A LOW-COMEDY tryst in a White House anteroom. Finger-pointing denials of what was patently true. Hook-ups, hush-ups, and cover-ups. A comic-opera federal investigation. A historic House vote on a Saturday in December. A show trial on the floor of the Senate.
This marks a sad anniversary of a sordid stain on American history. It was a decade ago Friday that the House impeached the president, only the second time in American history that the chamber took so powerful a step. The first time, the 1868 impeachment of Andrew Johnson, was a proxy for a bigger fight over the course of Reconstruction. The second time, the 1998 impeachment of Bill Clinton, occurred because the president's enemies resented his policies and his popularity, and he was unfaithful to his wife and very immature.
In the 10 years since Mr. Clinton was impeached, the economy has tumbled twice, four planes were hijacked over American airspace and used as lethal terrorist battering-rams against symbols of the nation's power, the country has plunged into two wars, American freedoms have been compromised in the effort to preserve American freedom, a woman emerged as the favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination, a black man was elected president, and the governor of Illinois brazenly tried to sell a seat in the body where Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, and Henry Clay once sat.
In those days a decade ago, the question of whether a Secret Service agent could be made to testify against the president was the kind of topic that consumed Washington. So were vital issues such as the definition of "is" and the definition of "sex." People who should have known better - people on both sides of this B-movie drama, plus the press - threw themselves into demeaning debates about Gap dresses and soiled tissues. They dressed up these discussions by suggesting that they were part of a constitutional crisis.
There were some useful byproducts of this episode. The country got to examine important questions about duty, loyalty, truth, and redemption. But among the many great reasons to keep church separate from state, one of them surely must be that these lessons are better taught in the pew than in the presidency. And for all the talk about family values in American politics, no one is arguing that politics is the place to teach family values. The presidency may be a bully pulpit but this was not the kind of homily the Founders had in mind.
A decade on and many things are clear. The president should not have had an affair with a White House intern. The whole episode was more a crime against Mr. Clinton's family than against Mr. Clinton's country. A president out of control prompted an investigation to get out of control, and the combination of the two helped spin the entire political system out of control. It was worse than a mistake. It was a blunder. It was worse than a disgrace. It was a distraction.
From this distance, when we worry about the sustainability of the economy, the fate of retirement funds, the lack of confidence in the financial markets and in Washington, the difficulties in Iraq even after the situation has neared stability, the challenges in Afghanistan, and the threats at home, it sure seems that the United States of 1998 and 1999 must have been a rich, secure country to have gone on a bender like the one of those years.
Winston Churchill described the years when Britain and France dithered away when Europe could have prepared militarily, psychologically, and strategically for the Nazi threat as the "years the locusts ate." We might apply the same appellation to the years the impeachment consumed.
We could have used them to examine our profile in the Middle East, to consider the dangers terrorism posed at home, to question whether the high-tech boom was instead a bubble, and to wonder whether the American dream of owning a home was vulnerable to being hijacked by the American dream of riches beyond the dreams of avarice.
We could have done all those things, but we spent them wondering why Hillary Clinton stayed with her husband, what Monica Lewinsky told Linda Tripp in a shopping mall, and what Paula Corbin Jones meant when she talked about the president's distinguishing characteristics.
Today you hardly hear anything about the impeachment of Mr. Clinton. The name Kenneth Starr is the answer to a trivia question. No one you know could name more than one of the House impeachment managers. Newt Gingrich is in the wilderness. Betty Currie has retreated into anonymity; the world's oldest democracy no longer teeters when the president's secretary speaks to prosecutors.
This was a tragedy in many parts. The first was the stupidity of the furtive relationship. The second was the zeal of the prosecution. The third was the cost - to the treasury in money, to the Clinton family in wounded feelings, to the Congress in wasted effort, to the country in needless controversy and partisanship over a fight that was so controversial and so partisan.
Plus this: It was bad enough to live through this horrible subplot to the presidency once. It is embarrassing to think that our children will read history textbooks and see how we wasted our time.
The country has survived, Mr. Clinton has survived, the Clinton marriage has survived, the presidency has survived. These are measures of the resiliency and strength of our system. But it's impossible to look back a decade without wondering what we were doing back then, and why. This is an anniversary, but not a happy one.