At what point did you know that the President of the United States had had his willy slicked in the oral office and lied about it under oath? I am not asking what you thought of his actions. I am not asking if you thought his actions were moral or immoral, legal or illegal, impeachable or impeccable. I am asking at what point you knew what actually happened.
Knowing what actually happened is a central credo of the history profession. It is call to the historian to investigate sources, sift through evidence, and weigh probabilities all in the hope of being able to reconstruct a narrative of what had occurred. Jurors engage in similar activities before rendering a verdict…or so one would like to believe. Similarly people in positions of power making life and death decisions about others face the challenge of making such decisions with incomplete information.
In practice, of course, that is not what happens. First you decide what you want to be true and then then you affirm that really is what happened. Let’s consider Monica Lewinski as a case study in political decision-making. When the American public first became aware of the charges involving her and the President, there were two significantly different reactions. For Republicans among others the response was “Duh! Like what else did you expect from Slick Willie?” As it turns out they were exactly right in their reaction to the charges. However “Duh, what else” is not a legally valid argument. “Duh, what else” cannot be submitted in a court of law.
But what about profiling? Profiling means even without direct evidence regarding a specific action taken or which may be taken, a person, like the police, may make a decision about another individual. In real life the use of this technique engenders problems. In TV, it is revered. Profilers on detective shows are able to spin detailed life histories about the perpetrators of deeds from scant evidence. TV profilers inevitably are exactly right about the narrative they create about a person they have never met. In the TV world, they are heroes. Is their opinion evidence? Can one say based on past behavior of dishonesty, adultery, and rape that therefore the President must be presumed guilty of the charges as soon as they were presented?
For Democrats among others the response was exactly opposite. Here was another example of the vast right-wing conspiracy at work. These concocted charges should be dismissed out of hand as the ravings of demented people dedicated to a vendetta of bringing down the President. They were deplorable. The charges had nothing to do with what actually happened. In this instance, the Democrats were as wrong as wrong can be. It is beneficial to track the Democrats who became obligated to change their views to observe how they went about coping with the new reality.
For the first few months following the public revelation of the charges, the government lawyers investigated their veracity. Fact finding occurred. Evidence was accumulated just as one would expect in such an endeavor. People of interest were identified and interviewed. Timelines were constructed. Narratives were proposed to tell the story based on the evidence gathered.
At each step of the way, Democrats became more and more skilled (and desperate) to present alternative explanations. Highly educated people with the gift of spin appeared nightly on the cable talk shows to show assert that what seemed to substantiate the charges was merely circumstantial evidence that could be explained away. It didn’t matter what common sense would cause a reasonable person to think because there had to be another explanation for what actually had happened. The prima facie fact right from the start was that nothing supported by the vast right-wing conspiracy could be true, therefore it wasn’t, and therefore the evidence couldn’t prove it.
Then came the stained blue dress. The stained blue dress was the proverbial smoking gun. The stained blue dress was the game changer. The stained blue dress meant in the real world in which we actually live one and only one explanation made sense. The Democrats now had to face the fact that the charges were true. Without the stained blue dress, the Democrats would have gone to their dying day believing the lie; with the stained blue dress, that house of cards collapsed and Democrats had to confront the truth.
The Democrats successfully countered the reality of what had occurred with the “so what” defense. So what if the President of the United States had had his willy slicked in the oral office. So what if the President of the United States had lied about it under oath. So what if the President of the United States had forced his personal secretary to run the gauntlet to testify on his behalf, the single most cowardly act by a President ever. So what if the President of the United States had disrupted the country for months on end rather than to tell the truth. What was unthinkable in January had become “so what” by the fall.
The Democrats now faced another decision. The Republicans dedicated themselves to making Vice President Al Gore a ten-year president. The Republicans did everything they could to make the current Vice President the new President (this position would change in 2000). It was the Democrats who strenuously objected. They relentlessly fought to prevent Al Gore from becoming the President. Now that they knew what actually had happened they successfully deployed the “so what” response and prevented Al Gore from becoming a ten-year President.
What would have happened when facing the truth, if the Democrats had decided to chuck the President overboard and replace him with the Vice President? Would Iraq have occurred? Would Obama have become President? Would the wife of a removed President have dissolved their partnership and then tried to succeed on her own? Could she have? Would an immature child have been legitimately elected President? We will never know.
At times like this one certain adages come to mind. For example, think of the frog and the boiling water. If a frog is placed in a pot of boiling water, it will immediately jump out. However, if the frog is placed in a pot of water at room temperature and the water is gradually brought to a boil, it will die. What will happen today? No one knows yet but we will.
Will removing a President solve the Democrats’ problem? If Dear Leader is replaced by an acolyte, what will happen? Would it end the turmoil or simply continue it at a more intense level? How much time would the new President have before he had to face the voters first in the Republican primary and then, if he won, in the general election? What is the situation of the frog today? We don’t know yet what actually will happen, but eventually we will.