The Last Campaign

Forget about compartments. Everything Clinton did during his amazing week served one purpose: to save his skin

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Like a weasel, Bill Clinton emerges from the drainpipe shinier than when he went in. He has spent a year in the dark, ever since that night last January when he called his slippery guru Dick Morris and asked him to take the country's moral temperature. When Morris' polling suggested that people could stomach an affair but not a cover-up, Clinton's response was his mantra. "Well, we'll just have to win then." Now, on the anniversary of that vow, the President seems to have made good on it.

After a year spent denouncing Clinton's character--the lies he told, the friends he betrayed, the garbage he collected in the campaign to save his skin--even his enemies last week were left wondering at the political skill that goes with it. The most hardened pros could scarcely imagine the assignment Clinton took on. He stood Tuesday night before an audience that included the Senators who are in the process of deciding whether all the ways he dishonored his office warrant stripping him of it--and then he flaunted its power and magic, bet the farm, promised the moon, massaged his approval ratings, and went out the very next day, even as his own lawyers were in the Senate defending him as a louse who still deserved a break, and thanked the roaring crowds of Buffalo, N.Y., for "one of the great days of my presidency."

Bill Clinton is now waging the last campaign--a multifront war to keep his job by appearing to do his job, a war in which he has enlisted lawyers, pollsters, policy advisers, Democratic lawmakers and celebrities. It doesn't matter that he will be long retired before the promises he lofted hit the ground; his poll numbers are his legacy. Even inside the White House, some heard an elegy Tuesday night. "It's like the speech you give when you know you're not getting anything passed, when you have no agenda," says an adviser. "So why not keep talking about the things you care about?"

The head-splitting spectacle--trial by day, triumph by night--inspired another round of commentary about the compartmentalized President. And so it was easy to miss the secret of his success. Maybe Bill Clinton is, in the end, the only person in this whole divisive drama who has remained intact, with a kind of wicked integrity all his own. One reason he can conduct Middle East peace talks in the morning and legal-strategy sessions at night, spray proposals on everything from digital mug shots to national parks, is that all the wild gestures and every last ploy work to the same goal--his survival, his popularity, his eternally orbiting polls.

Clinton's performance enthralled Senate Democrats to the point that Republican lawmakers conceded there was no longer a chance of finding the 67 votes needed to convict and threw open the question of whether this might all end sooner rather than later. "Clinton's won," said Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson on his 700 Club show, to the fury of many conservative allies. "They might as well dismiss the impeachment hearing and get on with something else, because it's over as far as I'm concerned." All that's left to argue is whether history will remember Clinton's gifts as reason to excuse the pain he's caused or as a reminder of how much promise he wasted.

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