What We've Learned

February 10, 1999

By William J. Bennett, author of "The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals" (Free Press, 1998).

Later this week the impeachment trial will come to an end and, by all accounts, President Clinton will not be convicted and removed from office. Many people have written well about how Mr. Clinton's squalid affair and his subsequent criminal acts have damaged the nation. But this ordeal has also been deeply revealing and instructive about the state of our two national political parties, the American people and this American president. We know things about all of them that we did not know before.

  • Profiles in Courage. We know that many congressional Republicans, particularly House Republicans, took a big political risk because of their dedication to justice. This was a noble act, even if it is not widely recognized as such. At every step in the process Republicans could have dropped the impeachment issue, won praise from the elite media, and followed the polls that suggest the American people weren't with them. Instead they decided to do their duty.

Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr presented Republicans with overwhelming evidence of criminal wrongdoing by the president. That case grows stronger with every passing day, and some of the president's own supporters acknowledge that he lied to a federal grand jury and obstructed justice. Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D., W.Va.), who two weeks ago sponsored a motion to dismiss the trial, now says that Mr. Clinton's actions do rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors. "I have no doubt that he has given false testimony under oath," Mr. Byrd said this weekend. "There are indications he did indeed obstruct justice."

[Henry Hyde]

Can anyone seriously argue that perjury and obstruction of justice aren't high crimes or misdemeanors? Recall that it was lying before a federal grand jury that convinced an overwhelming number of senators on both sides of the aisle to remove Judge Walter L. Nixon Jr. in 1989. Here is what Sen. Herb Kohl (D., Wis.) said at that time: "Judge Nixon lied to the grand jury. He misled the grand jury. These acts are indisputably criminal and warrant impeachment."

Yet for trying to apply the same standard to Mr. Clinton, House managers have been portrayed as fanatics, a lynch mob, enemies of the Constitution. Reps. Henry Hyde, Asa Hutchinson, James Rogan, Lindsay Graham and other members of the House Thirteen are authentic profiles in political courage. Perhaps other Republicans will learn from them the habit of standing up for principle and holding firmly to the truth. These are good things in their own right, and may one day even be a cause for popular support.

  • Shame of the Democratic Party. It is now a mantra among Democrats that the president's conduct was "reprehensible," "immoral," "indefensible," "unforgivable" and "unacceptable," but that, well, it does not deserve impeachment and conviction. Even if you believe the president's criminal conduct somehow does not rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors, there was another option open to all those Democrats who claim to have been so deeply offended by what the president did: They could have called on him to resign.

If Democrats believed what the president did was as bad as they claim, then why didn't a single Democratic party leader (let alone a contingent of Democrats) go to Mr. Clinton, or even to a camera, and tell him: "Mr. President, you have disgraced the office and our party. You have forfeited the moral authority necessary to lead this great party. We cannot countenance your actions and we will not allow you to be our standard-bearer. You must resign." With the honorable exception of former Rep. Paul McHale, not one Democratic officeholder told truth to corrupt power.

In an attempt to convince the public that they think what the president did was really wrong, Democrats have sought protection under the cover of censure. But merely scolding the president will not do, and we have a right to draw reasonable conclusions based on the Democratic Party's failure of will and conscience. This past year's long train of events demonstrates that the Democratic Party is willing to hold as acceptable a standard of presidential conduct that includes sex with young interns; emphatic, and repeated, lies to the American people; lies to the cabinet and personal staff; lies that were then promulgated on national television, in print and before a federal grand jury; "wars" against officers of the court; vicious lies about people he considers a threat to his political viability; lies during civil depositions; lies before federal grand juries; and obstruction of justice. Perhaps the best insight into the modern Democratic Party was House Democrats holding a pep rally at the White House hours after the president had been impeached. Standing and cheering their man, they joined their corruption to his.

Twenty years ago Vaclav Havel wrote about daily life under communist rule in Eastern Europe. The Czech regime was thoroughly permeated with hypocrisy and lies. There were citizens, he wrote, who "live[d] within the lie." What he meant was that every greengrocer, every clerk who supported the regime, was normalizing falsification. Individuals may not have believed all the falsifications, Havel wrote, but they behaved as though they did, or they at least tolerated them in silence. Each individual who lived the lie became an instrument of the regime. This is what the Democratic Party has done in accepting Bill Clinton's actions, his arguments, his cause. It has become complicit in his lies; it now lives within his lies. This is a bad thing in its own right, and may one day be cause for widespread public disenchantment.

