In Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Purloined Letter,” a bold and ingenious thief “hides” a stolen note by leaving it, crumpled and defaced, in plain sight in his room. There it sits unnoticed for months while the police, repeatedly searching the thief’s apartment in his absence, tear open the furniture and look for secret panels on the floor and walls. The letter is finally recovered by the detective C. Auguste Dupin—Poe’s proto-Sherlock Holmes—who observes that sometimes a thing is most cunningly concealed when it is right out in the open.
Something similar may happen in the life of nations. Sometimes the most significant or striking aspect of an event is right there for all to see, yet still remains unseen because everyone is looking at or talking about everything else. This was true of Bill Clinton’s speech last week at the Democratic National Convention.
By all accounts the speech was highly effective. Even conservative commentators concede the point. Moreover, it is likely that whatever political benefit the Democratic Party is getting from the convention is due to Clinton’s speech rather than President Obama’s. Even many of the president’s supporters regard his speech as somewhat lackluster, so presumably the credit for the party’s modest polling bounce is to be given to Clinton’s oratory instead.
What all this talk about the greatness of Clinton’s speech overlooks is the astounding fact—astounding at least from a certain perspective—that he was present to deliver any speech at all.
The nation seems not only to have forgiven but even forgotten—or tacitly agreed to pretend to have forgotten—that Bill Clinton disgraced himself and the office of the presidency by his personal misconduct on the job. As a fifty-year-old man, in a position of the highest responsibility, he had an affair with a White House intern who was in her early twenties. This was an act not only of self-indulgence but even of exploitation, or at the very least culpable thoughtlessness.
A young woman immature and reckless enough to seek a sexual affair with an older married man—an affair that might ruin his marriage and his career—is clearly not thinking soberly about what she is doing. A man of excellent character would have regarded such a young woman with sadness and fatherly concern. A man of ordinary decency would have stayed far away from her. A man of base character would seize the opportunity to use her as a sexual plaything. By his actions Clinton placed himself in the third category. He then lied under oath about the sordid affair in a civil case arising from his earlier alleged misbehavior. He finally admitted his wrongdoing and apologized—after every dishonest expedient had proven useless.
There was a time in America, not too long ago, when someone exposed as such a man would not have been welcome at the national convention of either political party. His misdeeds would have gone unmentioned in our public discourse not because they were regarded as irrelevant, but because everyone on all sides would want to forget that such a character could have attained and then tainted the presidency.
Clinton’s misdeeds set off a partisan war over whether he should be permitted to continue in the presidency. A majority of Republicans thought he should be impeached and removed from office, while a majority of Democrats disagreed. The final outcome reflected a kind of compromise: Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives but not removed by the Senate.
This collective judgment, made through the collaboration of the relevant authoritative institutions, says something about our nation’s moral standards, about what things we take seriously and not so seriously. The presidency is not only a job but also an honor. We expect those who occupy the office to be not merely competent in the work but also of a certain character. The Clinton impeachment and non-removal, therefore, represents the nation’s judgment that a man guilty of predatory adultery and self-protective perjury is nevertheless worthy of the highest honor the republic can bestow. And, being worthy of this highest honor, he is obviously worthy of lesser honors, such as addressing a major political party’s nominating convention in the capacity of a kind of elder statesman.
Are we, then, to regard Clinton’s presidency, and his continued public respectability, as a serious defeat for the common good? I think so, but no doubt many of my fellow citizens on the left will disagree. A short article such as this cannot settle the question. Nevertheless, it is possible here to point out the very real costs of Clinton’s presidency, specifically the costs of the arguments that were used by his supporters in order to preserve him in office.
Clinton’s most ardent defenders held that his conduct was really not very serious. Some, in fact, openly contended that his illicit affair was the kind of behavior that one should expect from any powerful man. These defenders, therefore, did what was in their power to teach young American women—our daughters—that they should expect their husbands to be adulterers if they should become successful and powerful men, and at the same time, of course, taught young American men—our sons—that they could rightly be adulterers if they should achieve high status and influence in the community. This lesson was taught by supporters of that political party which, then as now, claims to be the special defender of the rights and dignity of women.
Clinton’s more moderate defenders conceded that his misbehavior was serious and deserving of public rebuke, but that it nevertheless did not rise to the level of an impeachable offense. They made this argument not only in relation to his sexual adventurism, but also in relation to his perjuries and efforts to suborn perjury.
Although perjury of any kind is a crime, they contended that perjury in a civil suit—recall that Clinton was lying to protect himself from a sexual harassment lawsuit arising from his time as governor of Arkansas—is not serious enough to warrant impeachment of a president. They thus overlooked, ignored, or simply did not know about George Washington’s admonition in his “Farewell Address” that the rights of all citizens to the most precious things—life, liberty, property, and reputation—depend on our ability to expect that those testifying in court can be relied upon to tell the truth.
By publicly belittling the seriousness of Clinton’s attempts to pervert justice, his more moderate defenders thus did what was in their power to undermine the security of their fellow citizens’ rights. It is also worth noting that a civil lawsuit, with the accompanying power to compel truthful testimony, is one of the most important means by which the weak and poor can hope to remedy injustices perpetrated on them by the powerful and wealthy. The efficacy of this institution was thus undermined by the supporters of that political party which, then as now, claims to be the special defender of the interests of the poor and weak against the depredations of the strong and wealthy.
None of this is to say that Bill Clinton should not be forgiven for his deeds; but it is possible to forgive a man while still imposing the proper punishment as necessary to protecting elevated standards of conduct. A society that could not forgive Bill Clinton would be a defective society. But a society that honors him as a leading public figure is also defective, because its ongoing honoring of him is incompatible with honoring the standards that he trampled upon as president, standards that are essential to the common good. Nor is it to say that Clinton’s presidency was a failure in every respect. But it involved, as we have noted, some very serious costs to our public culture; and it is worth recalling those costs, to which most of us are apparently oblivious but which would be glaringly obvious to our ancestors.