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The Clinton thing

Clinton may win using the Agag strategy

Issue: "Exodus from Disney," Nov. 7, 1998

I was 16 when I became a materialist. I had overeaten and my best friend said, "No problem. Put a finger down your throat, that's what I do." The first time was the hardest (like the first murder), but when the sky didn't fall it was positively enlightening: "Look Ma, no consequences!" Just a big deafening silence from the universe. Now we are engaged in a great experiment to test whether a petty debauchery can work on a national level. If Bill Clinton and the Democrats and even the Republicans want this thing to go away, need we really work through a painful impeachment process? For what? For whom? Some watchmaker god who wound up the world and walked away? A few carefully crafted words of censure should do the job nicely. (And the key here is "closure," not "justice.") No one knows better than President Clinton the magically salvific and transforming power of words. Back in his first trial-balloon apology of Aug. 17, he set his jaw and declared, "I take full responsibility"-as if the saying of it were as good as the doing of it; as if it were atonement enough. For many, it was. At the same time, we're all a little bit edgy about what we're prepared to do. Somewhere in our thinking, before it went under for the third time, was the nagging realization that if we follow this road to its logical end there can be no law, and we must empty out the prisons, at least for those judged to have a sufficiently credible and charismatic repentance. Still, it may be a whole generation before the cop-out is detected. That's their problem-we're outtahere. For those of us who had religion before August, when every gray suit in Washington started waxing eloquent about the biblical virtue of forgiveness, the events of 1998 have been better than a semester of theology, sending us free-associating all over our bedside Bibles. The passage we all missed (but Mr. Clinton didn't) was in 1 Samuel 15 where Agag the Amalekite, having escaped death in the first blush of defeat, knew enough psychology to reckon that execution at a later date grew less likely the longer it was postponed: "Surely the bitterness of death is past." Like Agag, Mr. Clinton knows time is his ally. The first fires of passion reliably burn themselves out. The case will end not with a bang but a yawn. Even Jesus voiced admiration for men who could "read their times." "For the people of this world," he said in Luke 16:9, "are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of light." We're all running a lowgrade depression over this whole business, even those of us who are just half paying attention. We vaguely think adultery and perjury are serious but we can't quite remember why; we have tried to get excited about it but it's hard in a universe where matter is all there is. Bill Clinton is a name that will cause the falling and rising of many, and the thoughts of many hearts to be revealed. The lines have become sharp and clear now. When it was just rumors of an incident in a Little Rock hotel, reasonable people disagreed. When more rumors came last January, they said, "Nothing's been proved." When it was proved, they said, "It's just a sex crime and which one of you can throw stones?" When it became not just sex but perjury, and the National Organization of Women still backed Mr. Clinton rather than the women, I said, "It's not my imagination anymore; there's nothing this guy can do that will change minds because it's not about the amount of evidence and it's not about reason. Never was. This is pure Van Tillian apologetics: Man always reasons in a circle from prerational commitments of the heart; he ends where he begins." I'll bet if we take the easy way out of this mess, the sky won't fall. We can all agree to ignore this elephant in our living room and get on with more important congressional business, like farm subsidies. But by now my 4-1/2 year old has asked me about "this Clinton thing," as she calls it. She knows none of the details; I only told her that the president did some bad things and now the people are trying to decide what to do about it. Sooner or later she'll bring it up again and I'll have to tell her there were consequences or there were not. For the record, Agag the Amalekite lost his hunch in the end, but only because there was one man in Israel who didn't live by his moods.

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