The Washington Post, Tuesday, January 5, 1999; Page A11
"I think it would be unseemly and distracting," said Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) on "Meet the Press" Sunday, "for the president to be giving a State of the Union address to Congress while he was under trial in the Senate."
Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) agreed: "It's inappropriate."
Good point. It was inappropriate, too, for the president to hold a rousing pep rally at the White House with his allies from the House on the afternoon of the impeachment vote. The appropriate response to impeachment is not brassy defiance but silence, contemplation, shame and departure.
Seemliness, however, is not Bill Clinton's strong suit; he is largely oblivious to the moral, as opposed to the sentimental, dimension. And so, he reads the polls, rallies the troops and stays.
Instead, he should heed the advice of "Marvin K. Mooney, Will You Please Go Now?" -- the wonderful 1972 Dr. Seuss book for toddlers:
The time has come.
The time is now.
Just go. Go. GO!
I don't care how.
But William J. Clinton will not go. So, for the time being, anyway, we are left with trying to divine the lessons of the scandal, obscured as they have been by so much blather and posturing on both sides:
(1) The independent counsel law, which comes up for renewal this year, should be repealed. It gives far too much power to an unsupervised extragovernmental official, and it is unnecessary.
The motivation, after Watergate, was to find a way to investigate and prosecute top administration officials who could pressure the Justice Department to leave them alone. That remains a potential problem, but one that can be remedied through the political process. At any rate, unfettered counsel with an unlimited budget is no answer.
(2) In this investigation, Americans got a taste of what a federal prosecutor -- not just an independent counsel but a normal U.S. attorney -- does in pursuit of a suspect, and it isn't pretty.
Bill Clinton did not receive especially harsh treatment. To the contrary: When the feds decide to go after someone, they come down hard. The cost is millions of dollars in lawyers' fees and thousands of hours lost in proving innocence. It is time to review the fairness of laws that grant prosecutors that much power.
What was especially offensive and frightening in this case was that the events that precipitated this super-aggressive legal pursuit were consensual sexual acts. Americans properly draw a line, increasingly brighter, between how people behave in private and the power of government to do something about it.
(3) There's a delicious irony in the fact that Clinton would never have been impeached were it not for a broadening of harassment law that his own administration strongly supported -- allowing lawyers to grill accused men about their sexual histories in unrelated cases. Walter Olson, author of "The Excuse Factory" and an expert on employment law, calls this a "barbarous assault on privacy."
Years after she claimed Clinton dropped his trousers in a hotel room, Paula Jones was able to sue the president and get a judge to permit questions about other extramarital activity. To stop this dangerous nonsense, the scope of Title VII sexual harassment law needs to be strictly limited.
What is particularly troubling about the Lewinsky scandal is the way that conservatives raised hardly a peep of principled protest about the prosecution. "In backing Starr's witch hunt," wrote Richard Lacayo in Time magazine last week, "conservatives fell in love with Big Government. . . . For them, government interference with private economic behavior remains a bad thing, but regulation of other kinds of private behavior, chiefly meaning sex, is something America needs more of."
This was the thrust of Robert Bork's 1996 bestseller, "Slouching Towards Gomorrah," and of a piece by Adam Wolfson in the current issue of the small but influential journal the Public Interest, "What Remains of Toleration?"
Wolfson, like many conservatives, takes an increasingly alarmist view of the spread of tolerance in America. He points out that even John Stuart Mill, that patron saint of liberalism, while approving of "different experiments of living" and "individual spontaneity," also believed that "moral vices" such as malice, envy and egotism are "fit objects of moral reprobation . . . moral retribution and punishment."
What sort of punishment?
Well, that brings us back to Clinton. The three lessons I cite above seem to argue in his favor, and the truth is that, if I were a senator, I would probably vote to acquit. Still, I want him to go, and, if he were a decent man, he would do the right thing and resign.
What to do now? I like Mill's first remedy: moral reprobation. Let's try scorn, derision, ostracism, a refusal to listen to his State of the Union Address or to join him on the White House lawn. In addition, Al Gore and the rest of the cheering section should be reminded forcefully how they are compromising their own moral standing.
The trouble with censure is that Clinton has framed it as vindication. The trouble with conviction is that the punishment does not quite fit the crime and that Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) is right when he warns of the dangers of Congress "routinely removing presidents."
The only answer is resignation. By his actions -- the sex, the lying, the obfuscation -- Clinton has stained the presidency. Not only can the nation live without him, it will be better for his departure, which will teach a moral lesson, more important than the first three. In the immortal words of Dr. Seuss:
You can go by foot.
You can go by cow.
Marvin K. Mooney,
Will you please go now!