Honor & Hubris

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 woman."

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 hearings.

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 actively.

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 topic.

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 language.

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 nation.

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 precedent.

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 conscience.

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 miraculously survived.

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 acquittal...."

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 people."

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!


Use the Search Box below to quickly look up articles at this site on specific artists, architects, authors, buildings and other subjects


Home Page of The City Review