Reflections on Impeachment, 20 Years Later

Reflections on Impeachment, 20 Years Later, by Peggy Noonan.

As I look back 20 years on, I’m more indignant about some aspects, less about others.

I didn’t believe the story when I first heard it—presidents and staffers don’t carry on like that. When I came to see it was true, I was angry. I wrote angrily in these pages.

I see it all now more as a tragedy than a scandal. I am more convinced than ever that Mr. Clinton made the epic political miscalculation of the 20th century’s latter half. He had two choices when news of the affair was uncovered: tell the truth and pay the price, or lie and hope to get away with it.

If he’d told the truth, even accompanied by a moving public apology, the toll would have been enormous. … And he would have survived and his presidency continued.

Much more important — here is why it is a tragedy — it wouldn’t have dragged America through the mud. It only would have dragged him through the mud. …

And so he lied: “I want you to listen to me. . . . I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky” — and the year of hell, the cultural catastrophe, followed. That’s what it was, a year in which 8-year-olds learned about oral sex from the radio on the way home from school, and 10-year-olds came to understand that important adults lie, angrily and consistently, and teenagers knew if the president can do it, I can do it. It marked the end of a certain mystique of leadership, and it damaged the mystique of American democracy. All of America’s airwaves were full of the sludge — phone sex and blue dresses. The scandal lowered everything.

It was a tragedy because in lying and trying to protect himself, Mr. Clinton was deciding not to protect America. And that is the unforgivable sin, that he put America through that, not what happened with Monica.