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Monica Lewinsky: The Scandal

Having expressed my outrage at the press, I turn to Mr. Clinton, himself, and my take on his actions — or, more specifically, on the defense and consequence of his actions. This was written at the time the congress was posturing on whether to start impeachment proceedings. It was submitted to the San Jose Mercury News, but never published.

In the text I refer, without specifics, to my displeasure with Bill Clinton for his invocation of ‘executive privilege’ during this mess; I think the topic is important enough to warrant a bit of explanation.

‘Executive Privilege’ — including privileges claimed on White House files, on communications between the president and government lawyers, and between the president and his security guards, and including the authority to assign government officials and resources to answer congressional and judicial inquiries into presidential behavior — are prerogatives entrusted by the citizens to the Office of the President, not to Bill Clinton personally, in the interest of better governance. It is expected that the president will utilize his prerogatives judiciously, not casually, and nominally for the furtherance of governmental purpose. To claim, as Bill Clinton has, such privileges in regard to behavior with no connection to governance — behavior which the president himself insists was entirely personal, in which the government should have no interest at all — is a violation of that public trust. It is properly and justly described as an abuse of authority.

27 September 1998

The Scandal

Here’s what I think of Bill Clinton: if he had a sense of shame the President would resign. But then, if he had a sense of shame, he wouldn’t need to.

That is also what I think of Kenneth Starr, of the congressional leadership, and of the entire national media. From the first breathless report of sex and cover-up, the saga of Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton has been an ethical and social disaster, exposing our basest impulses and obsessions to a world audience, tearing down trust in and respect for our most essential civic institutions, driving the last remnants of political civility into extinction, and effectively stifling public debate on any issue with no hook into the scandal. We’ve no dearth of villains; there is enough blame here to smother everyone:

  • The president was reckless and self-absorbed, and used public officials and the power of the presidency (executive privilege indeed!) to shield himself from the consequences; as a result, the presidency itself is tarnished.
  • The special prosecutor, convinced by a history of obfuscation and obstruction that Bill Clinton and his cronies were corrupt, but unable to prove it, twisted an official judicial process into a witch-hunt; as a result the entire judicial system is tarnished.
  • The media, driven by deadlines and an inflated sense of self-importance, allowed rumor, innuendo and opinion to supersede fact and reason in their reporting; as a result the entire concept of an objective and accurate press is tarnished.
  • The congress, their eyes on an election rather than on the nation’s business, allowed politics to dominate substance in the handling of both the evidence and the process; as a result, the constitution is tarnished.

And all of them, aided and abetted by we, the people, and our insatiable appetite for prurient detail, have eliminated forever the notion that some things in life, even in the lives of public figures, are and should be private. Perhaps, if we have a sense of shame, we should all resign.

The Substance

Here’s what I think of Bill Clinton: I’m furious!

On the narrow issue, Bill Clinton and his supporters are absolutely correct: the act itself was a thoroughly private matter, the business of neither the public nor the special prosecutor. Nonetheless, the recklessness and arrogance it exposes should be of immense concern to anyone who believes that exercise of Presidential power requires the restraint of both sound judgement and humility. To be blunt, if we can’t trust the man to keep his pants zipped after being put on notice that his enemies were watching for just such a slip — or to avoid using the powers and prerogatives of his office to obscure the truth from us when he is in danger of being exposed — why should we trust him to act prudently, honorably, openly, and in our interest on other, more important matters? He may well do so — and he may be able to reassure us that he will do so — but it is not unreasonable to require such reassurance. That said, any mistrust we feel reflects a political consideration, not a legal one, and neither the office of the special prosecutor nor the Congress has the authority, legal or moral, to pass judgement in the matter.

But in the broader context, particularly on the issues of perjury and obstruction of justice, the president and his defenders have plunged into an ethical abyss. On the one hand, we have the legal purists, splitting hairs over definitions of ‘sexual acts’ and ‘relationship’, and supporting the ludicrous assertion that the president might have been telling the truth when he claimed he “didn’t remember” what he had done — all to deflect the obvious conclusion that his deposition testimony was never intended to do anything but obscure the central facts in question. On the other hand, we have the pleas for empathy, pointing out that he lied only to save his family and himself from the embarrassment of what he’d done. Finally, we have a grand rationalization, the excuse of wrongdoing on the grounds that it really didn’t matter: the original lawsuit was, after all, politically motivated and therefore needn’t be taken seriously, and was dismissed anyway so what harm was done?

On the first point, the technicalities of truth, it may well be that in the current legal climate, where litigation is considered a game of skill between opposing counsel rather than a mechanism for seeking out truth and justice, such hair-splitting lets him off the legal hook. But as a matter of conscience, not law, I want our premier law-enforcer to embrace and uphold a more noble, more optimistic – more just — vision of the legal process. When the chief executive vulgarizes the letter of the law by subverting its spirit, what better can we expect from police and prosecutors? And to see where that leads, we need look no farther than the Starr report itself.

The second point, the empathy excuse, is not only wrong, it is exactly backward. There are at root only two reasons to lie in a legal proceeding: to avoid embarrassment (either for yourself or for someone important to you), or to conceal culpability. This is precisely what the laws of perjury were designed to prevent — acting to obscure the truth (and, thereby, to obstruct the implementation of justice) for the benefit of yourself or someone for whom you care; there is no other purpose. To excuse perjury on the grounds that you were protecting yourself or your family is an oxymoron, regardless of the subject matter.

To the last point, the “no harm no foul” rule, I merely offer a counter-example: think about how those arguments would sound if the defendant was the CEO of a fast-food chain accused of harassing a counter clerk. The equivalent defense might be “the lawsuit was only motivated by greed, so it needn’t be taken seriously; and besides, it was later dismissed, so what does it matter?” This is absurd! Leaving aside the ethical implications of such reasoning, consider the practical effect: the content of the testimony is part of the evidence upon which the outcome is based; it may well be that a truthful answer would have altered the judge’s decision to dismiss the case. Is it really the defendant’s place to decide which evidence is relevant, or to dismiss the entire proceeding as unimportant, based on his assertion of the plaintiff’s motive or his prediction of the ultimate outcome? I doubt anyone, including the president’s staunchest supporters, would grant that authority to any other defendant.

So, should the president be impeached? No. I say that reluctantly, because I believe perjury and obstruction strike at the heart of our system of justice, and because Bill Clinton, judging by his behavior, desperately needs to have that point pounded through his armor of ego and rationalization. Nonetheless, common sense and decency tell me that the banality of the offenses warrants a subdued response, and that the excesses of the special prosecutor and the congress in uncovering and exploiting them — systemic excesses that pose far more danger to the future than another two years of living with a flawed but chastened president — should not be rewarded.

© Copyright 1998, 2005, Augustus P. Lowell

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