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It was 21 years ago today that the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton began in the U.S. Senate.

It wasn't that long ago. But there are people who can vote now who don't remember it, and others who were intimately involved with the proceedings seem like they don't remember it, either. My recollection was that it was a shoddy business on all sides. It was ugly and kind of silly, and the president had no one to blame but himself. He knew they were after him. He acted like a dang fool frat boy.

What I said at the time was that he shouldn't be impeached--he should resign and slink off in shame. I thought that Clinton's recklessness was disqualifying. I was very angry with Clinton at the time; he should have behaved better. While I suspected many of his political enemies were disingenuous hypocrites (and we subsequently learned that Dennis Hastert, Bob Livingston and Newt Gingrich had committed their own indiscretions), I thought character mattered in a president.

I still think that, which marks me as naive and out of step with most people who advertise themselves as conservative.

Still, I stopped being angry with Bill Clinton a long time ago. I don't pretend to know anything about his psychology, but I know we're all capable of doing horrific things. A lot of us are also capable of rationalizing away whatever crimes and misdemeanors we happen to commit. Good people screw up. Some good people have weaknesses and addictions, pathological fissures in an otherwise sound character. We all let down people we love. We all make mistakes.

Maybe not to the extent that an impartial jury would deem equitable, but we punish ourselves with our misdeeds. All normal people feel guilty.

If you're not a sociopath, you pay for your transgressions. Despite those qualities that make him different from most of us--his genuine charisma, a curious intellectual ability (more like a talk show host like Dick Cavett or a novelist like John Updike or Philip Roth than any political figure that comes to mind) his ability to attain a Ph.D. level on specific and arcane subjects, and what I've always taken as a deep interest in whatever the person directly in front of him was saying at the time--Clinton always presented as a normal person.

You had no doubt that he suffered. The embarrassment hurt him. The pain he caused in his marriage hurt him. He didn't get off scot-free.

I can hold a grudge, but am willing to let Bill Clinton enjoy his post-presidency. I just hope he doesn't "write" another thriller with James Patterson.

But I have some regrets of my own.

As my thinking has evolved on Bill Clinton--a relatable and even soulful person, an overachieving child of the '60s who, except for his obvious and manifold talents, seems like a lot of guys I knew and grew up with--I find myself wondering if we shouldn't have paid more attention to the wink-wink nudge-nudge rumors of libertinism that swirled about him in the '80s.

I believe now as I did then that some marriages are strange compacts and that, outside of an individual's intimate circle, it's nobody's business who goes to bed with whom. Absent a complaint, an allegation, an accuser, we ought to have no interest in the sex lives of others, no matter how rich and powerful they are. I believe in a zone of privacy. Some things are none of our business.

But in Clinton's case there were complaints, even before Paula Jones filed her sexual harassment lawsuit in 1994. And yes, some of these complaints could have been motivated by politics or the desire for money or notoriety. But although they should have been taken seriously, many of us did not take them seriously, because for whatever reason, we supported Bill Clinton.

We should have done better than that. I haven't thought much about Monica Lewinsky over the past 20 years, but last year I saw her on a TV show and listened to her, and she impressed me. She's not what I thought she might have been, what a lot of people assumed she was. She's not a punchline, but a remarkable woman of uncommon intelligence and dignity. If I paid more attention to Twitter I would follow her.

I think some of us even enjoyed the idea of Clinton as a rake, an awkward band kid grown into a ladies' man. You had to kind of admire it, unless you didn't.

And some certainly did not. Like Robert Bork, they wanted to "kill off the lax moral spirit of the '60s." They wanted to preserve the rule of law. Like me, they thought character matters. There was an argument for the impeachment of Bill Clinton--it boiled down to not wanting Dionysus in the White House. I didn't quite agree with their argument, but understood it. I could even make it: I prefer decent people to "Great Men."

None of us want a president that serves at the pleasure of Congress. Especially now that we've really seen what Congress is, which is a bunch of grubby, petty people with big appetites, overblown egos and about as much nuance and grasp of historical and cultural context as your average American. Still, we need to preserve the elegant balance of power described by the Constitution. I've only been complaining about the Imperial Presidency since Ronald Reagan's last term.

Clinton probably shouldn't have been impeached, but maybe it wasn't so outrageous that he was. I thought he should be censured and shamed; I called for his resignation. For all I know, he considered it.

But maybe it was naive to think that anyone would give up high office just because they were caught doing something wrong. Because everyone does wrong things, and it's hypocritical to pretend that any of us do anything for reasons other than the purely transactional.

Sometimes I think we missed an opportunity 21 years ago. Not to remove a president from office, but to have a real conversation about real things.

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Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at pmartin@arkansasonline.com and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.

Editorial on 01/14/2020

Print Headline: PHILIP MARTIN: The last impeachment

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