They were young and attractive, this presidential couple, and the media loved them. Then Fate took a cruel swipe at the First Husband. He had taken advantage, he was not telling the whole truth, and the press was going to beat it out of him. He would go down in an orgy of recrimination and self-righteousness.
Bill Clinton? Yes, but also German President Christian Wulff, a head of state with largely ceremonial functions, who has been under fire since last month about a personal loan he tried to hide from the public when he was a state governor.
The parallels should not be taken too far. In Mr. Clinton's case, the constitutional process quickly took over. The president was impeached in the House and acquitted in the Senate. The comeback was sweet: Mr. Clinton left the White House with the highest end-of-office approval ratings of any U.S. president since World War II.
Mr. Wulff faces a very different threat as he dances back and forth between public apologies and legal maneuvers. The Bundestag isn't even talking about impeachment, on which the Constitutional Court would have to rule. Angela Merkel, a fellow Christian Democrat, is standing by him. Public opinion is on Mr. Wulff's side, but the "don't resign" majority is shrinking.
The real menace to Mr. Wulff's political future comes, instead, from the press. The president's trial is unfolding strictly in the court of published opinion. It is trial by media.
Opinion about Mr. Clinton's scandal divided along the usual left-right lines, both in the press and in Congress. But in l'affaire Wulff, the rightish Welt and the leftish Süddeutsche Zeitung are suddenly in bed together, and the rest have piled in, whatever their ideological enmities. The Wulff (forgive the pun) is being hounded by the whole pack: a kind of "national unity government" of and by the media. This is the news behind the news—bizarre and worrisome at once.
What has the man done? He is not accused of dispatching minions to ransack the headquarters of the opposition party. Nor did he use the powers of his office to obstruct justice. Mr. Wulff is no Bill Clinton, in whose case the facts provided ample reason for a perjury indictment.
By contrast, Christian Wulff's alleged "high crimes and misdemeanors" are of the petty kind. They date back to his days in Hanover as prime minister of Lower Saxony. To understand the local politics, think of Chicago in the good old days. Think about the graft, favoritism and mutual back-scratching that made the Windy City famous, then shrink it down to scale: Hanover is just one-tenth the size of Chicago.
When Mr. Wulff emerged from an expensive divorce and went looking for a new house in 2008, he hit up a friendly couple, Egon and Edith Geerkens, for a loan of €500,000. He told the state parliament in February 2010 that he had no business relations with Mr. Geerkens, a wealthy entrepreneur, and that the loan was extended by the missus.
But Mrs. Geerkens reportedly had no money of her own at the time. And why was the transaction handled by a Swiss bank where Mr. Geerkens had stashed some of his cash? The hounds started sniffing. So in March 2010, Mr. Wulff moved the loan to BW Bank, a subsidiary of the state-run Landesbank of Baden-Württemberg, which granted him a very favorable interest rate.
The plot thickens. BW also happens to be the house bank of Porsche. Both the car maker and perhaps the bank were saved by Volkswagen, headquartered in Mr. Wulff's bailiwick of Lower Saxony. Mr. Wulff also served on the Volkswagen board while he was prime minister. The sleuths concluded that the cheap BW loan was a reward for past favors.
The stage widened after Mr. Wulff was elected president last June. When the scandal broke out last month, the searchlight was cast back to the original loan from the Geerkens. Mr. Wulff was accused of deceiving the state parliament in Lower Saxony.
You get the idea. It is a tale about who did what, when. It is about inference and innuendo. It is the oldest story since Adam and Eve: "He said, she said." It is also about lowly stuff, like vacationing at the houses of rich friends. Though the daily reporting fills a small library by now, even a ruthless bloodhound like Eliot Spitzer, the former attorney general of New York, would have a hard time winning a conviction. But that is not the purpose.
The point is to wear Mr. Wulff down—to make him buckle and resign. The media's traditional task is to probe, unearth and publish—to act as a watchdog against government. It is not supposed to replace the third branch as prosecutor, judge and jury rolled into one. Nor are the media an ersatz church, complete with a laptop-packing priesthood acting as Grand Inquisitor and canonical authority laying down the moral law.
In the court of the press, there is no procedural protection, no impartial judge, no Fifth Amendment proscribing self-incrimination. There isn't even a defense counsel—not when the right-leaning press, theoretically Mr. Wulff's natural ally, runs with the rest of the pack.
There isn't enough to convict? It doesn't matter: We'll question his character and morals. If that doesn't work, we'll declare him unfit for the presidency. He just isn't up to it. Then we'll accuse him of damaging his high office. Still a miss? We'll get him for his shoddy crisis management: Either he has too much nerve, in insisting that he will stay, or he has too little sangfroid. Exhibit A is a meandering message that Mr. Wulff left on the answering machine of the editor of Bild Zeitung, alternating between nasty threats and whiny pleading. Bild is the mighty mass-circulation tabloid that once hyped Mr. Wulff to high heaven and now leads the charge of the hounds.
"You can't win," goes the media's merciless message. "We are the power." But who will guard against the guardians when self-policing and professional responsibility fail? With his misdeeds, Mr. Wulff may not be your ideal son-in-law. But he, like everybody, deserves due process. Trial by media is not just distasteful. It is a threat to the procedures of liberal democracy—indeed, to the system itself.
—Mr. Joffe is editor of the German weekly Die Zeit as well as senior fellow at the Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Studies and fellow at the Hoover Institution, both at Stanford.