President Clinton lied under oath as well as on television: About that, few have disagreed. So why wasn’t lying under oath simply regarded as perjury? Because weighty conservatives, famous feminists, and legal scholars, among others, have tended to excuse the President, claiming that he was just lying to conceal an affair. Said Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., “A gentleman always lies about sex.”

This is a depressing line, quite aside from calling Mr. Clinton a gentleman—depressing because of what it omits, and because so many well-regarded people have used it on the public.

The President could hardly have lied about sex without affecting other people, and indeed he has repeatedly shown his willingness to discredit his accusers. Gennifer Flowers was vilified in the “mainstream press”; an immense political machine geared up to deal summarily with Paula Jones; the administration began handing out materials impeaching Kathleen Willey’s credibility’ immediately after her persuasive appearance on 60 Minutes; and the President himself, surrounded by his phalanx of advisors, aides, and a Secret Service detail, murmured that Monica Lewinsky was a “stalker.”

That last one beats out even George Bush’s claim—surrounded by his Secret Service agents—to have kicked Geraldine Ferraro’s butt, winning the coveted “Not Errol Flynn” award. And yet some leaders of the women’s movement and old-time members of the civil-rights movement, among others, have gone along with a performance that is the very opposite of equal justice and conspicuously devoid of anything dashing or swashbuckling. Kremlin or no Kremlin, it would be nice to have a President mature enough to deal with twenty-something political groupies.

Not that the President has gotten aw ay with personal attacks scot-free, of course. Paula Jones filed suit against Mr. Clinton after reading about some version of herself in an American Spectator article; Linda Tripp started recording her phone conversations after she was described in newspapers by the administration as unreliable; and Monica Lewinsky went back to the grand jury irritated by the Presidents testimony that their relationship was so clinically one-way as to avoid touching.

So the President’s efforts to tear down the reputations of others, successful to a point, have also boomeranged against him—with some justice, since even his defenders seem to be saying that he has jeopardized his presidency by lying about something so trivial it need not have been lied about. But it must be remembered that this was his effort, and the effort of his administration and allies in the press and in society: He has tried systematically to discredit people who have discovered something to his discredit, even though what they discovered was his own conduct, and they discovered it from the man himself.

This is the context for those cries for “forgiveness” and “a return to civility.” It would be noble for any of us to forgive the man for lying about us, but is it really so noble to forgive him for King about someone else? Was the time before the public knew about the President’s treatment of an intern—the same time the President’s men were trashing another young woman, a former low-level state employee-really one of greater civility?

Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, Monica Lewinsky, and others are not “sex”; they are human beings. Bill Clinton is not lying about sex; he is lying about women. Put that way, it seems a bit less gallant.