Piling on the Prez

Let Clinton be Clinton!


September was hard on quarterbacks. During the very first week of the NFL season no fewer than seven were injured. And in Week 2 superstars John Elway and Troy Aikman went out in the same game. But no quarterback took more blows than the nation's commander-in-chief. Following a series of leaks that would have sunk Noah came the official release of the Starr report, then the citizenry's rush to Internet search engines to cut through the boring parts and jump to the good stuff, and finally the grand jury video. Commentators had a field day.

Some saw in Clinton's activities a train of impeachable offenses, while his "supporters" declared the president's conduct to be reprehensible but on the right side of what the Constitution characterizes as a high crime–or a misdemeanor. That his behavior had been disgraceful was conceded by all parties, nor was there any serious question concerning whether he had stretched the truth like a Spandex bodysuit on a Sumo wrestler. Republicans, of course, launched an all-out blitz, but even Democrat congressmen who could have been expected to take up the position of protective linemen instead eased gingerly off the field. Even if the president had not perpetrated an impeachable offense, suggested some, he had forfeited the moral authority to lead the nation.

I have no wish to plumb the fine points of impeachment law. I suspect there aren't any. This is a flivver that has not been taken out of the garage since the time of Andrew Johnson (although it might have been an appropriate vehicle for his namesake, Lyndon), so precedent can offer precious little clarification of the Constitution's terse provisions. All the players are making it up as they go. So too shall I. But as a spectator with no stake in the game other than that shared by all American citizens, I should like to offer a muffled cheer for the chief executive.

President Clinton cannot have forfeited his leadership capacities because, although he is a man of formidable capacities, leadership has never been in his play book. To lead is to possess a conception of the destination to be sought and a concomitant willingness to bear whatever hardships are required to pursue that course. Under no plausible rendering is Clinton a leader in this sense. If he is spotted in any line of marchers, it is because he saw it forming and scurried to take a place at its head. Once its progress slows in the face of opposition, he nimbly repositions himself to where obstacles are fewer.

His whole career gives evidence of this protean propensity, not least the years of the presidency. The Bible on which he took his oath of office had barely cooled before he found it expedient to back away from his pledge to eliminate barriers to gays in the military. The middle-class tax cut disappeared almost as quickly, as did proposed appointees or cabinet members who ran into media flak. The Republicans stormed to a congressional majority, and he promptly announced that the era of big government is over. And so on.

Clinton's role model, we are told, is John F. Kennedy. It does not take a rocket scientist–or even a political scientist–to discover in the Starr revelations further Kennedy parallels, admittedly of a more prurient than presidential nature. However, the two men are separated by a gulf wider than the distance between Boston and Little Rock. Kennedy was a risk taker. He announced in his inaugural address a willingness to "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty." Before his life was snuffed out, Kennedy manifested this resolution by going toe-to-toe with Khrushchev over missiles in Cuba, pledging an enduring commitment to the citizens of divided Berlin, and building up troop levels in that previously obscure map blip, Vietnam. Around this time Clinton was prepping for a political career and discovering in himself a new zeal for conscientious objection.

This president does not bear burdens; rather he professes to feel your pain. Taken literally, this is an absurdity. Pain is intrinsically private; any pain one feels is, definitionally, one's own. But the metaphor is wonderfully evocative. It conveys a willingness to be directed by the feelings of others rather than one's own conceptions. It is the antithesis of autonomy. Moreover, it bespeaks maximal inoffensiveness, for who would harm another if that person's resultant pain would be one's own?

The philosopher Baruch Spinoza held that common to all entities, from chunks of matter to chief executives, was conatus, an inherent drive to maintain their integrity. Absent this urge, things would disintegrate. But although everything possesses this drive, Clinton is unique as an instance of pure conation. He will do whatever is required to hold himself together. No principles or ideals or moral scruples are allowed to get in the way of this self-protective impulse. Not heroic, to be sure. If Clinton is found on a PT boat, one can be sure that it is securely docked.

But hewing to a path of least resistance has its charms too, especially in the case of one who has at his finger the immense resources of the world's remaining superpower. Under Clinton's watch there have been more outbreaks of sexual sleaze and financial peccadillo than can be counted on a standard-issue abacus, but there has been no Caribbean derring-do and no Vietnams. For this surcease of travail the American public is demonstrably grateful.

Its initial endorsement of Clinton for the nation's highest office was offered in a context of repeated bimbo eruptions and gossip about financial coups that weren't strictly kosher. Four years later, "Whitewater" had entered the American lexicon, Paula Jones was in the process of being outed, and professional investors were agog with envy at the First Lady's ability to transform $1,000 into $100,000 via commodity futures prestidigitation. No matter; he was handsomely re-elected.

And today, even in the wake of Judge Starr's tales of misuse of tobacco products and associated Oval Office derelictions, poll results consistently reveal the public's support for continuation of the Clinton presidency. According to the rules of the democracy game, the people are entitled to select their quarterback. Their disinclination to bench Clinton is compelling.

Compelling, but perhaps not definitive. If Clinton has either committed or suborned perjury, then it may be necessary for Congress to second-guess the judgment of the citizenry. Concerning such technical determinations the lawyers will have to be heard. One need not have any special training in the law, however, to realize that not every failure to relate the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth properly results in a perjury indictment. If every witness who disingenuously declares himself "unable to recall" some crucial event were brought up on charges, casualties of the War on Perjury would be even more extensive than those of the War on Drugs. Perjury prosecutions must be selective, extended only to those whose lies are especially egregious in evincing disrespect for the law.

