WASHINGTON -- From the soapbox of his regular Newsweek column, Jonathan Alter begins a recent essay with admirable panache. He writes, "David Brock is arguably the most loathed writer in Washington, which is saying something."
After that audacious insight, Alter, alas, descends into futile ramblings about 1990s scandals, some of which Brock had uncovered, that utterly trivialize the errant politicians' 1990s conduct. And Alter concludes with an erroneous summation that I hope does not become history's judgment of the 1990s. Says Alter, "The tawdry sexual politics of the 1990s were a luxury afforded by prosperity."
As Rep. Gary Condit's present sexual scandal should make clear, the Clinton scandals were not simply "tawdry sexual politics." They were abuses of power. When Brock published the first Troopergate piece I, as his editor, tried to make that point. What Clinton did with government employees was an abuse of power. Usually his goal was sex, but always his most serious transgression was to use the glamour and power of his office to corrupt staff and have his way with whomever he set his sights upon. If he had used these women, troopers and other government employees to advance his stamp collection, it would have been equally wrong.
To be sure, from the playing of Gennifer Flowers' tapes during the 1992 presidential campaign, to Paula Corbin Jones' lawsuit, to Monica Lewinsky's taped testimonials of randy love, the stories were lurid and risible. Yet they were also very serious. Americans were being governed by a president who abused his power with staff, lied under oath and obstructed justice. Clinton is a man of the basest character. It is dangerous to have such people in power. We may have to await the full revelations about Condit to get a hint of the danger.
In time, Americans discovered about Clinton what reporters had known for years or should have known. His abuses of power went beyond sexual dalliances to include financial misbehavior, fund-raising irregularities, dangerous technology transfers for political gain, and finally the damning pardons and laughable filching of the White House furnishings. Contrary to Alter's assessment, Clinton was the center of something far more serious than "tawdry sexual politics" -- and, by the way, "tawdry," which became the press's shopworn adjective for Clinton's sexual scandals, was never an apt description. Clinton's assignations were never "cheap and showy," that being the meaning of tawdry. The sex scandals were secretive and sordid, which is to say, "morally depraved."
If that sounds a bit strong to sophisticates, it might not after we see how the Condit scandal plays out. It, too, is an abuse of power, complete with its amusing aspects. Hour after hour the television screen feasts on old tapes of Condit, a Democrat, during the Lewinsky scandal calling upon President Clinton to come clean about the intern and tell all he knows. Now from his fastness in Congress, the Hon. Condit has done just the opposite. He has withheld information about an intern with whom he was sexually involved. It is reported that he lied to police. Reportedly he asked another of his paramours to sign an untrue affidavit -- once again, an elected official obstructing justice. He has even had one of former President Clinton's lawyers, Abbe Lowell, spin the press.
This time around, however, the abuse of power may not go unpunished and may have gruesome consequences. Condit's Clintonesque tactics of delay and dissimulation have hampered a police investigation into a missing person. His intern may not end as happily as Clinton's has, and Condit's fate may not prove to be as ambiguous as Clinton's was. In the end, writers such as columnist Alter, who thought the sexual escapades of an elected official with an intern were harmless, may see the darker side of all this.
Yet they really ought to get their minds off this sex thing. For elected officials who would lie under oath, obstruct justice, and break as many other laws as Clinton and Condit seem to have done are a threat to our very democracy. In being able to place themselves above the law, they defeat the rule of law.
Last week, I had the opportunity to interview a federal judge who pursued corrupt politicians throughout the 1990s. I noted that he had been thwarted by the politicians' ability to delay judicial procedures, deceive the courts and journalists alike, and evade justice in a way no ordinary citizen would. I told him I had come to doubt that the courts can deal with such political wizardry. The judge did not disagree.