Men Of The Year

There is rubble everywhere around us now. The fate of a President moved from the hands of a flushed girl on a rope line to the halls of a howling Congress in battle fatigues. Civility, long rationed,

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Diana Walker / Time Life Pictures / Getty

We treat our values, like our children, not equally but uniquely, and we don't like having to choose which one we would sacrifice to save another. Which matters more, honesty or privacy? Justice or mercy? The President or the presidency? What punishment is reserved for leaders who would force such choices in the first place?

Bill Clinton did something ordinary: he had an affair and lied about it. Ken Starr did something extraordinary: he took the President's low-life behavior and called it a high crime. Clinton argued that privacy is so sacred that it included a right to lie so long as he did it very, very carefully. Starr argued that justice is so blind that once he saw a crime being committed, he had no choice but to pursue the bad guy through the Oval Office, down the hall to the private study, whatever the damage, no matter the cost. One man's loss of control inspired the other's, and we are no better for anything either of them did.

For rewriting the book on crime and punishment, for putting prices on values we didn't want to rank, for fighting past all reason a battle whose casualties will be counted for years to come, Bill Clinton and Kenneth Starr are TIME's 1998 Men of the Year.

Who has survived this odyssey without losing some part of himself? A public majority that listed declining morality as a top concern found itself defending a President who most of them believed had committed a crime. Republican lawmakers voted along party lines, over public protest, to impeach a popular President from the opposing party and in the process dissolved their authority in acid on the House floor. The press corps that viewed itself as the public's conscience became the object of its scorn. Hillary Clinton, who for years had been vilified for leveraging the power of her marriage, was extolled for having handled with grace its public ruin and so finds herself loved for reasons she hates. Ken Starr, who was once viewed as too moderate to beat Oliver North in a Senate race, was recast as a zealot who twisted the law into a vendetta; he finds himself hated for reasons he can't understand.

Even the Justices of the Supreme Court were rendered unanimously ridiculous by this whole scandal, having blithely ruled that a sitting President could be made to stand trial in a civil suit without its impeding the conduct of his office. Now the favor has been returned, and soon the Chief Justice will have to clear his schedule in order to preside over the impeachment trial that the civil suit was never supposed to lead to.

Alone among the players, the one who remained unchanged and unchanging was Bill Clinton. Many people had long ago concluded that he was a rogue and a cheat and impervious to pain; this year he was himself, only more so. Even people who revile his reflexes acknowledge his charm. Ken Starr marvels at how attractive the President is, like a hunter who wants to pet the lion before he shoots it.

The very first thing a new President does is put his hand on a Bible and promise to do what no other citizen can: defend the Constitution and the country--to the point of sending soldiers to die for them. He had better be better than the rest of us.

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