The president

To date, Commonweal has said very little about the national hog wallow. The president’s sexual infidelities and continuing deception, the independent counsel’s dogged pursuit into semen stains and the hidden meaning of presidential neckwear, the media’s mindless repetition of every detail have had all the marks of a production by The Ridiculous Theatrical Company. Leering and moralizing, low humor and high-minded pronouncements, pratfalls and grandiose gestures, limp apologies and loose lips-all news, all the time, all shameless. And most ridiculous-no one has known how to bring down the curtain.

Well, that is no longer quite the case. President Bill Clinton’s admission on August 17 of "lapses in judgment" and the question of presidential manipulation raised by the antiterrorism strikes in Afghanistan and Sudan may mark the beginning of the last act. Even before the special counsel has presented his report to Congress, there is a rising chorus of editorial writers and Republicans calling for the president’s resignation, a clear signal that Mr. Clinton is in deep trouble. Despite the danger of adding to the clamor, here are some of our thoughts.

Except in the further reaches of libertarian advocacy, there is a consensus about the president’s sexual misdeeds. Appalling and shameful. Desperate, deluded, driven, dumb, and just plain sad. It’s enough to give heterosexuality a bad name. Also youth. Also middle-age. When the public cringes in embarrassment, it isn’t only because the children are watching. Don’t we also cringe for ourselves over temptations so easily succumbed to and human weakness so starkly exposed?

About the president’s lies there is only slightly less of a consensus. Politicians lie. Presidents lie. They have been lying to us as long as we can remember. Eisenhower on U-2 flights. Johnson on the Gulf of Tonkin. Nixon on Cambodia and Watergate. Reagan on Iran-contra. On matters, then, of far greater consequence than Ms. Lewinsky. This is regrettable, and in the case of Nixon (and maybe less directly, of Johnson) sufficiently outrageous that they were driven from office.

Clinton’s lying is complicated by four things. First, the lying about Ms. Lewinsky was done with a calculated gaze into the TV camera and a bald-faced assertion of innocence. Second, it is said to culminate a pattern of dissimulation and "slickness" that have been Clinton’s stock in trade. Third, it had to do with a matter that should never have been the subject of a special counsel’s probe. Fourth, it was initially done in a deposition, under oath.

The first two of those items raise issues of character and of politics. Will a man who betrays his marriage vows also betray his office and the expectations of those who voted for him? Well, possibly. And will a man who keeps his marriage vows also betray his office and campaign promises? Again, possibly. Undoubtedly attitudes and actions in personal matters are linked to attitudes and actions in matters of state. Even so, history and literature instruct us that in any given case, from the austere Torquemada to the philandering Oskar Schindler, the link is likely to be clear to God but not to mortals. Is it that understanding that has tempered public reaction?

Political life frequently requires some degree of dissembling. In 1932 Franklin Roosevelt campaigned on a pledge to balance the budget. In 1941, he misrepresented the nature of Lend-Lease to save Britain from Nazi defeat. Like John Kennedy, FDR hid both his physical disabilities and his sexually fractured marriage from enemies and voters.

Those who say that cunning and deception have been defining traits of Clinton’s career are not wrong. If only it could be shown that these are unmitigated vices in a politician! For five years Clinton has led a nation, and a party, demanding contradictory goals (social services but smaller government; an end to the deficit but tax cuts; human rights abroad but no military risks), while facing no urgent challenges of the sort that concentrate the national mind and compel choices. The president has steadied the national budget and with it the economy, staved off the gutting of social programs, negotiated some better-than-expected outcomes in Bosnia and Haiti, governed half his first term with a Gingrich Congress, and achieved a second term. He could not have done all that without considerable cunning.

Clinton may have maneuvered the country into a quagmire on welfare reform (any serious economic downturn will show just how serious this could be). And if he isn’t careful, he will lead the country astray on Social Security. Depending on your agenda, he can be blamed for a long list of nonaccomplishments, very few of which would have been achieved by a less shifty leader. And what many resent about his shiftiness is simply that it prevailed over their own opposing agendas.

Here we come to the great divide among those now calling for the president’s resignation. They are split between those focused on the past and those focused on the future; they are also split between those, not surprisingly, who always opposed him and those who generally sympathized with his efforts.

Those focused on the past believe his deeds simply disqualify him from continuing to lead the nation, regardless of how well he might be able to do it. They are convinced that he is guilty of multiple crimes, the first of which was getting elected in the first place. The Lewinsky case is only the smoking gun.

