The week started with bipartisan babble about the need for an exit strategy. First, there was talk of the Senate voting on a “finding of fact,” but it quickly developed that the so-called facts that the Senate was supposed to find were that the President was guilty of perjury and obstruction of justice–two “facts” that are not facts at all but conclusions of law. There was much Democratic moralizing about censure, until Senator Phil Gramm, egged on by fellow Republicans, claimed that because censure is not mentioned in the Constitution it must be unconstitutional–a novel argument that would never be tested, since Gramm promised to filibuster any censure motion to death, a filibuster presumably being constitutional, though we have been unable to discover any mention of it in the Constitution.

Would that that was the week that was. But no. Comes now affiant Christopher Hitchens, inexplicably (though he does his best to explain it on page 9) filing an affidavit saying that, contrary to Sidney Blumenthal’s testimony under oath that he had not passed on to the press President Clinton’s misleading allegations that Monica Lewinsky was a “stalker” who “threatened” him, Blumenthal had indeed referred to Lewinsky as a “stalker” several times at a March 19 lunch with Christopher and his wife, Carol Blue. (Blue filed a supporting affidavit a couple of days later.)

The moral issues involved in Hitchens’s actions are clear: We believe there is a journalistic (and ethical) presumption against using private conversations with friends for a public purpose without first obtaining permission; and against a reporter cooperating with, and thus helping to legitimize, a reckless Congressional prosecutor (in advance of receiving a subpoena, no less). In the weeks ahead there will be ample opportunity here to discuss these matters.

But the question of what Sidney Blumenthal did or didn’t say to Christopher Hitchens over lunch at the Occidental Grill in Washington, DC, is a distraction having nothing to do with whether William Jefferson Clinton should be removed from the highest office in the land. When House manager Hyde felt impelled at the last second to try to convert Hitchens’s affidavit, essentially about lunchtime gossip among friends, into a pretext for prolonging the case against the President, he provided a final reminder of just how pitiful his case was.

The only relevance of this particular sideshow may be that it tragicomically illustrates what can happen when agencies of the state, especially prosecutorial ones, intrude on the privacy and intimate moments of its citizens. Be they the red hunters of the fifties who turned citizens into informers and cost activists their jobs, incomes and sometimes their freedom, or “independent” counsels and “managers” of the nineties, their intrusive and obsessive investigations can put private lives, public institutions and democratic practices at potentially catastrophic risk.

The one character in this existential drama who so far seems to have been in tune with its absurdity is the Chief Justice, who has said virtually nothing but has made it a point to display four golden stripes on the arms of his black judicial robes. He has told well-wishers that he was inspired to do so by the costume he saw on a character in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe. He forgot to mention that the character is the doddering Lord Chancellor, who hopes to wed his luscious 17-year-old ward. (And let us not forget that it was the Chief Justice who headed up the Supreme Court’s monumentally misinformed 9-to-0 decision in the Paula Jones case that a civil suit against a sitting President would not be a distraction. He is also the person who named the conservative three-judge panel that appointed Kenneth Starr to replace his nonpartisan Republican predecessor, Robert Fiske, as independent counsel.)

Whatever the aftershocks of the case of the House managers versus Bill Clinton, it is evident that Congress has been compromised, the process has been bastardized, the people have been victimized and the press has been sensationalized, tabloidized and trivialized.

In the theater there’s a phenomenon known as willing suspension of disbelief. In the surreal theater of the absurd that has preoccupied the country for more than a year we have seen an apparently willing suspension of judgment, with consequences that will haunt the courts, the Congress, the presidency and the press–not to mention the private lives of the participants–for decades. By week’s end it should have become clear that for all the talk of exit strategies, the title of this impeachment drama should be No Exit.