Looking the other way was largely a function of the age -- our holiday from history, our retreat from seriousness, our Seinfeld decade of obsessive ordinariness. Clinton never could have been elected during the Cold War. In the 1990s, history produced the president perfectly suited to the time -- a time of domesticity, triviality and self-absorption.
Its essence is captured perfectly, and inadvertently, in one sentence, Clinton's own account of his response to al Qaeda's most spectacular and murderous pre-Sept. 11 outrage -- the African embassy bombings of Aug. 7, 1998. Ten days afterward, Clinton made his televised confession of having lied to the nation for seven months about the Monica affair. He then retired to a chilly vacation on Martha's Vineyard with wife and daughter. Two days later, he emerged by helicopter on the White House lawn, gave a snappy salute, and marched into the Oval Office to announce the bombing of an al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan and a chemical factory in Sudan.
Clinton writes: ``I spent the first couple of days (after the national television confession) alternating between begging for forgiveness (from Hillary) and planning the strikes on al Qaeda.''
Or as he told Oprah just this week, ``I'm bombing Osama bin Laden's training camp and sleeping on the couch. It was a strange time.''
That produced a strange man. His associates called this compartmentalization. I call it trivialization.
One is inevitably reminded of the quite unbelievable image of the president of the United States on the phone with a congressman discussing Bosnia while being simultaneously serviced by Monica Lewinsky.
What was always staggering to me about this scene was not what it says about Clinton's sexual practices -- I couldn't care less one way or another -- but about his unseriousness.
I never hated Clinton. On the contrary, I often expressed admiration for his charm and for the roguish cynicism that allowed him to navigate so many crises. Nor was I scandalized by his escapades. What appalled me then, a feeling that returns as Clinton has gone national revisiting his own presidency, is the smallness of a man who granted equal valence to his own indulgences on the one hand and to the fate of nations on the other. It is the smallness that disturbs. It is that smallness that history will remember.
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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