DANGER: Rampant editorializing from an opinionated American here! To make a long story short, the thesis of the following essay is that the President should learn to keep his pants zipped. Most folks can handle op/ed pieces. Why? Because character matters. But to those who like Clinton so much that any criticism of him is likely to cause upset digestion, I would advise them to find something else less likely to deplete their antacid supply. For the record, I am not a Republican, though for the most part I see them as the lesser of the two evils.
My thoughts on the latest Clinton sex scandal
Know thyself. Nothing in excess.
As I write this (mid-February 1998), the details of the Clinton/Lewinsky sex scandal are still in the process of unfolding. At this point, it's hard to say how this is going to turn out. It could be that this case will get the investigation that it deserves, and that whatever action may be warranted will be taken. Or, perhaps Clinton will be able to brush it aside like he has been able to do so many times before. Already, the spin doctors are at work. The latest media polls suggest that most Americans just don't care. On TV, an oft-heard refrain is, "This is none of anyone's business; it's between him and Hillary." As I try to make sense of this amazing degree of apathy, at first it occurs that perhaps the polls amount to the third element of Disraeli's famous three categories of faleshood: "lies, damned lies, and statistics." But, it could be possible that a great many people really have been convinced that shrugging one's shoulders and saying "it's not my business" is the last word in virtue. But even in the philosophically bankrupt climate of the 1990s where anything goes except for "square" notions such as self-restraint, disregard for integrity is nevertheless a very bad idea.
Frequently, the reflexive response to this has been to dismiss any criticism of the President as "Victorian", "prudish", or a manifestation of "tabloid values" (as one British broadsheet sonorously put it). Now let's wait a minute. Of course, morality based on "holier than thou" notions or nosiness for its own sake is silly. But morality which asks, "What would happen if everyone acted this way?" makes a good deal more sense. I know that if I did the things like the President has been said to do, I would get fired from my job and probably sued for sexual harrassment; the only person to defend me would be my lawyer; and people would think of me as a jerk. There are those who consider cheating on one's spouse as no greater an indiscretion than eating an entree with a salad fork. But has all this hedonism made the United States a happier nation? Just to scratch the surface, we have a divorce rate holding steady at about 50%, a rising rate of illegitimacy, and mental therapy is a growth industry. Then there are intangible losses, such as the coarsening of society. Lowering expectations for ourselves and for others has produced misery, not "freedom". Things are only going to get worse until we put aside the notion that liberty and license are one and the same.
One might ask, how is it that a President's private affairs could have an effect on how he does his job in office? The answer is not hard to come by: first of all, as President, he is one of the most important symbols of the country. As such, he should make sure that his personal conduct is above reproach, and this includes the things he does in private. The reason why is that private matters can become public, especially for celebrities. Many professions make demands on matters which are usually considered "private" or even impinge on "one's own time" -- doctors need to be reachable at any hour of the day, computer professionals sometimes may need to work very late to get their systems running again, those who work with dangerous machinery should not have a cocktail or two at lunch, bankers should maintain a good credit rating, reporters should not accept gifts from those involved with the stories they write. And public figures should be good role models for the citizens, especially the chief executive of the United States of America. If (for instance) your plumber is caught taking a kickback, then he sets a bad example for himself as a solitary citizen; but if the mayor does the same thing, then he sets a bad example for the people of the city, and an even worse one if he gets away with it. For better or for worse, people -- especially the young -- take their cues on how to act from those around them, and there are few individuals more visible to everyone than their country's leader. These latest events are becoming the tawdriest spectacle the Presidency has seen in a long time. At least Kennedy and the Roosevelts had the good sense to be more discreet.
If it were simply a question of whether or not Clinton cheated on his wife, then the most at stake would be his reputation and ability to be a good example for the public. But things are more serious than that -- namely, the charge that he pressured Lewinsky to lie about it under oath. To those who would be willing to excuse the President out of hand -- even if one day the charges are proved incontrovertibly -- because they feel that "what goes on behind closed doors" should be beneath notice, I would have to ask them: is obstruction of justice okay so long as it is about a relatively trifling matter? Is lying to the public acceptable too, so long as it's only about a little thing?
Clinton's supporters, and even some other world leaders, lament the fact that his attention is being distracted by having to deal with the fallout of this scandal. It is true that Presidential leadership is currently in great demand on both the domestic and (especially now) the international front. But to excuse him because of this is pretty close to the fallacy of Special Pleading, and it is a bad idea. People who are rich and powerful should be bound by the same rules and expectations as the rest of us. Granted, nobody is perfect, but the more we treat our elected officials, bosses, and celebrities as demigods beyond good and evil, the more corrupt we will find our society becoming. Finally, one could turn the argument around and say that the President should keep himself out of trouble so that he will be able to do his job without having to deal with legal entanglements. The way one views it -- as a matter which should be overlooked because he is President and has better things to do, or as an example of how Clinton's ability to do his job is being compromised by problems of his own making -- depends much on whether or not one feels that the things Monica Lewinsky told Linda Tripp are true.
