That Tangled Web
January 21, 1998: The Washington Post headline shouted at me. I could read it in the pre-dawn light on our front porch. Standing there in my underwear, I let out a whoop. I ran up the stairs to my wife, still in bed. I had snow on my bare feet, but I was yelling to wake the whole house: They got him! This time, they got him. Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinski. He's going down. Nobody can survive this.
My wife, a Navy captain, thought I'd lost my mind. Alarmed, she shushed me. "Be quiet.
You're waking the whole Academy," she remonstrated. We were living in a large beautiful duplex on the Parade Field at the U.S. Naval Academy. Undeterred, I said: "That's OK, they loathe him, too."
President Bill Clinton was going to be ousted that very day. Or surely that very week, I was positive. Why? Well, I had been a military Top Secret Control Officer. I knew how serious an offense it was to compromise national security -- even on a little Coast Guard cutter in the middle of the Bering Sea.
How much more grave an offense must it be for the Commander-in-Chief to have phone sex with some 21-year old intern on a non-secure telephone line! (I confess, until that week I didn't even know what phone sex was. And I was a sailor.)
Back to the nation's security. The reason I was so certain Clinton would be forced out of office was that his conduct put him in a position to be blackmailed by 20 hostile security services. The government provides the president scrambler telephones so that his conversations cannot be tapped into by enemies. We spend millions providing him with those secure lines of communications. Who might have listened in on Bill and Monica? The Russians, the Chinese, the Iraqis, the Iranians, the Palestinians, the list goes on. He could also have been blackmailed by friendlies.
No nation can tolerate that kind of conduct in the Oval Office, I was sure. We now know that even Clinton's own White House staff -- with the signal exception of Mrs. Hillary Clinton -- all thought he was going down, too.
Surely, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott would rush to meet with House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. Together they would go to Vice President Al Gore and tell him he must take charge.
That is what I was certain would happen because that is what should have happened.
Instead, Bill Clinton was allowed to give his State of the Union Address as if nothing was wrong. "Mr. Speaker," cried the House Sergeant-at-Arms just six days after the explosive news broke, "I have the high honor and distinct privilege of introducing the President of the United States!"
The Members of Congress all rose to applaud Bill Clinton. Clinton's opening line was: "Let's save Social Security first." No one was talking about Social Security until he raised that issue.
Clinton had obviously read Uncle Remus's story. He was like the wily B'rer Rabbit. Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott were just like B'rer Fox and B'rer Bear. They thought they had "cotched" their rabbit. Boil me in oil; skin me alive, but please don't throw me in that briar patch, B'rer Rabbit said to his captors. Social Security was Bill Clinton's Briar Patch.
What then happened is almost too painful to relate. Newt Gingrich decided to drag the whole mess out until November. He promised House Republicans they would pick up 40 seats in the mid-term elections -- just as the Democrats had done after Nixon's forced resignation in 1974.
The American voters, however, thought otherwise. Republicans lost five seats in the House that year. Americans told pollsters they smelled a rat; they suspected that Gingrich was putting the country through this agony for political gain. The voters were right.
It was Gingrich who was forced out, not Bill Clinton. Soon, we learned, Gingrich had been conducting an illicit affair all the while he was pursuing Clinton.
Meanwhile, the world did not stop. In February, 1998, Saddam Hussein booted out the UN arms inspectors. That month, too, a shadowy figure named Osama bin Laden declared war on the United States. Several months later, bin Laden struck at the U.S., killing hundreds of Americans and Africans in his bombings of our embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.
Why was I taught that Top Secret was serious business when I was in the military? Why was I threatened with prison if I messed up -- even by accident -- in handling the nation's secrets entrusted to my care? It was for this. It was because such matters are not and can never be only about sex. Such cases threaten hundreds of American lives. They put our people at risk.
When Egyptian journalist Mohammed Wahby was interviewed on the Jim Lehrer News Hour about the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, he dissented from the blasé attitude of European and Canadian reporters on his panel. This news, he said, would be very dangerous in our region. Muslim fundamentalists would assume from this that the U.S. was as decadent and as weak as their imams were saying.
Now, we are embroiled in another national security sex scandal. Gen. Petraeus has resigned in disgrace from heading the CIA. He admitted to Sen. Feinstein that he had done a most dishonorable thing and now had to do the honorable thing.
But Bill Clinton didn't think about the honorable thing. As George Stephanopolos would say: The Clintons have no sense of shame, and that's a great advantage in politics.
Only if we let it be.
Robert Morrison is an author in Annapolis, MD.