Fifteen years ago, after special prosecutor Ken Starr questioned President Bill Clinton about his involvement with Monica Lewinsky, Starr—overcome with a “sense of gloom”—shambled into his Virginia home, collapsed into bed, and asked himself, “How could a sensible and sane government come to this?”
That’s the story scholar Ken Gormley tells in The Death of American Virtue: His 2010 book is the most thorough history of the crisis that escalated on Jan. 26, 1998, when Clinton claimed in a nationally televised White House news conference, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.”
As the 15th anniversary of that infamous announcement approached last month amid a cornucopia of lies, many Americans were asking, “How could a once sensible and sane country come to this?” Exhibit No. 1: Bicyclist Lance Armstrong, who had smeared and sued former friends and colleagues when they told the truth about his drug use, finally admitted he had lied to all and defamed those who told the truth.
Armstrong is far from alone in such behavior. Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who planned poorly for hurricanes and blamed everyone else when Katrina hit, faced a 21-count bribery indictment. Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, who pursued adultery in Argentina while claiming to hike the Appalachian Trail, was asking voters to give him a congressional seat. Footballer Manti Te’o acknowledged that stories of the love of his life dying from leukemia were a hoax that victimized him and others.
The past 15 years have also brought us sex scandals involving—to name just a few—Rep. Mark Foley and congressional pages (exposed in 2006), Sen. Larry Craig in airport bathrooms (2007), New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer and prostitutes (2008), and Sens. John Edwards and John Ensign with extramarital evil (2010 and 2011). Ten more senators and representatives grabbed convictions for fiscal or other offenses during the past decade.
Such corruption is nothing new—remember the House banking scandal of 1992?—but its dullness shows how we’re drifting in a current of lowered expectations. Baseball writers last month stood up against the current of forgetful permissiveness by refusing to enshrine in the Hall of Fame newly-eligible, drug-using superstars Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Sammy Sosa—but such a stand is rare. A recent New York Times headline, “Bill Clinton Is More Popular Than Ever, Poll Finds,” showed the trend: Two-thirds of Americans view him favorably.
And yet, I suspect future historians will look back at Jan. 26, 1998, as a turning point. With the Soviet Union, our nation’s major enemy, defeated, and with a booming economy fueled by technological innovation, Clinton had enormous running room. Rep. Henry Hyde, who headed up the House impeachment team, told author Gormley, “Bill Clinton could have been one of our great presidents. I think he had the brains and the energy and the ambition, but he lacked the vision. And the character. And that’s the sad part. What might have been.”
What might have been. Clinton administration officials at the time said the scandal had no policy effect, but acting Solicitor General Walter Dellinger later told Gormley about his long discussions with Clinton concerning the president’s legal challenges, and concluded, “You think this stuff isn’t distracting?” Steven Gillon’s The Pact shows that Clinton and Newt Gingrich, until the Lewinsky scandal hit, were ready to push forward with bipartisan measures to reform Social Security and entitlements. Others have noted that a preoccupied White House treated al-Qaeda’s rise as of minor interest.
What might have been. The United States could have come into the new millennium with entitlements under control, al-Qaeda taken down before it could make Sept. 11 a date that will live in infamy, and cynicism diminished. Instead, the music died, and we are left with the sense that stories too good to be true—a president who could bring us together, a cancer-surviving cyclist who could win the Tour de France seven straight times—are always lies.
But are they? What if one hard-to-believe story is true? What if the original tellers of the story—about a leader executed as a common criminal, a God who died in an excruciating way, His resurrected body witnessed by women—didn’t get rich by telling it?