It is, however, a very troubling smoking gun. Although no fan of Clarence Thomas’s candidacy for the Supreme Court, we warned back in 1991 that the last-ditch effort to block his appointment by leaking Anita Hill’s charges of sexual accusations, and forcing testimony and potential perjury under oath, was introducing a new toxicity into American politics (Commonweal, October 25, 1991). (It was under liberal auspices, remember, that descriptions of pubic hairs on Coke cans first made network TV.)

Likewise, there has been a disturbing equivocation at the heart of the Starr investigation ever since the independent counsel decided to use the leverage of the Lewinsky scandal as a means to try to substantiate what he had been unable to prove in the Webster Hubbell case. The independent counsel is given his very considerable powers in order to insulate the law from politics, to insure that high office-holders are not above the law. But it was precisely the salaciousness of the Lewinsky matter-and its consequent political explosiveness-that the independent counsel’s office has manipulated. The president’s sex life was subject to legal scrutiny and subpoena, while his privacy and that of his family’s were effectively deprived of the legal protections-most obviously the possibility of remaining silent-that the ordinary citizen would have enjoyed. This legally coerced exposure of sexual secrets humiliating to both Mr. Clinton and Ms. Lewinsky in order to gain political advantage, or to bolster a nonrelated legal case, or both, seems an ominous exercise of state power that should trouble liberals and conservatives alike. If this alone is the smoking gun, we are strongly inclined to leave the president in his embarrassment to be punished by the historical record-and no more.

But there is another case for resignation that looks less to the past and more to the future. Its proponents deplore the president’s behavior, but, repelling as it may be, they do not think it belongs on any list of high crimes and misdemeanors. Nevertheless, the president’s ability to govern and his motives are called into question. The "wag the dog" speculations about the missile strikes against Afghanistan and the Sudan are only the beginning. But would the military and intelligence services really pull Clinton’s chestnuts out of the fire? Very unlikely. If he had waited longer to act or not acted at all, would the president have been charged with subordinating national security needs to personal political considerations? Of course. The shadow won’t disappear. Every major White House decision will be subject to speculation about the president’s motives.

Mr. Starr’s report, it is assumed, will be a brief for impeachment. Nothing less will justify the extent of his probe and the distaste it has provoked. Given what is now known, that report can probably make a moral case, if not an airtight legal one, that Clinton perjured himself and obstructed justice in the Lewinsky chapter of the Paula Jones case, now dismissed. Furthermore, the matter will not be dispatched swiftly. Week by week, or month by month, it will work its way through the congressional digestive tract. It will play a role in November. It will be injected into the presidential primary cycle. Primaries, after all, are fought among militants.

The most persuasive arguments that Clinton should resign rather than preside over gridlock to the twenty-first century come not from those who never approved of him in the first place but from those who did. His protean talents, his ability to mix government activism with conservative moral appeals, his sensitivity to public moods, and his very skill at seizing from conservatives some of their favorite causes-all bespoke, in the judgment of these observers, an ability to rescue liberalism from the dogmatic hardening of the arteries that appeared to overtake many in both its Great Society and civil-libertarian ranks.

But now, they argue, Clinton has become an albatross around the neck of whatever was positive in Clintonism. He can never again be an effective spokesman for government assistance allied to moral discipline. His legendary flexibility will inevitably be interpreted not as a means to a policy but as a substitute for one. Spin has been indelibly revealed not just as an attribute of his character but its essence.

We are sympathetic to this argument. And the prospect of another stretch of downtime while serious issues confront the nation is deeply discouraging: Child poverty, educational failure, inadequate health care, the festering inequality within and among nations, regional conflict in the Middle East and ethnic atrocities in Africa and Europe, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the economic meltdown of Russia, a one-currency Europe, a tumultuous Islam, a global market in money and culture.

There is, unfortunately, a circularity to this argument. If enough influential voices insist that the president can no longer effectively govern, that may assure that he can’t. To remove a president, twice democratically elected, by resignation or impeachment, is a very serious business. To turn over the government to a vice-president with a creditable resume but who is also being pursued by investigators would be no guarantee of stability in government.

All this keeps us from the ranks of those calling upon the president to resign-what columnist Mark Shields has called the "Kevorkian solution." At least for the moment. "It is time," said the president, "to move on." The burden of doing that rests largely with him. For ourselves, we think it’s time to wait and watch. Waiting won’t be fun. It is, we suggest, the most prudent course to follow.

Published in the 1998-09-11 issue: 
Also by this author
Liberalism & its limits

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion
Culture
Books