Life Watch: Endgame (We Hope)

At the time this column had to be filed, the Senate had just failed once again to overturn Bill Clinton’s veto of the bill on partial birth abortion. Senator Rick Santorum, who managed the effort in the Senate, was now preparing to catch off-stride the last holdouts, the last defenders of Clinton’s position, by offering that “most modest proposal” of all: to preserve the life of the child who survived the abortion. Senator Lieberman of Connecticut would be given the chance now to cast a vote to protect the child—or to admit that the right to abortion cannot be detached from a right to infanticide. Many things could be illuminated in this vote, many things made clear in the arrangement of the political landscape. And yet, it was all affected once again by the travails of Clinton. The blinding, overpowering light of his scandal and its tendency to draw the public attention to itself were threatening to put everything else out of sight. And if this new move on abortion did not stir a public discussion, its effect would be diminished, even though it would plant critical premises in the law.

But once more, in the life of Bill Clinton, his personal adventures would trump the concerns of his friends, his family, his staff, until the resources of the White House and the Congress were utterly absorbed in him, rather than in the public business. That itself was a measure, curiously unnoticed, that Clinton’s character was indeed interfering with his capacity to fulfill his public functions.

Still, as the crisis wears on, Clinton’s followers seem to confirm Aristotle’s account of those young people, not yet mature enough for politics, because life, for them, was “a succession of unrelated emotional experiences,” or disconnected episodes. One would hardly suspect, from the disbelief of the liberals, that Clinton is being undone now precisely by the precedents that liberals have put into place for the past 25 years. The events spiraling out of control over Monica Lewinsky had their origin in the litigation pressed by Paula Jones over sexual harassment. It was only because of that trial that Lewinsky became relevant, and Clinton was led, with her, into incidents of perjury. But who had brought forth “sexual harassment” as a serious wrong to be addressed in a legal forum? Who had insisted that this class of wrongs, often in intimate settings, be removed from the private domain to the public and treated as a concern of high standing in the law? That insistence came of course from the Left rather than the Right in our politics. And it was elevated to a matter of high moment, or at least of high dudgeon, by all the posturing and the striking of moral poses that surrounded the controversy over Anita Hill in 1991. In that grand overheating of the air, the next year was proclaimed the “Year of the Woman” in politics. The resolve coming through the season was that sexual harassment and the wrongs suffered would now be considered central, not peripheral, to the public business.

But then, as Paula Jones launched her case and Clinton seemed to stand out as the most visible harasser in the land, the liberals fell curiously mute. A matter once heralded as preeminent in its importance—as second to nothing in our public business—was apparently regarded now as peripheral after all. And yet the conclusion was never drawn: The liberals claimed that nothing in Clinton’s private life impaired the performance of his public duties; but now, silently, they confirmed that the defense of Clinton impaired them in addressing an issue they regarded as a central part of that public business.

In the meantime, the polls reveal the same fecklessness that H.L. Mencken once took as the sign of that creature, boobus Americanus. In the first place, the reaction to the Starr report confirms the style that prevails on so many campuses in this country: people quite willing to offer their opinions without having done the reading. Majorities in the surveys say that the president should not be impeached unless he committed perjury; majorities agree that he committed perjury; and majorities conclude nevertheless that he ought not be impeached.

But I suggested to my students that we might consider a different construction for these findings. Beneath the contradictions, the public might simply be thinking politically: If people thought they had reasons to vote for Clinton, they might rightly fear that the political ends they had in mind might be discredited by the same wave of revulsion that sweeps Clinton from office. I remarked to the students that I could well understand that sentiment, since I harbored it myself 25 years ago in regard to President Nixon. Something quite significant was at stake in the lines of division between the parties in the election of 1972, between Nixon and George McGovern. McGovern’s following suggested the three new “A’s”: amnesty (for those who evaded the draft), acid, and abortion. It was the first intimation of that shift in the culture that would alter the character of the two parties, and induce some of us to cast our first Republican vote.

With the lines drawn in that way, Mr. Nixon carried 49 states, and I was not ready to see that achievement washed away out of a concern for a “third-rate burglary,” whose significance even now is inflated and misunderstood. Thomas Hobbes had once cast up this warning: Do you find something unsettling about the notion of sovereign power? Then you must call forth some power to contain or to check it. But whatever power you call forth will be more sovereign yet. Were people uncomfortable over the notion that the president had control over his own papers and tapes? The remedy could surely not be found then in a process that brings an elected president under the sovereign controls of an unelected judge. Had we established the right of a people to govern itself, only to put the executive under the direction of Judge John J. Sirica?

And yet the liberal temper prevailed once again: There would be no tolerance for the heresy that the president might be beyond the reach of legal process. The principle was intoned quite solemnly: The president could not be above the law. Well, if that is the case, then the sentiments of the public are largely beside the point until the public is made to confront in the surveys these questions: Are we to live, as a people, under the same laws? The liberals put into place the precedents for cashiering an elected president—should they not be compelled to live under the laws they themselves framed? Or are those laws made only for presidents thought to be conservative? Henry Cisneros, a former member of the Cabinet, is about to go on trial for lying to the FBI and investigative agencies of the government. Are that prosecution and all others like them to be cancelled—are the laws to go unenforced—since the head of the executive branch may be guilty of the same thing, and in no position then to preside over any prosecutions? If Mr. Nixon was run out of office on the charges of lying to the country, suborning perjury, obstructing justice, would the same charges, proven, not establish on the face of things a sufficient justification for bringing Mr. Clinton to the threshold of impeachment?

Aristotle taught that a people governing itself must cultivate the temper of ruling and being ruled in turn. As that sense of things is expressed in the separation of powers, it cautions us to be careful in what we legislate, because that legislation will be placed in hands other than our own to administer. We had better not legislate laws that we would not wish to see applied to ourselves. Perhaps mistakes were made in the past, perhaps grave mistakes, to undercut the autonomy of the executive and weaken the “sword of the law.” I join Justice Antonin Scalia in being sure that a grave mistake was made to create an independent counsel with a prosecutor responsible to no officer who is responsible in turn to the people. But those arrangements cannot be called off when they are suddenly applied to liberal presidents. To invoke Mencken again, people ought to get what they want—good and hard. Now that liberals are suffering the ravages of their own inventions, we may clear our heads and come to a judgment that these arrangements must be changed. But first, we must see this through.

Apart from that matter of living under the same law, the congressmen who must reach a judgment on this matter must finally face this sober point: If we give Mr. Clinton a “pass” here, we license, for all presidents in the future, everything up to—and including—what he has done. We seem to be a people becoming each year feebler in our moral reflexes, but even in our current, distracted state we cannot suffer that kind of scaling down.

Still, one question lingers from the Starr report: Lewinsky carried in pizza to the president on one occasion as the pretext for her visit, and Clinton professed at first to remember the pizza, but not the sex. The rest of us are compelled to wonder: What was that pizza, so much more memorable than the sex? But then I catch myself, as a writer in Crisis: I don’t know whether to hope that it was—or was not—Domino’s.


  • Hadley Arkes

    Hadley P. Arkes (born 1940) is an American political scientist and the Edward N. Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions at Amherst College, where he has taught since 1966.

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