The pundits and professional spin doctors have been hinting that Lewinsky is some sort of thrill-seeker. Others have shrugged this off by stating that Tripp is a bad friend for having betrayed Lewinsky's confidence. To address the former charge, it is preposterous to say that Lewinsky made it all up in order to get attention. She thought her conversations were private, and the last tape has her begging Tripp not to let the story become public. It is very hard to see how Lewinsky could have any motive to make up a tall tale. One would also have to ask, are Paula Jones and Gennifer Flowers making up stories too? Is a pattern beginning to show? As to whether or not Tripp is being a bad friend, it is hard to say how Lewinsky feels about this, other than that being in the limelight was probably the last thing she wanted. And whether or not Tripp is being a bad friend has nothing to do with whether or not the charges are true. Betraying the confidence of a friend is not something undertaken lightly, but when a matter as serious as obstruction of justice at the highest levels of office may be at stake, then there are higher priorities involved. Linda Tripp had to make the tapes, or else all this could have been brushed aside as hearsay -- a fact which she learned by past experience.
There are those who state that the investigation is politically motivated. I would not deny that Clinton's supporters tend to wish this would just go away, and his detractors (myself included) would like to see this pursued fully. And, if the economy were in worse shape, I believe that people would be less forgiving. But, none of that in any way dismisses the evidence at hand. From the beginning, the Clinton administration has been involved in one scandal after another. One may argue that some of them have been blown out of proportion, or are entirely fabricated. But after enough of these insalubrious matters, the delays, excuses, and unanswered questions are starting to wear thin. As the saying goes, you can fool some of the people all of the time, and you can fool all of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time. Granted, "fornigate" it isn't of the same magnitude as Watergate, the Iran-Contra affair, or the Asian campaign finance scandal. But it looks like it will be very difficult to put the lid on it. Clinton has been able to walk away from so many other scandals unscathed, or has been able to stall and delay the consequences indefinitely. This time it should be different.
No matter how far America sinks in a quagmire of hedonism, integrity still matters. Truth matters. Our elected officials are entrusted with great responsibility, and we should expect outstanding integrity. That means we should stop making excuses for them. If the investigation confirms what Linda Tripp has said, then at the very least, Clinton should get on TV and apologize to the nation for lying and trying to cover this up. If he's not man enough to do that, then perhaps it's time to
And, failing all else, the clock is still ticking until the next inauguration. I hope against hope that we'll have better candidates this time.
Update on 8/1/98: Much has happened in this case lately, but nothing has been uncovered which would necessitate me changing any of the conclusions I stated above. And I'm quite sure we haven't seen the end of it yet. Thankfully, there have been none of the convenient deaths which have happened in other scandals. A couple of days ago, Clinton delivered a speech to remind us of how good the economy is doing. At the end, as members of the press barraged him with questions, he affirmed that he would give his truthful testimony. (Not that he'd ever give untruthful testimony, now would he?) As he spoke, one of Lewinsky's dresses was in an FBI lab, allegedly being tested for alleged DNA evidence of an alleged encounter.
I wonder how this is going to end up in the long run for the major players in all this. Linda Tripp has spoken briefly about how blowing the whistle on this scandal has affected her life (see below for the full text). I feel that history will vindicate her, and rightly so. As for Monica Lewinsky, I'm not sure what to make of her yet, but it's certain that she won't be able to lead a normal life after being catapulted into unwanted notoriety. What a charming gentleman our President is.
It is unlikely that either Lewinsky or Clinton suspected what would happen as a result of this, or gave serious consideration to the possible consequences. And trying to lie their way out only made matters much worse. Perhaps the best thing that might result from this is the lesson of what happens when people, even the great and powerful, think with parts of their body other than their brains. Principles are indispensable, even if living up to them can be one of the toughest things to do.
The only thing which really surprises me is that the matter of illegal campaign contributions from China, the transfer of military technology to China, and the collection of FBI files on Clinton's political opponents, hasn't been pursued further. Those matters are far more serious.