  • Demoralized American Public. There's an old joke about the lawyer who is promised unbounded success in business and love, for which he must pay in the end by giving up his soul. He asks: "What's the catch?" To paraphrase Hadley Arkes, Bill Clinton has marked off the record of an incorrigible liar and betrayer of his wife, willing to employ character assassination against those who tell the truth and willing to commit multiple felonies to cover up his infidelity--and the public says, "Yes, but what is the problem?"

This has caused cognitive dissonance among some conservatives. They argue that the poll numbers are biased and inaccurate, or that the lack of outrage against the president's conduct is a healthy sign of public indifference toward politics, or even that public support is an indication of a strong conservative instinct (a desire for stability). These wishful assertions do not square with reality.

The hard truth is that many Americans are not merely tolerating Mr. Clinton; they are embracing him. The president has higher approval ratings and is more admired today than before the Lewinsky scandal broke. He has the highest public approval rating ever recorded for a second term president, even though 84% of the public believe the president committed perjury and obstructed justice. In one recent poll, Mr. Clinton ranked first among the men Americans most admire in the world, easily outdistancing the second-place finisher, Pope John Paul II.

At every critical juncture during this scandal, when it seemed as if some damaging new revelation would lead to the downfall of the president, public opinion rescued him. Immediately following his State of the Union address--while he was on trial in the Senate--the impeached president traveled to Buffalo, N.Y., where he was treated like a hero. According to press accounts, people stood around in 30-degree weather and bought tickets from scalpers to hear Mr. Clinton, who called it "one of the great days of my presidency." It gets worse: Four out of 10 Americans say they approve of pornographer Larry Flynt's digging up dirt on Republicans, making him a good deal more popular than Mr. Starr.

It is not a polling trick, or a healthy or a conservative sign, when the majority of the public, confronted with overwhelming evidence of presidential wrongdoing and squalor, perjury and obstruction of justice, rally to his side. When they think Mr. Clinton's character is bad but no longer believe character matters. When they hold a president to a lower standard of behavior than they hold people in virtually any other profession. When they refuse to hold a president accountable for lawlessness. Or when Mr. Clinton is in many ways, for many people, the representative man of our time. These are unpleasant things to realize. But it is the way things are, and it is always better to accept reality than merely wish it away.

  • A manifestly corrupt president. This past year has revealed to us a great deal about Bill Clinton. We knew when he took office that he was a man of questionable character. But few among us could have anticipated how manifestly corrupt he is. We now know he is a sociopathic liar, willing to lie about all things, large and small. We know he abused power to satisfy his whims and grievances. We know he used a "girl" (as he called Monica Lewinsky) as a sex toy. And we know that had it not been for the semen-stained dress, he was prepared to destroy her reputation.

He systematically uses, and then destroys, women. He has contempt for the truth and for the meaning of words. He has radically lowered the standards of what we consider permissible behavior. He is willing to manipulate and disfigure even Christian forgiveness to advance his own ends. He is a man of breathtaking self-indulgence and self-absorption, forever aggrieved, always the victim, more sinned against than sinning, never responsible for the trouble in which he finds himself. He routinely makes others pay a very high price for his misconduct. A man of enormous political talent and considerable charm, he is a malignant presence in American politics and culture.

And then there are those especially shameless, hard-even-to-watch Bill Clinton moments, such as when he looked up at the first lady during his State of the Union address and said to a national television audience, "I honor her." This remark was truly a Clintonism, a term that may well enter our popular vocabulary, meaning "to tell a fantastic lie in public, accompanied by the appearance of heartfelt sincerity."

Mr. Clinton deserved to be convicted and removed from office. But the country and the Senate appear to have decided otherwise. We will move on to other matters. But we will not fully leave this issue for some time. We will see its echoes in courtrooms and classrooms, where lying will become more prevalent and will surely find refuge in the Clinton standard.

This story will go on; more shoes will drop, more doors will open, more ugly facts will come to light. Perhaps over time the public will see things for what they are. But as it is, there is no escaping the fact that Bill Clinton's Year of Lies--told and retold, not believed but accepted--has been an ignoble moment for a great people.