By Carter B. Horsley
The City Review
does not normally concern itself with national and international
issues as its focus is urban affairs and the arts.
The Lewinsky Affair, however, raises such disturbing
issues about the American psyche and values that The City Review
is compelled to comment.
There is something more important than the
Constitution and that is common sense.
In recent decades, cities have witnessed the
ascension of demagoguery over rationality in countless controversies
over development, landmarks and zoning. The Not-In-My-Back-Yard
(NIMBY) Syndrome has been by now well documented, though not cured:
no matter that a project may conform to pertinent
regulations; no matter that Locally Undesirable Land Uses (LULUS)
must be located somewhere; no matter that property rights do not
entail perpetually unchanged vistas; all that matters is that
a project be defeated, even if needed, even if fine. What matters
is the perception of loudness, the assertion of control, even
if unempowered, even if irrational, even if illegal.
In the 1960's, protesters discovered that television
news, especially local television news programs, responds more
to screaming demonstrations than quiet ones and that loud voices
need not be attached to established personages to be heard. While
it could be argued giving vent to the "new" voices was
an important, and overdue, buttress to democracy, it also served
to confuse traditional standards of common sense. Often, of course,
the protests were legitimate, but more often politicians responded
to the loudest rather than the most correct. At the same time,
polling began to insinuate itself into the established media and
affirmative action programs began to significantly alter the nature
of education in this country through a lowering of admission standards
and a watering-down of grades. The civil rights movement was adopted
by other groups such as feminists and gays and before long the
national agenda became "politically correct."
While political correctness initially sought
to eliminate offensiveness to particular groups of society it
has become an exaggerated, and often pernicious, excuse to circumvent
logic, if not law. A kinder, more humane culture, of course, is
to be desired and many politically correct issues needed to be
addressed. The cumulative effect of them coupled with the intense
impatience of an increasingly jaded society continually exposed
to dazzling images and a virtual reality often at odds with the
cold reality of downsizing corporations, soaring housing costs,
and non-stop technological obsolescence, has created a cultural
mindset of little differentiation, much relativity and enormous
ennui. While the Internet has dramatically improved communication
and education, it also has led to a greater insularity and withdrawal
from "real" events and interactions.
Yesterday's wasteland has become today's immediateville.
Where once traffic was rare, now it is zooming and incidences
of moment are blurred. Let's keep truckin, moving on, on to the
next thrill, the next scandal, the next shocker.
The nation, sadly, is fed up and not taking
it - the Lewinsky Affair - anymore.
How has President Clinton been able to survive
the Lewinsky Affair?
It is a remarkable testimony to his fortitude.
Even more remarkable has been his decision
not to resign. How could he have defended a decision not to resign?
It would have been honorable to save the nation much wasted energy,
put the issue behind for the party, and put his running mate in
an a position of incumbency for the next Presidential nomination
and election. It also would have partially redeemed his own legacy
by putting the good of the country and its institutions above
his own personal ambition and ego.
As indefensible as his position has been, the
denouement of the Lewinsky Affair has been extraordinary as an
indictment not only of his partisan defenders, but the American
public. While polls are a reprehensible substitute for true democracy,
there is little doubt at this point that the American public has
sided with the President and scorned his attackers and the media.
The current scandal and impeachment trial is the country's most
severe moral crisis since the Vietnam War, which, of course, was
far more important. While it is not as important, also, as was
the civil rights struggle, nor as pernicious as the witchhunts
of Senator Joseph McCarthy, it is by no means a minor brouhaha.
We are talking Big Lie, the kind of Big Lie
that a popular leader in Germany made so famous and one is almost
tempted to make an analogy to the blind worship of many Germans
in the 1930's for their leader with the partisan solidarity of
the Democratic Party behind President Clinton. While most Democrats
cannot be said to be insensitive to the controversy, their actions
and gambits have been tantamount to approval of the President's
defense. While most Democrats have piously deplored President
Clinton's conduct in this matter, their censure has been at odds
with their votes on the issues.
Few could have forecast the scenario that has
unfolded since the President proclaimed, quite defiantly on national
television, "I have not had a sexual relationship with this
Peccadilloes aside, the central issues in the
Lewinsky Affair has been the President's flaunting of the "rule
of law" and the notion that sworn testimony should be "the
truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth."
Public disclosure of adultery certainly is
discomforting for the involved parties and there is little doubt
in this age of Tabloidism that the Lewinsky Affair has provided
very substantial fodder for Clinton's enemies on the far right
and for the media. The resulting feeding frenzy has allegedly
distracted the public, which, if we are to believe some of the
pundits, is "disgusted" and annoyed at the prolongation
of the process.
"Justice delayed is justice denied"
is an old saying that has little relevance here. Presumably, Clinton's
defenders have gained strength from the lengthy process that has
evolved as ennui has taken over. The allegations and reports,
however, could not be ignored by the media and once the Special
Prosecutor submitted his report Congress had to proceed with impeachment
What has been shameful, and insulting to common
sense, is the extent to which Clinton and his advisers and attorneys
have resorted to double-speak and obfuscation. Presumably their
pussyfooting about legalese has been made with an eye to possible
legal consequences for the President personally, but they have
made a public mockery of the justice system.
