A Tale of Two Presidents

Exactly a decade ago Washington's social elites went into a pearl-clutching swoon over Bill Clinton lying to the nation -- and, far less forgivably, to themselves -- about the details of his sex life.

The comedic climax of the whole absurd business was reached when Sally Quinn published a long article in The Washington Post, explaining why the whole town, meaning Sally Quinn and her friends, was so unutterably appalled by the president's behavior, when most of the rest of the nation frankly didn't give a damn.

It was, Quinn explained, because, quoting her colleague David Broder, "he came here and trashed the place, and it's not his place."

Here's my favorite passage from Quinn's unintentionally hilarious essay (the whole thing has to be read to be believed): "Muffie Cabot, who as Muffie Brandon served as social secretary to President and Nancy Reagan, regards the scene with despair. 'This is a demoralized little village,' she says. 'People have come from all over the country to serve a higher calling and look what happened. They're so disillusioned. The emperor has no clothes. Watergate was pretty scary, but it wasn't quite as sordid as this.' "

Justice demands it be noted this stern sermon on sexual ethics was delivered by a journalist whose own floundering career was revived when -- to put it as delicately as possible -- she struck up a warm friendship with her employer, who at that time was married to another woman.

Still, 10 years is a long time, and all of us have said and done regrettable things, and one really should let bygones be bygones, if not for the following remarkable fact: A decade after Sally Quinn and David Broder and so many others found it unendurable that Bill Clinton had lied (under oath, we were reminded again and again) about his sex life, the presidency is occupied by George W. Bush.

In just the last week, President Bush has achieved the following milestones.

* Maj. Gen. Anthony Taguba accused the president of the United States of committing war crimes. Taguba is the man the Pentagon appointed to carry out an investigation into what he discovered was the systematic torture of prisoners by the U.S. military, on direct orders from the Bush administration.

Here is his judgment: "The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account. The commander in chief and those under him authorized a systematic regime of torture."

A United States Army major general has concluded the president is a war criminal. Taguba's quoted statement refers specifically to the cases of 11 Guantanamo detainees who were tortured before they were finally released, without ever having charges filed against them, or indeed being told why they were "detained" in the first place.

Shortly after completing his investigation, Taguba's superiors forced him to retire.

* Meanwhile, Congress is in the process of passing a bill that will legalize felonies committed by the Bush administration, by placing the warrantless wiretapping the administration undertook in direct violation of federal law beyond the reach of the judicial system.

As law professor Jonathan Turley puts it, it's the kind of thing that "any criminal would love to do."

But the Bush administration isn't run by just any criminal. Even after getting a bill passed that makes the felonies they were committing legal, a Bush administration spokesman made it clear that the administration reserves the right to ignore this new law, if the president believes doing so is necessary to keep the nation "safe."

And what do Sally Quinn and David Broder and the rest of the Washington elites who 10 summers ago were shouting to the heavens that Bill Clinton was unfit to remain president have to say about any of this? The answer seems to be: exactly nothing.

Paul Campos is a professor of law at the University of Colorado. He can be reached at paul.campos@colorado.edu.

(c) 2008 The E.W. Scripps Co.

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