- The Washington Times - Friday, October 20, 2000

The most flummoxing fact of this election cycle, the one most likely to rate a line someday in "Ripley's Believe It or Not," is the all-powerful, near-sacred taboo against mentioning the salient event of the Clinton years. (Hint: It begins with an "I.")

While the two main candidates who aspire to the Oval Office buzz on about who will pass out more pills, they keep silent on impeachment, that historic episode that divided America for the duration of a bloodless, though bitterly uncivil war. In a way, we won't know that war's outcome until Election Day.

But even then we'll have to read between the lines. While a Gore victory gives credence to the Clintonian record, and a Bush victory cleans house, the profound political and constitutional questions around impeachment remain undiscussed and unresolved. The self-censorship of this baffling blackout, adhered to by candidates and media alike, seems to reflect their vision of a society that may enthusiastically consume vast quantities of sex and violence, but is too terribly fragile to withstand a public debate on the merits of impeachment, and how it relates to the selection of our political leaders.

As Washington Post reporter Peter Baker pointed out this week, we don't know whether Vice President Al Gore believes perjury and obstruction are excusable when they are related to adultery. Or whether the vice president would still say, as he did on impeachment day, that Bill Clinton is "one of our greatest presidents." And where does Gov. George W. Bush stand on all of this?

Inquiring minds are reduced to sifting through the coded scraps of Republican speechifying namely, the Bush team's mantra to restore dignity to the presidency to decipher the most general GOP point of view.

The elliptical nature of the rhetoric does a disservice to the electorate. Presumably, focus groups you know, the ones that say after the 118th presidential debate that they haven't heard enough about the candidates' prescription drug plans are unanimously opposed to hearing more. But it could be that what appears to be a self-preserving strategy of political reticence not only shortchanges the voters, but also shortchanges candidates at every level as well.

The amazing fact is and this is hard to believe inside the Beltway the corruptions of the Clinton-Gore years are far from familiar to voters. I have met actual living, breathing Americans who, in the case of a college-educated and politically interested Westchester County, N.Y., matron (and Hillary Clinton supporter), knew nothing nothing about Travelgate. Then there was the Los Angeles man, a college-educated professional, who had never before heard of Al Gore's Buddhist Temple fund-raiser. In other words, there are countless likely voters who simply don't get the delicately vague allusions to honor or lawbreaking that are occasionally made on the hustings.

Take the stump speech of Rick Lazio, that nice young man running for Senate against Mrs. Clinton in New York. Mr. Lazio will at times state, yes, elliptically, that the New York Senate race "will determine whether character still counts in public service … [and] whether the rule of law applies to all or just to some privileged people." When, during his last debate with Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Lazio was asked to explain how such generalities specifically apply to his opponent, he responded by not responding. "I think it's important that I talk about myself … integrity in terms of my public service … role model for my two little girls … role model for other children … the dream of being able to represent the people of New York … " Let's just say this head-tucked, knee-hugging answer doesn't exactly give the lady who never heard of Travelgate the moral reason to reconsider her support for the first lady.

There are exceptions one, anyway. As the Los Angeles Times reported this month, "Against the advice of his campaign advisors, Republican U.S. Representative James E. Rogan won't stop talking about his prominent role in last year's impeachment trial of President Clinton. The two-term congressman from Glendale even had the idea for a poster that features a photograph of the 13 Republicans in the House of Representatives who served as prosecutors during the trial. Most are wearing somber expressions, but Rogan, standing in the center, is smiling."

Smiling. Voters need to hear Republican candidates smiling make the case against the Clinton-Gore legacy of lawbreaking, legal shading and ethical corner-cutting, just as they need to hear Democratic candidates smiling? defend that legacy. Of course, that's not going to happen in a big way any time soon. But when it does, it may become possible to shake off the corruptions and corrosive cynicism Clintonism leaves behind. And that should give everyone something to smile about.

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