Late-show wits, as well as less-celebrated speakers of the English language, have made sport of Clinton's improbable semantic slides. Not even in the most recherché salons of postmodernism does "sexual relations" carry the significance that the president ascribed to it in his testimony. Like Humpty Dumpty, he insists that words have no meaning until he gives them one. This is dubious linguistics, and those who prize literacy have ample reason to be aggrieved by his solecisms. But an aesthetic offense ought not be confused with a legal one. Clinton's tortured usages reveal a doggedly earnest inclination to stay within the confines of the literal text of the perjury statutes.

As he candidly admitted in his taped grand jury testimony, his intention was to reveal as little as possible concerning his dalliances with Monica Lewinsky while never overstepping the boundary separating culpable lying from mere sophistry. If he nonetheless crossed that line, the trespass was inadvertent rather than deliberate. Indeed, so assiduous was Clinton in his efforts to stay within the law, that he modulated the form of activity in which they engaged so that, if worst came to worst, he would be able to deny the existence of sexual relations (in his curious sense of the term).

Those who say that it was reckless of Clinton to become such good friends with the girl in the beret are, of course, correct. Yet it was a disarmingly temperate recklessness; Monica Lewinsky would be allowed to wield the presidential gavel but not beyond the confines of the presidential definition. Not even the urgency of lowering his trousers was allowed to annul the overriding imperative that the Clinton derriere be kept covered.

Frankly, I am not sure that Clinton is capable of committing perjury. To perjure oneself is to lie, and lying is, minimally, affirming that which one knows not to be the case and thereby representing oneself as believing that which was affirmed. (The latter clause is to distinguish lying from telling a joke or reporting the contents of campaign speech.)

Lying can exist only within a context of general truth-telling, for if it were not typically the intention of speakers to convey their belief that X when they utter the sentence "X," they could not act to deceive listeners by saying "X" when they believe that not-X. It is by no means obvious, though, that this is the context within which Clintonspeak operates. Rather than deploying language as a vehicle for expressing truths, Clinton will say whatever he deems best suited to serve his interests.

Thus, all that can legitimately be inferred from one of his remarks is that saying it is more useful than not saying it. No belief imputations are licit, and so he cannot be accused of representing himself as affirming that which he in fact knows to be false. Admittedly, this analysis is speculative, but perhaps it creates enough elbow room for reasonable doubt.

Congressional interrogators bent on pursuing impeachment will have to supply justifications of their attempt to bench this quarterback. These, predictably, will be complex and verbose. Voters, though, are at liberty to cast their ballots any way they want for any reason they want. There is, then, an articulation gap between solons and citizens. Pundits and pollsters earn their paychecks by professing clairvoyance concerning what is on the mind of the voting public. We have good reason to swallow their analyses with a healthy pinch of salt. I too have hunches concerning the electorate's stubborn fidelity to the Clinton presidency, and like others in the public domain it comes without warranty. So much by way of disclaimers; now the punditry.

Voters may support a candidate because they believe once in office he will do them some good. Alternatively, they may stand behind a candidate because they believe he will do less harm than the available alternatives. Harm avoiders are especially attractive when times are good. By any reckoning this side of the Michigan Militia, times are indeed good in 1990s America. The nation is the solitary colossus bestriding the world; we are at peace; economic growth is vigorous and non-inflationary; unemployment rests at essentially the zero level; the federal budget has entered the terra incognita of surplus.

Could things be yet better? Undoubtedly. It would be an extravagant effusion of optimism, however, to suppose that any of the presidential aspirants on offer would preside over that greater good. Mucking up is the more likely outcome. When you're on a winning roll it is folly to change the dice, and the American public has the good sense not to expect more from their political overseers than is currently being served up. If the cost of prosperity is a president lacking the traditional moral virtues, so be it.

The Starr inquiries have wounded Clinton. But they do not necessarily diminish his presidential utility. When dogs are whipped, sometimes they turn on their tormentor and bite. But others will grovel fulsomely, showing themselves all the more eager to please. This president is learning every trick he can to restore affections and ingratiate himself with the citizenry that employs him. If previously he was eager to please, slavishness now has become an obsession. Is this a man likely to reinvent himself as an adventurer? I think not. That isn't to say that Clintonism will always be in style. If Japan Inc. goes into receivership, Russia descends further into anarchy, or Alan Greenspan loses his magic touch at the Fed, the public is likely to reconsider. When winning streaks give way to snake eyes, it will call for a genuine leader, someone who conveys conviction, determination, a sense of knowing what needs to be done to escape the rut.

Such moods paved the way for the ascendency of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Lest we forget, it also delivered a dispirited Weimar Republic into the embrace of Adolf Hitler. It will be time enough to ponder the prospects and perils of assertive leadership when peace and prosperity enter into eclipse. In the meantime I join the sideline chant: Let Clinton be Clinton!

Contributing Editor Loren Lomasky (llomask@opie.bgsu.edu) teaches philosophy at Bowling Green State University and is author of Persons, Rights, and the Moral Community.