It has often been remarked that great men are seldom elected president. True enough, but the genius of American politics lies not in the grandeur of those who hold its highest office, but in the grandeur of the constitutional order that presidents swear to uphold. Our system neither anticipates nor requires that statesmen will always be at the helm; indeed, as James Madison said, it is designed to produce good government even when they are not.
The presidency is nevertheless open to the possibility of greatness. Its powers are sufficient unto any task that contingency may impose, its honor sufficient to attract the best of men. The Constitution contemplates that the president will lead by seeking the continuing consent of the people, not just at election time, but in the everyday execution of his office. A president, in short, must earn his constitutional authority by earning and retaining the trust of the people. If he fails to establish that trust, or breaches it once acquired, his power to govern is proportionately diminished or obliterated.
For the most part, our ship of state has made way with a varied collection of mere mortals at the tiller. Warts and all, they have generally provided us with reasonably honest and competent government. Even at its worst, the one thing the presidency has never had to suffer is a thoroughgoing scoundrel. Until now, that is.
Whether or not Bill Clinton serves out his term of office, his presidency is finished. So is his reputation. His place in history, such as it is, will be forever stained by sordid deeds that beggar description. And, we are reliably informed, there is worse yet to come. Is there another figure in the annals of the presidency whose behavior could not decently be explained to one’s children? Never mind. Mr. Clinton and his lap dogs yap on, trying to persuade us that the problem is not his, but ours. Only those of prurient interest would complain about sex between consenting adults. What the president did with Monica Lewinsky and who knows how many others ought to remain a private matter, to be worked out among Mr. Clinton, his family, and their God.
This shameless argument gives a whole new meaning to defining deviancy down. It also suggests a revised model for confession: “Bless me, Father, for I have engaged in [twenty, thirty, forty?] inappropriate acts. I can’t tell you more, however, without invading my right of privacy or that of my family, whom I love more than anything in the world. So hurry up and give me absolution so I can put this behind me and get on with the rest of my life. And by the way, just so you don’t think badly of me, I want to remind you that the real problem here is the Church and all its rules. I’d look into that if I were you.”
What no one short of a self-deluded narcissist would venture in the privacy of a confessional, Mr. Clinton now proffers to the nation by way of exculpation. The old definition of chutzpah—wherein the parent-killer begs for mercy because he’s now an orphan—now gives way to the new, drawing its principles and vocabulary from the sexual revolution of the ‘Sixties. I leave to medical authorities and psycho-biographers the task of explaining the precise clinical nature of Mr. Clinton’s sexual preoccupations. One does not need special training in psychiatry, however, to know that his libido is, well, a problem. Apparently, he finds it necessary to gratify himself by exploiting vulnerable women, the most conspicuous of whom was scarcely older than his own daughter. Whatever the applicable psychiatric label—malignant narcissism and compulsive sexual disorder come immediately to mind—Mr. Clinton appears unable to control his sexual appetite. Even without evidence of perjury or obstruction of justice, that alone would disqualify him from holding an entry-level government job, much less the highest office in the land.
Sexual behavior, after all, is not just something we do; it is a profoundly revealing expression of who and what we are. A man whose libido is as out of control as Mr. Clinton’s appears to be cannot lead a nation to any goal worthier than an orgy. The news media, which take pride in the enlightened candor with which they now discuss sexual matters, have for many months persisted in describing the president’s relations with Monica Lewinsky as an “affair.” That use of that term conjures the idea of a heart lost in the throes of romantic passion and tends to evoke sympathy among those who have been tempted by its powerful allure.
But to refer to the Clinton-Lewinsky business as an “affair” mocks the very idea of romance. Here we have a fifty-two year old man, who happens to be the most powerful figure on the world stage, preying upon a morally confused and insecure young woman less than half his age. “Cad” is about the gentlest term you could employ to describe the president’s character, seduction the kindest term to describe his behavior. Seduction, however, may be the perfect simile for Mr. Clinton’s relations with the American public. The question now before the country is whether we will allow ourselves to be taken in by his opportunistic blandishments and syrupy professions of false affection.
If habitual sexual misconduct of a recklessly uncontrollable sort does not suffice to convince you that Mr. Clinton must be removed from office, consider his speech to the nation on August 17. In the course of acknowledging —barely—his betrayal of his wife, his daughter, his friends, and the public trust, the most repentant term he managed to employ to describe his actions was “inappropriate,” that classical weasel-word invented by pop psychology to avoid talking about right and wrong. True, Mr. Clinton also managed to say that what he did was “wrong,” but he used that term as an offhand, throw-away line, uttered without conviction or apparent remorse.
No sooner had that grudging admission escaped his lips than he launched into a passionate defense of his “privacy.” This, mind you, from a man who felt not the slightest compunction about indulging his lechery in the presidential office, or about putting his wife forward in public, repeatedly, to deny or dissemble about his sexual liaisons; from one who has made frequent, if somewhat oblique, titillating allusions to his own sexual adventures; from one who did not blush a few years ago to describe the kind of underwear he wore. Dr. Johnson, I’m afraid, had it wrong: at Mr. Clinton’s hands, privacy, not patriotism, has become the last refuge of the scoundrel.
As if that were not enough, Mr. Clinton then leveled his guns at Ken Starr, whose principal offense seems to be his court-mandated effort to determine whether the President of the United States is a felon. Apart from paid hacks and the brain-dead, however, this argument had an audience of precisely one—the president himself, whose capacity for self-denial has surely reached clinical proportions.
One thing more. The most striking feature of Mr. Clinton’s speech was its cynical, indeed, contemptuous regard for his audience. How else explain why, in a speech ostensibly devoted to “coming clean,” he once again lied and dissembled? His capacity for mendacity, like his sexual appetite, apparently knows no limits. It is not enough that we lock away our daughters; we are now expected to lock away our consciences. Mr. Clinton’s moral obtuseness and solipsism are bad enough, but what truly offends is his presumption that the American people are a bunch of rubes yearning to have their pockets picked. “Slick Willie” he was, is, and, alas, always shall be, the flim-flam man who thinks he can stay one town ahead of the pursuing posse. That narcissistic belief no doubt gets him through the night; but for that very reason, the rest of us need to stay awake.
Clearly, the American people have a job to do, and the sooner we get on with it, the better. We have only begun to learn the details of the president’s badly flawed character, and the worst, as I say, is yet to come. Already the laughing stock of late-night television shows, already the object of editorial scorn that can barely contain itself, already deeply distrusted by the supporters he has so cavalierly and selfishly betrayed, Mr. Clinton’s presidency is a thing of shreds and patches beyond repair. As evidence of his badly flawed character mounts, his political strength will decline proportionately, at home and abroad. While comedians laugh and Congressmen posture, dictators of the world will calculate how to poke America in the eye. Some will conclude, not unreasonably, that they can do so with impunity. The world is a dangerous place, to be sure, but putting the nation at additional risk because of a president’s failed character is one danger the American people need not endure.
Mr. Starr has filed his report. Bills of impeachment will be introduced. Hearings will be held. Even the Borgias will blush. It will matter less whether Mr. Clinton resigns or is impeached than that his abominable behavior be recognized for what it is. Legal and constitutional proprieties must of course be strictly observed, but fidelity to legal procedure does not require suspension of moral judgment. Mr. Clinton has already disgraced his office. The question before the nation is whether we will allow him to disgrace us as well.