You're Saved, Mr. President. Now Resign


Among the many questions that I am asked by my devoted readers is, "What are the leading pitfalls that a distinguished columnist should avoid?" I reply by warning against ever using the expression "happy campers," or listening to editors, or beginning columns with bogus questions from nonexistent readers. Above all, I warn against wishful thinking, that tiresome practice in which editorial-page hacks advise powerful people to do things that they will obviously never do. Thus sentences like "Slobodan Milosevic should now step aside for the good of his country" should under no circumstances be written. And ditto for the sentence "Bill Clinton should now step aside for the good of his country."

Nonetheless, the wise columnist, like the great chef, knows that rules are sometimes meant to be broken, particularly when the standard dishes are stale. And so this column is dedicated to the proposition that Bill Clinton should now step aside for the good of his country.

Yes, I am perfectly serious, although admittedly in more of a wry, rabbinical way than an earnest, Episcopalian way. Sure, it is a fact that you could not pry Bill Clinton from office with a crowbar and a jackhammer. It is also a fact that until his acquittal I opposed his resignation, just as I opposed his impeachment and his conviction. Still, it's a good mental exercise, and helpful in understanding the real but underappreciated social damage that the Clinton-Jones-Lewinsky matter has both caused and reflected, to consider why, in a more perfect world, Clinton would now pass the Oval Office keys to Al Gore and say goodbye.

The most important word in the proposition above is the adverb "now." Constitutionally speaking, it is much easier for Congress to impeach a President than to cut his travel budget. A simple majority in one chamber suffices to impeach, whereas passing even a District of Columbia appropriation over a President's objections requires two-thirds of both chambers.

In 1998, for Clinton to have resigned in the face of a tendentious partisan impeachment would have been a blow not only to Clinton but to the Constitution, because it would have taught every subsequent Congress how to hound a President from office without having to prove, or even necessarily allege, high crimes and misdemeanors. First a hostile House majority finds some reason to impeach, then it demands resignation to avert the nightmare of impeachment. If any such strategy had worked, imagine the fires that the next bunch of political arsonists could set. And imagine how the constitutional balance of power would shift toward Congress.

Today, of course, Clinton is no longer under any threat of removal. Even censure is a fading possibility, which is fine (who cares what Congress thinks of the President?). Having won, he is at liberty to resign entirely of his own will. All right, he won't. Still, he should.

From the beginning, the implications of the Clinton-Jones-Lewinsky affair were misunderstood by everyone except the broad public. The Republicans claimed that letting Clinton off without formal legal punishment would damage the rule of law. But what was always much more worrisome was the damage done, by Clinton and the law, to the code of honor.

In matters of personal deportment and public truth-telling, the code of honor predates the rule of law by about, oh, a hundred millennia. Although surely imperfect, the old code is a great deal more perfect than, say, the new sexual-harassment laws. It is nuanced and flexible and almost infinitely adaptable to situations that are always singular; and it is surprisingly good at discovering and punishing louts, without the depositions and discoveries and lawyer bills and technicalities and quasi-criminal punishments and scorched-earth strategies and all the other medieval horrors of the legal process. Among the most important of its rules is this: If you're going to be an adulterous Captain Grope, and if you persist in your behavior despite clear signals that people notice and care, you can expect to be shunned by your peers, marginalized by your betters, and excluded from society's most prestigious reaches.

If the Archbishop of Canterbury were heard to shout blasphemous oaths at penitents, he would be expected to quit, and he should quit. If Alan Greenspan were to come reeling drunk to a Federal Open Market Committee meeting, he would be expected to quit, and he should quit. If a university president were found to have helped his daughter cheat on her exams, he would be expected to quit, and he should quit. That is what honor means.

Maybe the severest damage that the Clinton-Jones-Lewinsky scandal has done is to affirm that loutish behavior by eminent people is a proper province of law, rather than convention. In fact, the law has not only elbowed aside convention, it has positively subverted it. The voters knew that Clinton had behaved despicably. But they were rightly more frightened by the inquisitorial machinery of Kenneth Starr, the political lawyering of the Paula Corbin Jones people, and the ruthless partisan conniving of House Republican Whip Tom DeLay. And so they rallied to Clinton.

This is natural. If your son kills Farmer Fred's prize pig and Farmer Fred comes and complains, you say, "How dare you!" to your son. If your son kills Farmer Fred's prize pig and Farmer Fred puts a gun to your son's head and threatens to kill him, you say, "How dare you!" to Farmer Fred. Perversely, the legal and political assault on Clinton foreclosed the passionate public condemnation that the man richly deserved.

So now we are left in the worst of worlds. The President of the United States is a flagrantly dishonorable man, but the wholly inappropriate punishment touted by his prosecutors as the only adequate sanction has collapsed. Henry Hyde and company put all their eggs in the wrong basket, and now the eggs are broken and so is the basket. What next?

It is probably safe to assume that Clinton will not resign in order to face criminal prosecution as a civilian. He might, however, serve out his term and then face prosecution in 2001. That would be all right. It would honor the people's desire to keep him, and it would reaffirm that no one is above the law. But it would also reinforce the unfortunate message that the law is the weapon of first resort against the sort of social problem–boorishness and petty dishonesty–that people like Bill Clinton pose.

On the other hand, Clinton might serve out his term and then not face prosecution. This is what Henry Hyde, the House Judiciary Committee chairman, says he favors, and it also would be all right, because it would put the Clinton-Jones-Lewinsky affair behind us, where it belongs. But it, too, would have a cost. It would establish that a President can disgrace himself and stain his office and tough it out and even thrive, provided only that his enemies are scarier than he is.

The remaining option is the best of the sorry lot: Clinton would resign now and be spared any further legal repercussions. This course has its disadvantages–such as its utter implausibility–but, as a thought experiment, imagine the benefits.

For Clinton, resigning now would bring a measure of real honor in the eyes of history. For his last official act as President (the historians would say), he reached deep inside and summoned up some character. The act would be redemptive, even transforming.

For society, his resignation (with no further legal action) would retrieve final disposition of the Clinton-Jones-Lewinsky affair from the ham-handed, five-thumbed, mostly incompetent, often counterproductive, and always expensive clutches of the law, and return the matter to the court of honor. Better still, Clinton's resignation would ringingly proclaim, and thus reclaim, the ancient distinction between the responsibly irresponsible and the irresponsibly irresponsible: between grown-ups who misbehave but take their lumps and juveniles who dance away. Clinton's freely given resignation would signal that, in the highest precincts of the greatest nation in the lattermost age of human civilization, the honor code is not dead.

So go, Bill Clinton! Redeem yourself in the eyes of your community, like the village pastor who takes his leave after being caught ministering to some maiden's more earthly needs. Redeem yourself, and in doing so, strengthen the honor code that you have so grievously weakened.

Of course, Clinton won't go, and the honor code is, if not dead, at least gasping for air. Ah, well. At least there are lots and lots of laws to replace it. Soon there will be lots and lots and lots of laws to replace it. Laws written by people like Bill Clinton and enforced by people like Ken Starr.

By the way, Slobodan Milosevic should now step aside for the good of his country.