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Clinton wasted chance to make difference

We're up too close to see it clearly, but eventually historians will sit down and put the crass political corruption of our time in perspective. Though more benign than some of the great depredations of history, our era's abuse of democracy will be an embarrassment for the ages.

The amazing Johnny Chung will have a secure place in the lore of that abuse: How, for example, in 1996 he gave big gifts to the Democrats and then shepherded six Chinese business associates into the Oval Office to observe President Bill Clinton talk on the radio. But that tale will be eclipsed by the 1994 story of Chung's escorting a Chinese beer executive on a tour of the West Wing. They are lugging two six-packs of beer and taking photos as they go, priceless pictures for promotional brochures back home and even a billboard in Beijing.

There are enough stories to write an epic. About the things politicians do for money. About senators stealing away from the nation's business to make more phone calls for money. About the huge checks from very strange bedfellows. About the mantras of denials that there is any relationship between this money and future or past favors. It is a dreadful story of a government sinking into corruption; the leaders being sucked down by greed and lacking any worthwhile national mythology or personal pride or moral compass by which to pull themselves out.

The most outrageous stories are about the White House. About the coffees and the Lincoln bedroom, which has become a national joke. That, for the record, is currently the Clinton White House.

Democrats will cry foul. Everybody does it or did it, they will say. And, indeed, it seems they do and did. Last month, The New York Times ran "A Short History of Scandal." Involving U.S. presidents, that is. Beginning with George Washington: "Womanizing; illegitimate children; land theft; bribery in his cabinet." And on to Jefferson: "Extramarital affairs; illegitimate children; atheism." It was a long, dirty laundry list, although the Times did note that these were merely accusations "supported and unsupported."

Sure, the Republicans do it too. They collected three times as much dubious money as the Democrats did for the 1996 election campaign -- though such statistics rise and fall depending on the source. The unions gave big money to the Democrats, but business interests gave seven times as much to the Republicans. Everyone is doing it.

But now -- and now is all we have -- Bill Clinton is the one doing it. Whatever "it" is. Congress, with an eye on its own soiled reputation, recently distinguished between what was to be deemed illegal and what improper. Armies of special prosecutors and others are presently busy chasing down both categories. Why not leave Clinton to the prosecutors? And to history?

Republicans have good reasons of their own not to let Clinton off the hook -- it's called politics as usual. But we all have a bone to pick with him. In some vague but important way, he let us down.

It's a poignant aspect of human nature that our hope springs eternal. This country is in many ways built on the failures of other countries, by folks fleeing those failures and hoping for a new beginning here. Never has a nation established itself so deliberately, so high-mindedly, throwing out what had failed elsewhere and aspiring to build that city on a hill amid an abundance of liberty and justice for all. When the founding fathers and a litany of presidents turned out to have feet of average clay, we still hoped and aspired -- the survival of the race demands it: We can't just lie down and die.

The link between ourselves and our leaders says more about us than about them. For one thing, to the extent democracy can be said to work at all, we choose those leaders. They, in a quite profound sense, are us. If they are, we know all too well they are imperfect.

So forget utopia. Utopias, for one thing, are very un-American. Being by definition perfect they presume no more change or diversity, and Americans couldn't live without change and a different color of perfection tomorrow.

A democracy, by contrast, is presumed to be flawed. Yet it is based on the assumption that we elect those who represent what is best in us. We elect those who would do what we, in our better moments, would do. Thus, by the very act of voting for them, we lift our elected officials up, place them on a pedestal from the start.

That they usually proceed to let us down is not surprising. They could never hope to embody so many high aspirations.

But we, for our part, never give up. Sometimes we get lucky or wise and pick winners, sort of; other times we seem to vote with all the accumulated wisdom of the first cave persons. And when we don't elect wisely, we lower not only the standard but the system, paving the way for ever more virulent abuse later.

Our recent history of picking presidents has not been great in this regard -- though here too it depends on who is saying so.

Then along came Clinton. One of the first things we learned about him was the sleaze factor, real or concocted. Slick Willie. He had fierce enemies and stout friends. Eventually, the country held its nose, gave him the benefit of the doubt, voted for him. Alas, he has given comfort to the enemy, has lived up, or down, to the tawdry image. Think of the two guys with the two six-packs wandering in the White House, and then decide what kind of political and moral atmosphere made this possible. And these Chinese characters are just pimples on the overall Clinton body politic.

And we're mad as hell at Clinton because, at certain moments, there appear hints of what might be. He talks the talk endlessly and eloquently and makes occasional promising political gestures, including some interesting appointments.

But even beyond the talk, we suspect -- perhaps because we so badly want it to be true -- that there are here the makings of a man who could break the mold, shake off the old conventions and bad habits, undo the unwise, unworthy ways in which we have been running the country and influencing the world.

There is nothing startling or apocalyptic involved here, only hope springing eternal. When Ronald Reagan was elected to a second term, this paper dared to speculate that this aging man, who had nothing outstanding to recommend him but nothing to lose and only fame and the gratitude of a nation to gain, might transcend the formidable shortcomings of his first term and march toward the city on a hill that at least conceptually appealed to him so much.

Thus, being human, we hope. Ready to give nearly everyone that famous second chance.

As he takes the first tortured steps into his second term, Clinton is showing every sign that he will leave office with less dignity than when he came in. As he hunkers down, denying crimes and playing at the same old political banalities, surely the thought must sometimes cross his mind that this is unworthy and no way to spend a life, never mind a presidential life. And the urge must stir in him to do something radically different.

What should he do? Who knows? It hardly matters. If he heeded the urge, the rest would follow. He'd know what to do. He's smart. He's a wonk, whatever that may be. The "right thing" would come to him, as it came to him so belatedly in the case of Bosnia, of Haiti.

But his achievement might not be individual "victories." It might be in becoming a leader people would want to follow, to admire. It might be in his vision, in his willingness to take risks. Whatever one may think of it, he went against the grain, albeit by then a shifting grain, at the time of the Vietnam War. There is so much grain to go against right now.

Perhaps this is all about us and our dreams rather than about Clinton and his. We are being smothered by the political climate and are crying for help.

The late Georges Bernanos in one of his novels writes about dream and illusion: "An illusion is the abortion of a dream, a dwarf-dream, cut down to the size of a child. But I wanted my dreams to be boundless -- what use have they otherwise? If I had to begin life over again, I would try to make them greater still, because life is infinitely greater and more beautiful than I had imagined, even in my dreams, and I infinitely smaller."

This is the kind of talk Clinton can talk -- the man from Hope. He seems proud to be part of the Christian tradition, a man who goes to church and seemingly practices his faith. If taken seriously, it is a faith full of mighty vision and challenge, not small and self-serving like renting the Lincoln bedroom for a few pieces of silver.

Bernanos goes on: "I dreamed of saints and heroes, neglecting the intermediate forms of humanity, and I discovered that the intermediate forms of humanity scarcely exist, that only the saints and heroes really count. The intermediate forms are a sort of pulp, a spineless mush -- when you have taken a handful you know the rest, and this jelly would not deserve a name if the saints and heroes did not give it one, did not bestow on it the name humanity."

Go for it, Mr. President. You'll know what to do.

National Catholic Reporter, April 4, 1997