By Karen Hall


President Clinton, by his own admission, has sinned. The rest of us knew it a long time before he did, but the rest of us don't depend on opinion polls to tell us the difference between right and wrong.

So now the president's newfound remorse is on the table for discussion and analysis and debate, and I fear that in all the hoopla and amazement over the fact that he has finally (supposedly) shed his obstinate defiance, we may overlook the larger context of this alleged repentance. In other words, I fear we're about to be duped again.

Here's what someone, anyone, needs to say, out loud or in print, soon, and more than once: on top of being an adulterer, a liar and God only knows what else, Bill Clinton is a bully.

The most cursory research into his Arkansas years will tell anyone with a brain that he has been a bully for a long time. He thought he could make a smooth progression from Governor Bully to First Bully, and until recently he has been right. I hope to God he is in the process of learning that while you can bully some of the people some of the time, there is a limit to how long you can bully the entire electorate.

I will skip the part where he bullied us into ignoring his record as a draft dodger and the part where he bullied us into believing (or pretending to believe; or not caring) that the entire extent of his drug history was one un-inhaled joint. (In the wake of the cigar revelation, I'm not sure I want to think too hard about that one anyway.) I will also skip the part where he (and his wife) bullied us into believing that all the women coming out of the woodworks with stories of affairs or sexual harassment were white trash opportunists looking for book deals. Let's just look at the bullying that has gone on in the last few months.

There's the very obvious: the seven months of lying. Not just lying, but lying with the attitude of an incensed victim; in effect, scolding us for having the audacity to believe such things about him. All of this was followed by the bullying use of spurious legal actions, under the guise of noble causes (like protecting the secret service or the sacredness of attorney-client privilege) when all the while he knew he was not only lying to us, but using our money to keep us from discovering his lies.

And then, when finally backed into a corner he couldn't lie his way out of, he declared his actions "private" and told us to butt out. He informed us that this matter should be left to him, his family and "our God." (Our God? Either the Clintons have their own private God, or the God he's talking about is also mine, which connects us in the moral universe and gives me a right to have an opinion of his behavior.)

The president's current manipulative ploy is the "I'm-Really-Really-Cross-My Heart-and-Hope-to-Die-Sorry" road tour. Since, amazingly, his first half-assed contemptuous red-faced pseudo apology didn't do well in the polls, he's now auditioning new apologies. He's going to keep trying until he comes up with one that we (and/or Congress) will fall for.

As I write this, I've just finished watching the already famous prayer breakfast "I have sinned" speech. In the midst of this particular strategic apology, the president said he hoped he could maintain "a broken spirit and a strong heart." I'm amazed he can maintain a straight face.

By the time the speech had been over for five minutes, no less than six commentators had told me how "remarkable" it was. Is it that they're stupid, or that they think I'm stupid? The only thing "remarkable" about this speech is that anyone believes it! It would have been a very impressive and historic speech had it been given on August 17th. Repentence is "remarkable" when it is motivated by conscience or by genuine conviction, not when it is motivated by plummeting opinion polls and industrial-strength pleas from desperate advisors.

Ten minutes after the speech was over, Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson passionately informed Matt Lauer, and the rest of us, that "this is a great president" and "we have to move on." I'm sure many members of the bully brigade will continue that stuck record refrain. We need to take a hard look at what they are actually saying. They are not really asking us to "move on." We are moving on. Ken Starr's report clearly moves us on. What the bullies are asking is for us to move past.

Even if I believed that Clinton was sincerely contrite, I would not be willing to move past what he has done. I'm a strong believer in redemption, but it does not erase consequences. It especially does not erase legal consequences. And if we are now going to declare that it does, then tomorrow morning there will be a lot of people on death row dropping their appeals and demanding (rightfully) a prayer meeting and press conference.

The hard-core members of Clinton's bully brigade are still squawking that this is "only about sex." Their attempts to minimize Clinton's behavior are almost as repulsive to me as the behavior itself. This is about far more than sex. It is about arrogance and manipulation and deceipt and condescension and abuse. Not just the abuse of power, but the abuse of our trust and, ultimately, the abuse of our democracy.

Bill Clinton thinks he can rectify all of that with the right "mea culpa". He is trying to use his purported contrition to pummel us into letting it drop, or at least to make us feel guilty if we don't. This is another affront: the abuse of the concept of forgiveness. For my money, this is the most offensive bully tactic yet.

The bullies keep telling me that I am tired of hearing about this scandal. They are wrong. What I am tired of is Bill Clinton. I am tired of his relentless calculated assaults on my intelligence. I am tired of the spin and the polls and the trial balloons. I am tired of hearing about the little boy in Florida who wants to be president. (The kid has already learned the first rule of politics: the minute you throw your hat in the ring, everyone above you on the food chain starts using you to their own advantage.)

I am still very interested in the substance of scandal. I am interested in seeing the laws of the country applied to Bill Clinton the same way they would be to the rest of us.

And, if he manages to bully his way out of this one, I am interested in seeing the constitutional amendment that says our laws do not apply to the president, once he convinces enough people that he is really, really sorry.