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Counting the Costs of Clintonism: Nov. 1998

Under Bill, we turned a corner in American morality.

By From the November 1998 issue

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In honor of president's day, the Spectator will be republishing this week essays and reviews on our nation's best — and worst — leaders.


The one hilarious moment in the sad and disgusting Clinton saga came at a fundraiser in Cincinnati. Pursued by his own manifold sins, lies, and impeachable offenses, the president managed a straight face as he assured the audience that the real scandal was a "Washington obsessed with itself instead of America." This, from a man whose self-absorption is legendary, if not pathological, at least deserves an Oscar for best self-parody.
 We have come, at long last, to the end of the Clinton presidency. Whether he is removed from office or continues as a disdained and powerless figurehead, he is through. But the difference between impeachment and political impotence is crucial. It will be a test of the American people. If the head of the most corrupt and malign administration in our history is suffered to remain in office, however crippled, it will be a clear sign that we have turned a corner, that American morality, including but not limited to our political morality, is in free fall.

It is time to reckon the costs to America, so far, of this squalid and probably criminal administration. That the president has committed "high crimes and misdemeanors" is indisputable but not the worst of the wounds he has inflicted upon his office and the nation. The damage is enormous, cuts deep, and may be irreversible.

This president has subverted our system of justice and the ideal of the rule of law, debased our politics, vulgarized our culture, and brought a totalitarian impulse to our government. The really bad news, however, is that unless we display in the future far more care and attention than we did in 1992 and 1996, we will repeat our mistakes and elect more unprincipled demagogues.

The rule of law is subverted when law itself, and the institutions that guard the law, are seen as no more than a means, or sometimes an obstacle, to power. The Department of Justice's fate was virtually sealed at the outset when a complaisant Janet Reno was named attorney general but real power lodged in the president's confidante, and now convicted felon, Webster Hubbell. Of the many partisan acts, the most outrageous is Ms. Reno's refusals, in plain violation of the law, to seek an independent counsel to investigate various campaign finance scandals linked to Clinton and Al Gore. Both Louis Freeh, the FBI director, and Charles La Bella, Reno's own designated investigator, say it is essential to appoint an independent counsel to probe the most serious of the suspected violations: the Asian and Chinese money that poured into Clinton's reelection campaign. As the coils tighten around Clinton the department may recover more of its integrity and Reno may ask for an independent counsel, although she has stalled for so long that the trail is frozen over.

While he was en route to prison, the president's aides and friends, largely at Clinton's urging, procured well over $700,000 for Hubbell as fees for "consulting" he could not possibly perform. Hubbell (consequently?) did not give the cooperation he had promised to independent counsel Kenneth Starr. Then too there were the Travel Office firings to make room for Clinton cronies, the misuse of the FBI to suggest Travel Office staff criminality, the removal of Vincent Foster's files from his office the night of his suicide, the transfer of at least 900, and possibly many more, raw FBI files (mostly about Republicans) to the White House, an FBI tipoff to the White House about an investigation, and Justice's opposition in court to the independent counsel's investigation.

Investigations have been frustrated by the shredding of documents, the withholding of files under subpoena, witnesses taking the Fifth Amendment or fleeing the country, and a spectacularly rapid spread of amnesia among administration personnel, a plague highly convenient to the White House. A journalist says witnesses recall matters very well when they talk to him, but then go before congressional committees and are unable to remember anything.

The processes of justice have been savaged by the "war" on Kenneth Starr conducted by Bill and Hillary, ignobly abetted by sundry White House lackeys. The object is to delegitimize Starr's investigation and cast doubt upon his report. This is the moral, if not the legal, equivalent of an obstruction of justice. The war, despite its patent untruths, has partially succeeded. Starr, the mildest and most judicious of men, is now believed by a sizable number of Americans to be a rabid partisan. There are moments when one wishes he were.