The persistent flimflamming by President Clinton
and his cohorts over legal "niceties" regarding his
lie to the public and his less than completely truthful remarks
under oath has been, and is, outrageous, unconscionable and contemptible.
If their logic is followed, then perhaps all prisons should be
opened and vacated.
Of course, the President cannot be blamed for
mounting a defense, no matter how absurd or faulty. The Democrats,
however, can be blamed for going along with it, not quietly, but
Perhaps they privately hoped that President
Clinton would resign and spare them the public agony of defending
him. He did not and the Democrats were so loathe to attack their
leader that many of them engaged in incredibly puerile sophistry.
What is fascinating is how the Democratic ranks
have held so tight and united. Only Senators Joseph Lieberman
and Robert Byrd gave any glimmer of reflective pondering on the
issues with the rest of them taking umbrage at the merest suggestion
that President Clinton's respect for the law and upholding the
Constitution was less than profound.
Still, politicians are politicians and the
proverbial common sense of "good, decent" Americans,
renown for their ability to forgive, not only prevailed but dominated.
What common sense was this? The media was almost
universally dumbfounded by the public's persistent support of
President Clinton. The allegedly good economy was offered by many,
without condemnation, as the explanation. Those interviewed "on
the street" most often expressed simple exhaustion with the
Right after President Clinton's "State
of the Union" speech, Pat Robertson, the religious leader,
gave up the fight for impeachment, although he would later express
consternation at the lack of public distress over the issue.
The Republican House managers came under intense,
partisan attack by the Democrats even though the Republicans were
quite admirable in their restraint and in their correct focus
on the Constitutional issues raised by the Lewinsky Affair.
Common sense is that which is obvious to, and
instantly understandable by, a majority of people fluent in a
The facts in this affair are that President
Clinton had sex on numerous occasions at the White House with
an intern - Monica Lewinsky; President Clinton vigorously denied
a sexual relationship" with her on national television; President
Clinton had been accused of sexual harassment and had sworn under
oath that he had not had sex with Ms. Lewinsky; President Clinton
continued to deny his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky until evidence
including a stained dress came to light and Ms. Lewinsky and others
were required to testify before Kenneth Starr, the Special Prosecutor;
President Clinton admitted to inappropriate behavior with Ms.
Lewinsky but in doing so resorted to legal maneuvering that trivialized
the behavior; charges of obstruction of justice by misleading
comments and possible tampering with witnesses and evidence were
brought against him and denied, but circumstantial evidence and
conflicting testimony left these issues unresolved.
Had President Clinton admitted to having the
affair and having lied under oath he would most likely have avoided
impeachment hearings, although he possibly might have been left
open to prosecution for perjury and obstruction of justice after
his term in office. While the prospect of perhaps having to go
to jail is not a welcome one, it is also a bit improbable for
a former President on such charges. Even so, it would not deter
an honorable person, only a craven one.
Many Americans talk dismissively about the
case, arguing that past Presidents have not been perfect, citing
Jefferson and his slaves, the mistresses of Presidents Franklin
D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, and the
Iran-Contra scandal under President Reagan. Such an argument is
irrelevant. The other Presidents were not perfect and were living
in different times.
The search for historical precedent while important
and interesting is not critical. What was valid in one era is
not necessarily valid in another. The sacrosanctity of the Constitution
is one of the great American myths. It has been amended many times
and should be regarded as a "living document." It is
a great document. It was not a perfect document for all time.
History is incumbent. It is alive. It is what we are given and
what we will forge.
The argument that President Clinton did not
commit impeachable "high crimes and misdemeanors" is
not very convincing. While no one is claiming that Ms. Lewinsky
was a modern Mata Hari, there were suggestions at one point that
the "relationship" placed the President in a vulnerable
position. Impeachable crimes are whatever a particular Senate
determines. Perjury and obstruction of justice are serious crimes.
The fact that in this instance they were allegedly resorted to
in a cover-up of a private matter is not pertinent, especially
since the perpetrator is the person with the most legal authority
in the land and the commander-in-chief, to say nothing of the
person most entrusted with the burden of moral leadership in the
To suggest that President Clinton has already
undergone tremendous embarrassment and that his family has already
suffered enough is to undercut not only the rule but also the
importance of law and to spit in the face of all those who have
been convicted of similar crimes. Furthermore, it creates a terrible
Mending is more important than mendacity. One
can have great sympathy for his family during this long ordeal,
but that does not change the fact that it was his fault and that
his aggressive cover-up cannot be condoned.
Even if the Senate fails to impeach and remove
him, President Clinton should still resign for his own dignity
and that of the nation.
His "State of the Union" speech was
a surprising reversal of his right-centrist policies of recent
years and a return to the left-centrist traditions of the Democratic
Party as well as a fine, impressive example of Clinton's talents.
President Clinton is likely be remembered as
one of the most astute and intelligent persons to ever live in
the White House.
