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Resolving a Dilemma in Favor of Clinton

Lewinsky scandal: What the president did is sinful, but not likely to destroy our constitutional democracy.

October 30, 1998|GEORGE McGOVERN | Former Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.) was the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee. He is U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome

William J. Bennett, America's self-styled voice of virtue, recently included me among those he believes are responsible for the "death of outrage" within the American public. Actually, over the years I have more frequently been criticized for displaying too much outrage over such deep-seated public wrongs as the war in Vietnam and the public immorality represented by allowing a fifth of America's children to be living in poverty.

But these and other political and social injustices do not seem to stir Bennett's sense of outrage as deeply as the personal sins of others. How, it is asked by those of the Bennett school, can the public accept as president an adulterer, especially one who denies it even under oath? This is my attempt, as one who aspires to be a Christian, a patriot, a confirmed Democrat and a believer in a sense of outrage, to resolve this dilemma.

First, I still believe that the ancient biblical sequence of repentance, forgiveness and redemption is sound doctrine. After an initial effort marred by his anger over Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's relentless probe, President Clinton has clearly repented and asked for forgiveness. As a fellow mortal still battling sin and temptation in my own life, I forgive the president his sins, just as I hope he and others forgive mine.

But what about lying under oath, obstructing justice and other alleged illegalities charged by Starr as grounds for impeachment? These are not personal sins to be forgiven but public crimes subject to possible legal consequences.

I am a former history professor, not a lawyer, but it would seem to me that while these offenses, if true, are possible grounds for impeachment, they do not automatically require impeachment. In the end, no offense is impeachable unless, in the judgment of Congress, that is the proper remedy. Congress could find that there are no real grounds for impeachment and terminate further consideration of the matter or pass a resolution of reprimand or censure. What Clinton did is sinful, but it is not likely to destroy our constitutional democracy or America's standing in the world.

Impeachment is, of course, one possible constitutional remedy available to Congress. But there are other profound constitutional considerations. What about the authority of the American people to vote into the presidency the person they want to serve them for a four-year term, even if he is a sinner trying to keep his sins a secret? Congressmen are now getting feedback from their constituents on impeachment and other options, and I believe that factor deserves some consideration. There is no higher court than the American people, who have consistently made clear their belief that while the president is guilty of misbehavior, he should continue his service as president. The renowned Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes believed that great legal questions or trials are seldom resolved either on narrow legalities or on sweeping principles. Rather, he said, "The decision will depend on a judgment or intuition more subtle than any articulate major premise."

I share what I believe to be another prevailing public view: I'm tired of the massive nonstop media obsession with every detail of this essentially personal and frequently superficial presidential sex issue. After listening for days to media commentators tipping us off to the damaging blunders and blowups supposedly committed by the president in his videotaped cross-examination before Starr's grand jury, I turned on my television set in a depressed mood to witness the predicted collapse of our president. What I saw instead was a thoughtful, courteous and carefully restrained president defending himself against, in effect, a medieval inquisition or Salem witchcraft trial. No wonder the president's approval rating jumped again the next day to 66%.

It would seem that Starr's relentless prying combined with media overkill are creating a public sympathy for our beleaguered president. There can be little doubt that this has been the overwhelming reaction of nearly all the rest of the world, as recently highlighted by the sustained standing ovation given to the president by every delegate even before he began speaking at the U.N. Assembly.

My hope is that the experienced House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) and his colleagues will wrap up this sexual sideshow in time for us to enjoy our Thanksgiving turkey. We would have been even happier if we could have said goodbye to this messy story before Eleanor and I celebrated our 55th wedding anniversary tomorrow, while everyone else was celebrating Halloween. Sometimes, I think the spooks and witches of Halloween have been on the loose this entire year.

Congressman Hyde, my friend, please, we've suffered enough. Show us mercy. A public stoning, a hanging, impeachment, reprimand or exoneration--let's have a resolution one way or another and put the goblins back in their caves with only one day out for good behavior on Halloween. Would that really be too outrageous?

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