Throw out the clowns

"The first time as tragedy, the second as farce," so said Karl Marx contrasting Napoleon’s 1799 seizure of power in France to that of Louis Bonaparte in 1851. Though the bloody details are missing, the analogy fits our current situation. Whitewater is to Watergate as farce is to tragedy. Watergate was a political drama that transfixed the nation, slowly building to its denouement-the disgraced Richard Nixon’s offering a stiff-armed salute from an airplane door. Whitewater is a vaudeville show with clowns tumbling onto the stage for brief appearances; it is farce verging on soap opera.

Richard Nixon now seems a tragic character fatefully caught up in his own paranoia and machinations, ensnared in the traps he laid for others. The slow unraveling of his presidency was governed by constitutional procedures with a Congress and party system capable of restraint as evidence of his treachery accumulated. Members of Congress had to be convinced, and only when convinced did they indict. Nixon resigned rather than undergo trial. Before his death, he managed to rehabilitate himself in some measure because the Constitution provided a process for an investigation and his political friends judiciously urged him from office, thus making the system whole again.

Today, we see the consequences of a system largely without procedures and men without restraint. Four years and tens of millions of dollars have produced no indictment of Bill Clinton in the Whitewater case. Independent counsel Kenneth Starr closed his investigation before the Little Rock grand jury by hauling back Susan McDougall, in shackles and prison garb, and by indicting, for the second time, Webster Hubbell, this time along with his wife, his accountant, and his lawyer. McDougall and Hubbell are crooks, but they have served their time and their crimes were peripheral to the primary investigation. The appearance of McDougall and the indictment of Hubbell produced nothing, except perhaps an implicit threat to the yet-to-be-indicted Monica Lewinsky. With a grand jury sitting in Washington, the independent counsel now focuses on sexual scandal, perjury, and suborning witnesses, charges originally rising from the Paula Jones case, thrown out of court two months ago.

Meanwhile, the Republican Congress plays to its groundlings, releasing ineptly (perhaps fraudulently) edited transcripts of conversations taped while Hubbell was in prison. Representative Dan Burton (R-Ind.), when called to account for this selective editing, gets even and releases all the tapes. His Republican colleagues pretend fury, and his committee’s chief investigator is tossed off stage. Meanwhile Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich struts about whispering of crime in the White House and impeachment of the president.

We have farce instead of tragedy because no limits are imposed on the clowns. The extra-Constitutional office of independent counsel is one cause of this interminable nonsense. There being few limits on what Starr can investigate means there are no limits to what partisans like Burton and Gingrich will try to do, and thus no limits to what Clinton will do in repulsing their attacks.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we are paying these people good money for a very bad show. Bring back the Constitution.

Published in the 1998-05-22 issue: 
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