Update on 8/17/98 (later revised slightly): Today, Clinton gave his testimony about the Lewinsky affair, and in the evening, he delivered a brief speech about it to the public. I figured that his best strategy would be to lay his cards out on the table, drop the word games and lawyer tricks, and make a heartfelt apology -- if he were sincere and up-front, that would have won the public's support and probably even calmed most of his critics. Nobody expects the President to be perfect, after all. (But people do expect him to show some maturity, integrity, and honesty.) And he could have made a positive message, by telling the public to learn from his mistakes and avoid marital infidelity because it often leads to disastrous, unforeseen consequences. He did apologize -- it's quite well that he did, but even when he should have been doing his best to come clean of it, we see the typical Clintonian waffling:
But, now I have been surprised by a couple of things: first, when I read that he didn't tell Hillary the truth until just a couple of days before the TV address; and second, the fact that she really believed him all along. Shouldn't she, of all people, have realized that he has a problem with telling the truth?
All in all, this has been pretty disappointing. Clinton is still trying to play lawyer games even when he's repenting of his mistakes. He should know by now that this only makes things worse in the end. This brings back the memories of the early '70s, way back when I was a wee laddie. Our black-and-white television was on, and there was a man speaking, a man whose face had been on TV quite a bit. "Who's that, Mommy? What's he saying?" "That's the President. He's the leader of the country. And he just can't admit that he's wrong."
Update on 2/13/99: William Jefferson Clinton, the second President in history to be impeached, won the trial in the Senate on February 12, which, ironically enough, was Abraham Lincoln's birthday. It would be an interesting thought-experiment to consider what would happen if a Republican President did exactly the same thing. Here's how it would probably go. First of all, the feminist groups would be livid with outrage that the President was committing degrading acts with an intern half his age, in the White House for heaven's sakes. They would proclaim it an example of how evil and pervasive the "patriarchy" is, from the very top. Some Republicans might, at first, try to dismiss it as a partisan smear campaign, or perhaps the efforts of a "vast, left-wing conspiracy". But as the evidence came out, they would desert the President, realizing that he was he didn't have a leg to stand on and that he was a disgrace to their party. And last but not least, if our hypothetical errant Republican was seen thereafter walking out of Church with a Bible in hand and his wife by his side, the Media Mafia would scream "hypocrisy" from the top of their lungs.
But, for some reason, things go a little bit smoother for a President popularly lauded for being "good with women's issues". (I remember when bosses who used female employees like inflatable dolls and then cast them aside were vilified by feminists. Apparently, only one "women's issue" matters to feminists any more. Since Clinton was with the NOW gang on that one particular issue, they made hardly a peep when he turned the White House into Animal House.) The Senate verdict was not based on the defendant's innocence any more than in the O.J. Simpson criminal trial. Let's face it. Clinton committed some serious crimes which would put us lesser mortals in jail, and his only defense was word games, attacks on the prosecution, feigned amnesia, and generally treating criminal charges like they were some kind of joke. But there simply wasn't the political will to remove him from office. Principle be damned; justice be damned; integrity be damned -- the almighty polls say that King William should stay. If most of the Democrats are so devoted to this political albatross after they had been lied to, had backed him to the hilt depite the fact that he was clearly in the wrong, and basically had disregarded the rule of law and turned a blind eye to serious crimes, then perhaps they deserve each other.
In a case with truth and integrity as the core issues, truth and integrity were trampled further in the mud. Clinton's apologists worked full time, churning out excuses ad nauseam as to why he shouldn't be removed from office. These were dutifully repeated in the press so often that I find it necessary, for the sake of history if nothing else, to shoot down these canards all at once:
The only good thing that I can say about the outcome is that Clinton has less than two years left, and his credibility might be damaged enough to keep him from being taken very seriously as the self-anointed apostle of the counterculture. With luck, he might have a harder time pursuing his ill-considered crusade to remake America into a politically correct, unisex, global melting pot with shopping as the national pastime and television as the state religion. But, it's also possible that he could spin-doctor the verdict into a "vindication". He certainly has enough audacity to do so.
Will there be a censure resolution? Who cares? Censure is not a real punishment, since it is no more than a scolding, and it would mean nothing to a person who has shown remorse about the whole matter only when it is politically convenient. Hopefully, history will set things straight. But even this isn't certain.
