From private struggles to public crisis
WASHINGTON — Whether it's Lincoln, Churchill, or Hitler, all political leaders face an internal struggle between darkness and light, a guest speaker once told a class at the University of Arkansas. The darkness could be insecurity, depression, or family disorder. But in great leaders, he said, the light overcomes the darkness - though never without a struggle.
The speaker was none other than Bill Clinton, who delivered this reflective assessment in 1981, after he had been voted out of office as Arkansas governor.
At this historic moment 17 years later, it looks very much as if Mr. Clinton's own weak points of character have helped to precipitate a crisis of governance. Even if the president somehow escapes an impeachment vote, analysts say, great damage has already been done to the country, the White House, and the man who holds the Oval Office.
Whatever the president's private internal struggles, say those who know him, he certainly has been brought to the lowest point in his political career.
"Great presidents are those who obviously show their strengths and control their weaknesses," says Leon Panetta, a former Clinton chief of staff. "[Clinton] has great strengths in what he has done as president, but he lost his ability to control the dark side."
Some of the president's weaknesses - habitual telling of half truths, promiscuity, and an obstinate streak - have become increasingly apparent to the American public this year, as the Monica Lewinsky scandal engulfed the White House.
"His way of dealing with that, rather than controlling it, was to deny it. That ultimately catches up with you," says a heavy-hearted Mr. Panetta.
Unfortunately for Clinton, he now finds himself in a situation that does not play to his numerous strengths - often characterized as tremendous fortitude, a keen intellect, strong speaking skills, and an ability to connect with everyday citizens. Some, like Panetta, note that because this challenge concerns the president's personal behavior, Clinton has a harder time learning from mistakes than in the familiar world of politics, where he is a fast learner.
Others say that, in the end, the opposing camp - independent counsel Kenneth Starr and Republicans in Congress - simply overpowered the Democrats' only two-term president since Franklin Roosevelt.
"The situation we're in is because you had an obsessive guy with an unlimited budget who made it his goal in life to find some reason to destroy Bill Clinton, and that [House GOP whip Rep.] Tom DeLay is doing it up on the Hill," says a Clinton aide who goes back to the president's earliest campaign days.
David Maraniss, a Clinton biographer, has a different take on the character issue. "The paradox of Clinton has always been that his strengths are his weaknesses," says Mr. Maraniss, who told of the guest lecture anecdote in his book, "The Clinton Enigma."
The president's famed perseverance, for instance, became intransigence as Clinton time and again refused to say he lied in his grand-jury testimony and in the Paula Jones deposition. His gift for oratory and his incisive thinking were put to use crafting phrases and defenses that, to many Americans, defied common sense. Perhaps the most famous example of this: "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is."
Even at this difficult time, Clinton's strengths are still in evidence. An ability to carry on with the issues at hand, despite the severity of the impeachment challenge, won the admiration of Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania, who traveled with Clinton to the Mideast last weekend. It was amazing how the president was able to "put behind him" the crisis in Washington while he was engaged in the one in Israel, Senator Specter told CNN Sunday.
But Panetta now wonders to what avail is such doggedness? There's a long shadow over the Clinton tenure that can't be removed, he says. In fact, a poll released Tuesday shows 58 percent of Americans believe Clinton should resign if he is impeached.
There is a difference, however, between the political battle so furious and pitched in Washington and the internal battle that young Clinton spoke of to those Arkansas college students. And according to the president's pastor, the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, all is not lost on that front.
"The president is taking seriously his commitment to work at this," says Mr. Wogaman, senior minister at the Foundry United Methodist Church here, and one of the ministers whom Clinton has called on for consistent pastoral counseling.
In a new book on the president's troubles, "From the Eye of the Storm," Wogaman says that throwing out the president is not in line with the kinds of sins he has committed - sins that sprang from weakness, not malice. And in a phone interview, he comments that the spiritual journey Clinton is on is a process, not a moment.
While Wogaman is convinced the president's contrition is sincere and his repentance real, the spiritual struggle within him is not something that will necessarily be visible to the American people.
On the Sunday following the release of the Starr report to the public, for instance, the media reported that Clinton skipped church that day. Though true, the president phoned Wogaman that afternoon, and the pastor had an opportunity to share his sermon in private.
But even if the public knew of such moments, there's no way for anyone to tell what's really taking place in the heart and mind of Clinton. Says Wogaman: "You can never know the heart of another person."