Thanks to Starr, however, we now know the truth about Clinton's sexual depravity and lies. Despite the eely writhings and Rube Goldberg arguments of his lawyers, it is now absolutely clear that Clinton lied under oath several times in the Paula Jones case and also before the grand jury, and lied to the American people both in denying sex in January and admitting an "improper relationship" in August. When a president lies under oath he subverts a core constitutional duty of seeing that the laws are faithfully executed—in fact, he attempts to ensure that the laws are not faithfully executed —and thereby commits a clearly impeachable offense. Evidence of witness tampering and obstruction of justice is abundant. To cite but one example, Clinton obviously coached Monica Lewinsky to deny sex and then sat by as his lawyer pressed upon the court an affidavit by her that Clinton knew to be a lie.

Clinton partisans blame Starr for diminishing the legal rights of the presidency. How Starr can be blamed for the courts' rejections of claims put in play by the administration is a mystery. Clinton's assertions of executive privilege had been rejected unanimously by the Supreme Court in the Nixon tapes case. The invention of a "protective function privilege" for the Secret Service was merely laughable. The president's lawyers and the Department of Justice which supported those frivolous claims surely knew they hadn't a legal leg beneath them. Their assertions were another example of disrespect for law and abuse of the judicial process for the sole purpose of delay. They were not defending presidential prerogatives; they were defending the person of Bill Clinton. The legal terrain has not changed: What the presidency had before, the presidency has now.

Clinton has also debased our politics. Misguided party loyalty has required Democrats to defend a man they know to be indefensible: dishonest, sexually depraved, and an incorrigible liar. Such behavior might have been expected of old-time Chicago aldermen, even regarded as admirable by a mobster's henchmen. For the men and women of Congress, however, loyalty to a corrupt and wicked leader can only destroy their personal and institutional honor. During the investigation of Richard Nixon, a great many Republicans turned on their president when the facts warranted it. Today's Democrats should reflect that those Republicans who fought to the last ditch died in it.

Clinton has inflicted enormous injury to the nation's character and culture. The president has established a mind-boggling record of adulteries. He is to infidelity what Cal Ripken is to baseball, except that Ripken ended his record streak voluntarily. American popular culture is already sex-drenched, and the example of the president reinforces the notion that sex has no moral overtones but is merely one more form of indoor recreation, akin to video games.

That is what makes so depressing the liberal mantra "it's just about sex." Quite aside from the fact that impeachment will not be "about sex" (but rather about perjury, obstruction of justice, etc.), sex is not irrelevant to the fitness of this man for the presidency. His sexual habits are a clue to his character and, according to the Starr report's footnotes, the clues are damning. They reveal a man whose tastes are, to put it gently, very kinky, and whose entire philosophy of the subject is immediate and reckless self-gratification. Yet we are urged to emulate European sophistication about the matter. Acceptance of Clinton's behavior is not sophisticated but decadent. Apparently sexual morality ought to flow east rather than west, though it must be acknowledged that decadence has already established a considerable beachhead here.

Nor should we accept the argument that sex is a "private" matter; the only persons legitimately concerned are Bill Clinton's family. We countenance no such public-private distinction for anyone else. Imagine a Chief Justice of the United States (not the current one) sexually serviced in his chambers by a 22-year-old female law clerk. The man would be impeached and out of office in a flash. No one would suggest we draw a veil of "privacy" over that behavior. Such conduct tells us about the man's lack of judgment and moral balance, and we would surely conclude that important affairs must not be left in his hands. When the offender is the president of the United States, all the greater should be our determination to be quit of him.

The president's incessant lying (as Maly McCarthy said of Lillian Hellman, every word he utters is a lie, including "and" and "the") inevitably diminishes respect for truth telling, even under oath. The tactic of delay, leaks of bits and pieces of the bad news, have had their intended effect. The public becomes bored with the topic of Clinton's behavior, and hence inured to it. Lying and vice come to seem the normal practice of men. Clinton has numbed our moral sense. Whether, with his passing, that sense can be reawakened remains an open question.