So where did we go wrong? First of all, this whole mess illustrates an advantage to parliamentary governments. But, since the Founding Fathers favored separation of powers into three branches, we didn't get a parliamentary system. Nonetheless, the President was never intended to be a temporary monarch. The Great Talking Heads have analyzed the Fornigate scandal in minute detail. They decry the "partisanship" of it all. However, none of them have reached the inescapable conclusion that this sort of thing is what happens when we only have two moldy parties from which to choose. This is to be expected: the Media Mafia, the pundits, and the politicians happen to like the status quo just as it is. With very few exceptions, there are only two parties which win national elections. These are backed by big money interests, and the candidates are blessed by the media monopoly. Unfortunately, despite appearances, there is not much difference between the two parties. In the American political system, there are so many taboos, things which can't be said, positions which can't be held, that the legitimacy of our system is in danger. There seriously needs to be reform. People are often put in the position of voting for the "lesser of two evils", and the candidates they have to choose from are often millionaire attorneys. Half the public doesn't even care to vote. Something must be done. To begin, there must be real campaign finance reform. The "soft money" exemption is a loophole so wide that one could drive a truck through it. The influence of big money advertising is so great that Bonnie and Clyde, if they had more soft money, could win a Presidential election against Washington and Lincoln. Furthermore, there should be a Constitutional amendment providing for runoff elections in the Presidential and Congressional contests -- the finalists in the runoff election would be chosen from the top two candidates in the first election. That way, it would be possible to break the Republicrat monopoly on power. And last but not least, there should be provisions which allow for recall of all Federal officials -- including the appointed ones. Most of the recent Popes of the Supreme Court have taken it upon themselves to legislate from the bench, and often turn the Constitution on its ear. The Founding Fathers never intended this kind of judicial dictatorship. We desperately need some new faces and new ideas in government. We need reform now.
As for Monica Lewinsky, I personally wish her the very best in life. It is my hope that she finds someone who cares for her and loves her as much as she loves him. She deserves no less than that.
Linda Tripp's statement
I'm not a public speaker. I am going to have to refer to my notes. Please bear with me.
I've just completed my testimony before the federal grand jury. This has been a lengthy process and, as I'm sure you can imagine, a very difficult one.
While I am relieved that the testimony has come to an end, I am glad to have fulfilled my legal obligation to the grand jury by testifying truthfully and completely.
I hope -- I sincerely hope -- that all remaining witnesses will do the same.
I am encouraged that it appears from press reports that Monica has decided to cooperate with the independent counsel. The facts will show that time after time, I urged her to tell the truth right up until the end.
I understand that there has been a great deal of speculation about just who I am and how I got here. Well, the answer is simple. I'm you. I'm just like you. I'm an average American who found herself in a situation not of her own making.
I'm a suburban mom, who was a military wife for 20 years, and a faithful government employee for 18 years.
I never, ever asked to be placed in this position. Because I am just like you, I ask you to imagine how you would feel if someone you thought was a friend urged you to commit a felony that could jeopardize your job, potentially put you in jail and endanger the well-being of your children.
Imagine how you would feel if your boss' attorney called you a liar in front of the whole country. And imagine if that boss was the president of the United States.
Imagine how you would feel if your employer illegally released your confidential records to the media, then demoted you and cast you aside for daring to tell the truth. Imagine how it would feel to see the pain in your children's eyes when they hear a seemingly endless barrage of lies about their mother, a mother who is not going out to defend herself.
As a result of simply trying to earn a living, I became aware between 1993 and 1997 of actions by high government officials that may have been against the law. For that period of nearly five years, the things I witnessed concerning several different subjects made me increasingly fearful that this information was dangerous, very dangerous, to possess.
On January 12, 1998, the day I approached the Office of the Independent Counsel, I decided that fear would no longer be my master. This investigation has never been, quote, just about sex. It has been about telling the truth. The truth matters.
For example, it matters that you know now that I have testified to the fact that I had nothing, let me repeat, nothing to do with preparing the so-called talking points. Allegations to the effect that I contributed to or assisted in any way with the creation of the talking points are as illogical as they are patently false.
I have been vilified for taking the path of truth. I've been maligned by people who have chosen not to tell the truth, and who know that they are not telling the truth. That's a pretty frightening thing. To cast me in the role of the villain, they have enlisted legions of paid prevaricators, not surprisingly, many in the entertainment industry have chosen to ridicule me as well. Going so far as to even make fun of my appearance in a manner so mean and so cruel that I pray none of you is ever subjected to it.
Despite all of that, I bear no malice toward anyone in this case. I have never had any political agenda. I still don't. I have been honored to serve presidents in both parties.
I want to say a word about the people who've supported me throughout this ordeal. I don't believe they're Washington insiders. I don't think that they're the politically connected. But they have made a noticeable effort to have their voice heard and to support me and my family. It has meant a great deal to us. So for all of that, I thank each and every one of them. I'd also like to take this opportunity to thank the men standing with me today for their unfailing support and superb counsel: Anthony Zaccagnini, Joe Murtha and Philip Coughter.
I certainly could not have gotten through this without the love and support of my children, Ryan and Allison, who are here with me today, and a very strong extended family. I believe in our country: as I said, I'm no different than any of you. I believe you have the right to tell the truth under oath, and I believe you have the right to do so without fear of retribution or worse.
I hope that when all the facts are revealed, you'll understand that it is a right all of us should be fighting for.
For more coverage and commentary on the Clinton/Lewinsky sex scandal, see the following:
You are visitor number since the page counter started working right. Aren't you excited?