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Can We Get On to Something Serious?

By Garrison Keillor

TIME magazine

(TIME, August 31) -- We are living in comfortable times, and the long run of L'Affaire Monica is testimony to that, a deluge of chaff. Never before has so much been said by so many about so very little. After months of watching Mr. Starr get in and out of cars, and the famous footage of Mr. Clinton embracing the intern in the crowd, a person starts to value the right not to watch and not to care. What we now know is approximately what we knew at the start. He did it; we're sorry he did; he must be sorrier than anyone else that he did it. Time to grow up and move on.

The precise delectable details--in which White House anteroom did the couple convene and what did the Leader of the Free World do with his pants and did they do it on the floor or use a desk or a sofa and was it one of those hard formal sofas not meant to be reclined on and did someone knock on the door during the proceedings and did she smoke a cigarette afterward and were snacks served--these all can be provided by a good novelist. But this is not about government. There is not an impeachable offense here. You can't even see impeachment from here.

The people most harmed by the affair, as Mr. Clinton himself said on Monday night, are his wife and daughter. Dealing with adultery is a miserable way to start a vacation on Martha's Vineyard. And he badly abused his loyal staff members who, as the price of serving him and his vision for America, now have major legal bills to deal with. And I suppose that Monica Lewinsky, in her pain, has promised herself never again to get romantically involved with a sitting President. And I imagine it has dawned on Mr. Starr that he may go down in history as a rather small and obsessive figure who spent $40 million for a stained dress. And I imagine that by now all of the Monicas in America wish they were Cheryls or Ambers. And the President's reference to a hot-blooded amour as an inappropriate relationship does a real disservice to the English language. But otherwise, this story is without real import.

It is to the Republicans' great credit that they have managed to keep the word impeachment floating in the air for so long. This is a feat, considering that polls point in the opposite direction. They have accomplished it in a statesmanlike manner by announcing again and again, even when not asked, that when the time comes to consider impeachment, they will do so, and meanwhile they reserve judgment. This is sort of like your brother-in-law saying that although you're probably in perfectly good health, there is an ashenness in your complexion that suggests terminal liver cancer, and God forbid it should happen, but if it does, he would like to have your lake cabin.

The Republicans must hope that impeachment will float in the air until November so the voters will remember them as the Party of Zipped Pants. Ordinarily, the voters need to sense danger before they get ginned up about politics: you receive a newsletter in the mail from the Committee to Confront the Present Crisis, and it is full of outrages committed by godless Washington pinheads, and your collar heats up, your toupee flies up in the air, your pants fill up with bricks, and you send in a check for $50 to save the country, but there are not so many outrages these days. The economy is humming along, the stock market continues to levitate, and hardly anybody cares about foreign policy. There is only Monica.

The Clintons, who have said less publicly about the affair than anyone else, have come through with considerable dignity. Those who looked truly and stupendously dumb were the poor schnooks who had to stand on camera and talk about the fact that they didn't know very much about what was happening. It's hard to imagine a young person inspired toward a career in journalism by that. Standing in the White House drive at 5 a.m. waiting for a glimpse of Mr. Starr's car arriving for a secret grand jury proceeding is not a dignified way to earn a living. The blather that ran all of Monday and into the wee hours on CNN was the sort of television that when you turn it off, you feel so much better. And then came the New York Times, with the highest horsefeather content of all.

"A momentous day, a day like no other in the republic's long history," wrote R.W. Apple Jr. in his best Lowell Thomas imitation, under the headline AS PRESIDENT TESTIFIES, A SUBDUED CAPITAL WAITS FOR WORD. (How does the Timesman who reads the capital's moods distinguish among Subdued, Indifferent, Preoccupied and Vaguely Depressed?) Almost the entire front page was given over to the carnival. "How someone of such surpassing intellect and such protean political talents could indulge in such conduct...remains the most puzzling question about William Jefferson Clinton," the Times pondered. This is not a grownup question. "How could he have done it?" People do such things. It has no relation to intellect or political talent. It has to do with being human, and there is a lot of human nature in everybody, including our Bill.

Garrison Keillor is host of A Prairie Home Companion and writes pretty good books, including The Old Man Who Loved Cheese

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: August 31, 1998

"I Misled People"
Leading By Leaving
Blowing His Stack
Justice Should Come Before Closure
The View From Congress
Lies, Tight Spots
How We Really Feel About Fidelity
Is This What We Expect?
Can We Get On to Something Serious?
Finally, the Telltale Lie
That's Where He Lost Me
The Notebook: Clinton Loses Touch
Lies My Presidents Told Me
President Gantry Addresses The Flock

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