reckoning, and to think we can pay later, if indeed we have to pay at all.
For millions of Americans, it has finally become clear that Bill Clinton is a problem we should have dealt with earlier, rather than later. It was no secret that he was no more faithful to the truth than he was to the many females in his life. But collectively, we ignored the evidence and kept hoping Bill's bills would not come due. Our whole society has been an enlarged picture of the couple in Little Rock who knew better, but kept responding that if we really dealt with the problem, "there'd be no end of grief."
The distressing thing is that there are also still millions of Americans who don't understand this. Such folks continue to resist the idea of discipline and doing the hard thing. To this very moment in this strange part of our nation's history, an apparent majority of the population keeps singing more and more verses of the same song: "We know about the problem," they say. "But is it really something we should get so worked up over? Is it really something you'd impeach a president for? Just seems to us that if we'd do that, there'd be no end of grief."
In the process, they keep rolling over the loan. They order a new credit card to pay off the bloated bill on the old one. And the interest mounts ever higher.
So do we want our grief now or do we want it later? We're in this mess only partly because of one man's incredible selfishness. The only reason his selfishness affects us so profoundly is that we've been listening so attentively to our own selfishness in the first place. In 1992, we believed a glib snake-oil salesman who told every interest group in the country (including evangelical Christians) he could make them happy; and every interest group was just selfish enough to believe him. In 1996, we confirmed our selfishness by proving his slick managers' cynicism that it was only the economy that mattered; repulsive as that idea might have been, it was true for enough voters to give Mr. Clinton an electoral majority.
What might have happened if one gallant husband in Little Rock in December 1992 had stood to his feet, faced off with the brand-new president of the United States, and said bluntly: "I'll thank you to keep your hands off my wife!"? What might have happened if peace and affluence had mattered less to him then?
Might the end of our national grief have come a bit sooner?