Self-Defense Plea


In a recent interview on ABC, Diane Sawyer asked Kenneth Starr whether it was fair, in the context of a sexual harassment suit, "to be asked about all of the people that you slept with." Judging from their reaction to President Clinton's prevarication about such matters, most Americans believe it is not.

Since Starr has been portrayed as a puritanical inquisitor who strongly disagrees with the majority's view on this issue, his response was interesting. "If that is unfair," he said, "then we should, in fact–and society is free at any time to–change the law."

Bill Clinton, by contrast, has never suggested any such thing. He has never questioned the idea that the government should police sexual conduct in the workplace as a way of preventing discrimination. He has never even expressed doubts about extensions of this principle that many liberals consider excessive, such as the prohibition of dirty jokes or suggestive cartoons.

To the contrary, Clinton is allied with the feminists and trial lawyers who specialize in pushing the limits of sexual harassment law. One of their accomplishments was legitimizing the very line of inquiry to which Clinton objected in the Paula Jones case. It is by now well established that a plaintiff in a sexual harassment suit can cast a dredge net in what was once considered the defendant's private life.

Several commentators, including Cathy Young in the August/September issue of Reason magazine, have noted that conservatives who once criticized this and other manifestations of sexual harassment law seem to have put aside their misgivings in the rush to condemn Clinton. But such conservatives, like Starr himself, can fall back on the argument that the law is the law, and it's always wrong to lie under oath.

I don't have that luxury. I reject the premise that unjust laws must be obeyed, and I can imagine situations where lying to the government is not only acceptable but morally required. So I cannot lightly dismiss the arguments of readers who complain that I have sacrificed principle to political expediency by criticizing Clinton's coverup of his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

"I am not interested in the President's sex life or in your sex life," said one of my correspondents. "If anyone asked about my sex life, I would not answer and, if pressed, would probably lie…It is just nobody's business, and whatever the President did or said to cover up his actions should be defended."

As I told this reader, I would be much more sympathetic to Clinton if he had taken a principled stand against sexual harassment law. If he had refused to respond to questions about his sex life on the ground that it was nobody's business, and if he had furthermore insisted that no one should be put in such a position because of sexual harassment allegations, he would have not only my sympathy but my admiration.

Likewise if he had warned the American public about the dangers of granting a prosecutor the sort of sweeping powers exercised by the independent counsel and had resisted the Starr investigation based on that concern. But Clinton has in fact supported government-backed probes into people's sex lives in the name of gender equality, and he pushed for renewal of the independent counsel statute. To this day, he has not renounced either invitation to abuse.

Suppose Clinton had smoked marijuana in the White House instead of having sex with a subordinate, and suppose he had repeatedly lied about it under oath, to his staff, and to the public (or, to make the parallel closer, suppose he had lied about something that was legal in itself but related to the offense, such as meeting with a known drug dealer). Suppose he had encouraged others to back up his lies.

Now, I don't think smoking marijuana should be illegal. But Clinton does. He enthusiastically supports a war on drugs that punishes people for ingesting politically incorrect chemicals. How much standing, then, would he have to argue that his pot smoking was nobody's business but his own and that lying about it was a legitimate act of self-defense?

In such a situation, as in the current scandal, Clinton would not be questioning the law; he would simply be claiming a special exemption for himself. That sort of attitude is contemptible in anyone; in the nation's chief law enforcement officer, it may well be intolerable.