There is, as well, more than a whiff of totalitarianism about the Clinton White House. From the beginning in Arkansas, Clinton behaved, and required others to behave, as if he was the only person that really mattered. He used Arkansas state troopers and the federal Secret Service to abet his sexual appetites or hide his slaking of those appetites. Supposed friends like Lani Guinier were dropped completely once their usefulness ended. He ignored social norms while developing a high degree of plausibility in the rhetoric that disguised his actions. In accordance with his "scorched earth" policy, enemies, critics, and witnesses are ruthlessly smeared, from Gennifer Flowers to Kathleen Willey to Scott Ritter to Ken Starr. Even those who might judge him adversely in the future, like the eminently decent Henry Hyde, are attacked with leaks. One begins to see why the White House wanted the raw FBI files: they are a reservoir of damaging information and misinformation that can be used to destroy others.

We are told that the president is filled with remorse and has repented. That is obviously false. The behavior he displays goes back for at least thirty years, but he never repented or promised reform until impeachment loomed. The dominant emotions displayed in his August 1 7 faux mea culpa was not contrition but fury at having been caught and brought to account, hatred of his adversaries, particularly Kenneth Starr, and an utter inability to understand how a man as wonderful as himself could be imagined to have real faults. Even in his address to the National Prayer Breakfast, Clinton coupled his words of contrition with the promise of a strong legal defense to be conducted by his attorneys. That nullified any statement of contrition. One cannot be accepted as a repentant liar if he denies lying and continues to lie.

There is a name for people like that: sociopaths. The Merck Manual of 1992 states that sociopaths

characteristically act out their conflicts and flout normal rules of social order. These persons are impulsive, irresponsible, amoral, and unable to forgo immediate gratification. They cannot form sustained affectionate relationships with others, but their charm and plausibility may be highly developed and skillfully used for their own ends. They tolerate frustration poorly, and opposition is likely to elicit hostility, aggression, or serious violence. Their antisocial behavior shows little foresight, and is not associated with remorse or guilt, since these people seem to have a keen capacity for rationalizing and for blaming their irresponsible behavior on others. Frustration and punishment rarely modify their behavior or improve their judgment and foresight....

That definition fits Clinton to a T. Given power, the sociopath will display totalitarian tendencies. Clinton does. They are also likely to be demagogues, Clinton is.

It would be comforting to believe that this presidency is an aberration from which we will recover rather than a permanent and dangerous lowering of the qualifications we seek in a president. For that reason, we must ask whether Bill Clinton is a cause or a symptom. The answer is that he is both. He is a cause in that he has damaged our justice system, corrupted our political culture, debased our thoughts and language, and lowered our moral standards. But he is also a symptom of the combined effects of the spirit of 1968 and of our exploding media technology. The '68 generation believed that its moral superiority and purity of motive absolved it of any need for truth and decent behavior. Those people were, and many remain, antinomians, convinced that since they have been touched by the grace of radical politics, they are freed of normal restraints. This, too, has worked a deep corruption in the nation. People who are not in the least radical, or even interested in politics, eagerly accept the pleasures made possible by collapsing restraints. This, in turn, protects Clinton because the collapse of moral barriers means acceptance of moral relativism, and that means a refusal to judge the behavior of others. A journalist who has talked to people across the nation says the standard response to the scandal is, "Of course what he did is wrong, but who am I to judge."

Clinton may be more typical of our future than of our past. Now, more than ever, the American public responds to politicians as it does to popular entertainers. Think of Clinton as Madonna. He may fade as she has; with any luck he may dis- appear completely. But, as with Madonna, there will be other Clintons, dismaying as that is to contemplate. David Riesman once wrote that as the public loses competence to judge merits, it values "sincerity," which it believes, quite erroneously, that it is able to judge.

Clinton has learned to fake sincerity; others will too.

We must choose between reforming ourselves through Clinton's impeachment or continue our decline by ratifying his behavior, thereby notifying future presidents that almost all bars are down. If we ratify, our tomorrows will be even more wrenching than would impeachment today.

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About the Author

Robert H. Bork is the author of Slouching Towards Gomorrah.