One can only admire, indeed be awed, by his
courage, indeed chutzpah, under fire,
One can only be saddened by a public inured
to the consequences of its apathy.
One can only be disappointed by the posturing/parsing
of most Democrats in Congress in this affair who seemed to relish
showing off their legal educations more than their principles.
One knows that the nation will survive President
Clinton. His agony has not yet been cathartic for the nation.
The deliberations in the House and Senate have been, by and large,
impressive as due and necessary process - a reinforcement of the
American governing system - but the party line voting has been
disgruntled and discouraging.
One can only hope that the nation will regain
its common sense, the media will be more responsible, the public
more concerned and participatory, and politicians more focused
on issues than polls.
If President Clinton does not resign, he deserves
the full opprobrium of history as an egotistical person blinded
by ambition who dishonored the office of the Presidency, severely
damaged respect for the nation's judicial system, and was not
much better as a role model for children than Mike Tyson.
His legacy is now without honor. Blame, however,
must also be shared by his strident defenders and by the public
whose apathy is appalling and disturbing.
This was not a morality melodrama, but a legal
drama of considerable consequence. Presidents are not superheroes.
They are human. Not all are great. Some have more common sense
than others. The public must remember that it has a collective
On February 12, 1999, votes
in the U. S. Senate on two counts of impeachment of President
Clinton failed to attain the necessary two-thirds majority. The
first count, about perjury, was defeated 55-45 with 10 Republicans
joining the unbroken ranks of the Democrats. The second count,
about obstruction of justice, was 50-50 with five Republicans
joining the unbroken ranks of the Democrats.
Senator Dianne Feinstein,
Democrat of California, attempted to introduce a resolution of
censure immediately following the impeachment votes but Senator
Phil Gram, Republican of Texas, who had threatened a filibuster,
effectively blocked it with a procedural objection.
Senator Feinstein's resolution
described President Clinton's "inappropriate relationship"
as "shameless, reckless and indefensible," adding that
he had "deliberately misled and deceived the American people
and officials in all branches of the United States Government...[and
had given] false or misleading testimony and his actions have
had the effect of impeding discovery of evidence in judicial proceedings."
Soon after the vote, President
Clinton appeared briefly before the press outside the White House
and made a brief statement:
"I want to say again
to the American people how profoundly sorry I am for what I said
and did to trigger these events, and the great burden they have
imposed on the Congress and the American people," Clinton
said. He then called for "reconciliation" and in answer
to a shouted question from Sam Donaldson, the television journalist,
over whether he could "forgive and forget," a possible
reference to a front-page report in The New York Times
that the White House might be vindictive towards its critics,
Clinton returned to the dais and said that "I believe any
person who asks for forgiveness has to be prepared to give it."
President Clinton's comments
and demeanor were, for a change, appropriate. Once again, he had
Many pundits suggested that
the Republicans had made a serious mistake in letting the impeachment
proceedings go on and not finding a procedure to permit censure.
The pundits suggested that the Republicans were "dispirited"
and in trouble, but the future is not at all clear. Clinton still
has almost two years to serve.
The likelihood is the Republicans
will not be as sorely hurt at the voting booths as some journalists
and Democrats now think and that most races will turn not on party
lines but personal explanations of their positions and issues.
The Republicans have not made it easy for Democrats to merely
censure their leader and if President Clinton escapes this episode
without a formal censure it will be very difficult for many Democrats
to hold their heads high.
In its editorial on the
impeachment acquittal votes, The New York Times wrote that "Neither
the cheapness of Mr. Clinton's liaison with Monica Lewinsky nor
the zealotry of some of his opponents should cause us to overlook
the grandeur and symmetry of the constitutional template that...produced
The Senate clearly was quite
a bit more civil than the House in its deliberations and Senator
Trent Lott, the Majority Leader, was impressive and pretty even-handed.
The presentation before the Senate by the House Managers, led
by Representative Henry Hyde, was also very impressive, even if
their passion, and frustration, was hard to conceal.
Certainly, the exercise
was interesting and educational, but the outcome was not reassuring.
Too many commentators and participants kept discounting the votes,
saying it was clear what the verdict would be. Many of the major
television networks did not carry much of the Senate deliberations
and local television news programs, of course, did not even make
it the lead item most of the time, suggesting that it was not
important and no one cared, based on their great infinite wisdom
of the rare American who has actually been polled.
Now that President Clinton
has won, he should still resign, for the sake of his family, his
party, his vice president, and the nation.
In mid-February, 1999, the
judge in the Paula Jones sexual harrassment case indicated that
she was considering holding President Clinton in contempt of her
court for his misleading testimony.
At about the same time,
Hilary Rodham Clinton indicated that she might consider running
for the U. S. Senate from New York, where she was reported looking
for an apartment.
Both developments were interesting,
of course, but also disturbing, since the former further emphasizes
the fact that the President had not acted honorably and the latter
because carpetbagging is a practice of people who are opportunists
and therefore perhaps more interested in themselves than "the
In April, 1999, the judge
did, in fact, hold President Clinton in contempt in a long decision
that indicated she felt that he had obstructed justice!