Media preoccupation with the fluff of a presidential inauguration masks the constitutional gravity of the occasion. On January 20, the presidency passed peaceably from the leader of one political party to the leader of the opposition, following a hotly contested, photo-finish election. Of the many wondrous effects of the framers’ constitutional genius, surely, this is the most astounding—the governmental equivalent of a lifetime 1.000 batting average. Habituated as we are to the rule of law, we Americans take this achievement for granted. We would do better to ponder why many nations continue to struggle with orderly succession.
The Constitution’s triumph over the will of men is nowhere better revealed than in the farewell ceremony that occurs on the east front of the Capitol after the administration of oaths on the west front. In an intricately choreographed constitutional ballet, the new president and his wife bid formal goodbye to their predecessors, who head off quietly into the history books. The scene is moving and momentous, a democratic improvisation on the old monarchical refrain, “The king is dead. Long live the king!”
The senior president Bush and his first lady performed their part in 1993 with characteristic grace despite a painful electoral defeat. In 2001, the Clintons went only so far as the first act, which was their last dignified gesture of the day. Their motorcade took them to Andrews Air Force Base and to a scene without precedent in American history: a political rally, at which hundreds of has-beens, wannabes, and assorted other sycophants basked in the reflected glory of their recently dethroned but still ambitious prince.
The ex-president exhibited not the slightest sense of the constitutional drama that scarcely an hour before had devolved his powers into the hands of his successor. After a military band rendered Ruffles and Flourishes and Hail to the Chief citizen Clinton reviewed an honor guard and delivered reflections of an impropriety exceeded only by their narcissism. He and his wife then worked the rope-line for another hour or so before taking off for New York, where a downsized version of the bizarre ritual (minus military trappings) was repeated to honor Hillary Clinton.
Washington doyens long ago concluded that the Clintons lack class. The judgment hardly does justice to their endless self-indulgence at the expense of the American people. In their waning days in the White House, their habituated urge to exploit proved irresistible. Even as Mrs. Clinton negotiated an $8 million book deal, she established a gift registry for household furnishings, soliciting the rich and the fatuous for contributions. She packed up $190,000 of this booty just in time to avoid violation of Senate ethics rules (embarrassed, the Clintons later agreed to give some of it back). Four days before his successor’s inauguration, her husband found it necessary to thrust himself onto national television for his umpteenth farewell address, consisting mostly of blather about how much he had done for the country. The next morning, his dual plea bargain with Robert Ray and the Arkansas courts was announced, confirming the legal gravamen of the charges that led to his impeachment.
His wretched excess reached another moral nadir just hours before he vacated the presidency, when he pardoned or commuted the sentences of 176 convicted or alleged wrongdoers. Among the recipients of his self- interested beneficence: his brother; a sometime Cabinet member and his paramour; the contemptuous Susan McDougall, who was still in a position to embarrass the Clintons; the notorious Marc Rich, who sold oil to Iran even while Americans were held hostage and whose ex-wife had enriched Democratic coffers to the tune of $1 million; and a politically influential group of his wife’s New York constituents who faced lengthy prison terms for stealing millions from the government.
None of us is entitled to be shocked by any of this: The Clintons’ last days in the White House were, after all, but a microcosm of their entire eight years. The pardons were too much even for the New York Times and Washington Post, which excoriated the ex-president in language that would have pleased Cotton Mather. Perhaps these pillars of the liberal establishment will one day reassess their moral complicity in sustaining eight years of Clinton flim-flammery. In the meantime, the rest of us will no longer have to blush when our children ask what the president does in the Oval Office.