A bronze angel towered over Chester Alan Arthur's grave in Albany Rural Cemetery when I went to visit the other day. Flags fluttered at the foot of the stone monument proclaiming this the final resting place of a president of the United States.
Chester A. Arthur was a New York lawyer who served briefly in the White House during the 1880s. His great misfortune was to preside over the nation during good times.History gave him no wars to wage, no depressions to dispell. He created Civil Service, but he authored no great documents on democracy, freed no slaves, uttered no immortal words. He was just there, at the helm, in calm seas.
As a result, you probably couldn't find one American in five who knows his name today. Until just recently, that seemed Bill Clinton's fate as well. Clinton is president at a time when Americans are more concerned with their retirement accounts than with governing themselves, when national civic life is weaker than ever before in the century, when politicians seem less and less relevant to more and more people.
So it seemed that Clinton would end up sharing the relative obscurity of Arthur, Millard Fillmore, Benjamin Harrison, James Buchanan and all those other presidents who left only faint footprints on the path of history.
Now, we have this Zippergate thing. We have a president who's likely, before he testifies before Ken Starr's grand jury, to go on television and tell the American people that he lied to us about a fling with a 21-year-old White House intern. And that he committed perjury when asked about it under oath in a civil court case.
Consequently, that's probably what this extraordinarily gifted man will be best remembered for - the first line in his obituary and in his encyclopedia entry.
Is it reasonable at this point - is it fair - to conclude that Clinton was fooling around with this woman? Oh, grow up.
Is he likely to be driven from office because of that? Probably not - unless, that is, the lying and the perjury prove to be part of a vastly larger pattern of criminal deceit and obstruction of justice that has permeated his presidency. We can't judge that until we see Starr's grand jury report.
Ultimately, though, not even Clinton's most bitter enemies really want impeachment. They would prefer him powerless and a figure of raw ridicule during his last years in office - and during the elections of 2000.
The president probably won't lie again under oath - not in a criminal investigation and with the whole country watching closely. The risks are too great. A deft, abject apology is much more likely.
What's most disturbing, though, is not that he gazed into the cameras, wagged his finger at us and lied through his teeth. It's that so many people figure that's OK. Completely decent, honest people have known from the start that he was lying. But they've been bribed by his generally moderate policies and by those lovely, ever-fattening 401(k) nest eggs. They've been played for suckers and don't mind a bit.
Chester A. Arthur was largely forgotten because history demanded little of him. All it has demanded of Bill Clinton has been the truth. He hasn't yet been able to manage that.