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Political Riptides

If there's no punishment, will we respect ourselves in the morning?

September 20, 1998|Suzanne Garment | Suzanne Garment, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the author of "Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics."

WASHINGTON — James Joyce instructed his readers to be alert to life's epiphanies, those moments when distractions fall away and essential reality reveals itself. The Clinton mess is such an epiphany, illuminating the nature of modern U.S. politics.

You don't have to be a very receptive soul to see it. This epiphany does not just hang around waiting to be appreciated; it accosts you on the street and grabs you by the throat. Post-Watergate, post-Cold War public life seesaws between aggressive moralism and increasingly low-minded partisanship, with politics incapable of harmonizing them. The Starr report forces us to face this affliction in the person of a president with the rhetorical skills of a gifted leader, the private impulses of an adolescent slob, and a diseased incapacity to integrate the two.

Many people are eager to find out how President Bill Clinton will fare in the wake of the report. I'm waiting to see how the rest of us perform.

We should be clear about what our Clinton problem is and isn't. Those who insist this president has defiled the office as never before are wrong. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that Starr-report-like acts did not transpire in sacred sites like the Oval Office or Lincoln bedroom when, say, John F. Kennedy was president.

It is everything else that has changed. A Kennedy-era counterpart to Monica S. Lewinsky would hardly have reacted to the end of the affair (generously speaking) with a demand that the White House get her a job, let alone a nonsecretarial one. In the event this young woman had, in fact, tried to pull a Monica, she certainly would not have drawn someone like Vernon E. Jordan Jr. as her designated employment counselor. More likely she would have found herself on a one-way trip to someplace far, far from Washington.

Why would this damsel of yore have suffered her sorry fate? Because she lacked Lewinsky's leverage: a subpoena to testify against Clinton in a sexual-harassment suit. Back then, sexual harassment did not even exist as a legal cause of action; indeed, until the Supreme Court's ruling in the Paula Corbin Jones case, sitting presidents did not have to defend against civil lawsuits at all.

Even had a 1960s president been forced to testify about his sexual activities, there would have been no independent counsel to inquire into the truth of his testimony. Finally, no 1960s prosecutor would have written a report as raw as the one we've been reading. Today's confessional ethos legitimizes public expression that was once unthinkable.

Yet, Clinton is not just a victim of the massive modern scandal machine. It is one thing to indulge appetites when they are accepted in political circles and unlikely to be exposed outside those circles. It is quite another to do so when the environment is literally crawling with risk. Here you are in the White House, in an era in which sexual peccadilloes are thought to reveal a fundamentally defective character. You have an independent counsel so continuously on your tail that they might as well have sworn him in along with you on Inauguration Day and saved time. You have already escaped political ruin on grounds of sexual misconduct by the skin of your teeth.

Even if sexual sins are not a sign of profound character flaws, the type of behavior Clinton exhibited in these circumstances is a sign of judgment so deeply warped that it raises doubts about his public decisions as well.

More important, at a critical moment in the Lewinsky mess, this president made a decision that the scandal machinery does not explain or justify. Though today's politics burden a president with increased pressures to lie and more occasions for lying, these temptations run smack into an immovable dictum: Do not lie under oath.

It should go without saying--but nothing does any more. This is a big country. Things that hold many other nations together--ethnicity, religion, geography--are unavailable to us as unifying forces. What we have, by and large, are principles like liberty and equality. These depend for their force on the rule of law. Without it, we are thoroughly sunk. The rule of law depends, in turn, on the law's ability to get at the truth. Therefore, not lying under oath is about as bedrock an organizing condition of this country's continued well-being as you can get.

If a president lies to the public on TV--well, unless it's a really big one, it may be forgivable. As a bona-fide member of this public, I am prepared to waive my right to the whole truth and nothing but the truth about presidential sex. But the president is also the country's chief law-enforcement officer. So, when he is forced to sit for a deposition under oath in a sexual-harassment suit, he must tell the truth, even if the politics that forced him into this are unfair. The same goes in spades for a grand-jury proceeding.

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