One day after Sen. Fred Thompson raised the white flag in his hearings that were to have exposed the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign as a monument to sleaze and unprecedented illegalities, Bill Clinton was running a victory lap at the Amelia Island, Fla., resort. Fifty fat cats paid $50,000 each to schmooze with the president. Two and a half million dollars went to Democratic campaign coffers that have been sorely depleted because so much foreign money had to be returned after questions were raised about its origin.
In what may be a new low even for this administration, the president told the donors: "The party with the most money wins." Whatever became of "the party with the best ideas wins"? Victory is now secured when one side outspends the other on TV ads, not when one side out-debates the other.
Democratic National Chairman Roy Roemer exulted: "There's two press for every guest here, and that's the way Democrats like it." As if to underscore his point, NBC's John Palmer played in President Clinton's golf foursome. The press is not only in bed with the president, refusing to broadcast some of the most potentially damaging stories about Democratic fundraising, but some journalists now see no problem in playing games with the man they are supposed to be covering.
While Sen. Thompson shares part of the blame for the hearings' failure to live up to his boast that they would reveal a trail of Chinese campaign cash designed to influence several American elections, the real culprit is the public and its refusal to be outraged.
The president correctly judged the public mood, and his supporters apparently convinced a majority of people that "everybody does it" and that all politicians are pretty much the same. But if we are so cynical that we believe all politicians are alike and we demand nothing better, then nothing better is what we will get. Most politicians only rise (or fall) to the expectation levels demanded of them.
If the economy and feeling good are all that matter, we are setting ourselves up for a fall. As William Bennett reminds us in his collection of "advice from the Founders" called Our Sacred Honor, our form of government and way of life cannot be sustained apart from a virtuous foundation. Mr. Bennett quotes John Adams on that point. In 1765, the same year as the Stamp Act was passed, John Adams wrote a "Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law" in which he said that the people have "an indisputable, unalienable, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge; I mean, of the characters and conduct of their rulers."
But what if the people in sufficient numbers become preoccupied not with virtue but with vice, such as their own pursuit of personal peace and a never-ending quest for affluence that blinds them to the character of their leaders? Then they will get the leadership that reflects their attitude, which is precisely what we now have. Mr. Clinton gets away with blatant campaign finance law-breaking, and the polls show that few seem to care. How far we've come from Noah Webster, who believed "the virtues of men are of more consequence to society than their abilities."
On the House side, Rep. Dan Burton will soldier on with hearings, but he is unlikely to be more successful than the Thompson committee. The president and his men no doubt believe they can get away with anything now. Sufficient numbers of people feel good about Bill Clinton, and we can be sure that making us feel good will continue to be the primary occupation of this president.
O.J. Simpson waited a few days after his acquittal before playing golf. The president's confidence is so high that he's out plowing for more dough the day after Thompson's announcement of no more hearings. If we get the leadership we deserve, we must have done some really bad things.
© 1997, Los Angeles Times Syndicate