The clearest picture of our society's moral decline has less to do with Bill Clinton's shameful sexual behavior than it does with the strange idea that the duty to tell the truth can be turned off and on like a switch.
Both before and after Mr. Clinton made his famous four-minute speech, long hours of network commentary and countless column inches of print media explored whether the president was actually "under oath" when he said particular things. It was as if he had been attached not to the famous little black box that follows him wherever he goes, allowing him to activate a nuclear strike if necessary, but to some exotic meter that tells whether his conscience is in an on or off position. Both the media commentators-and way too many of us citizens-have gone along with the game.
But presidents, even with all their vaunted power, don't have the privilege of carrying around such a special device. Presidents, even more than most people, are already under oath. They are always under oath.
This is true in both a specific and a general manner. Specifically, President Clinton has twice taken the oath of office. In January 1993, and again four years later, he solemnly swore "that I will faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States." To suggest, even for a moment, that the person who takes that enormous oath can then attach a toggle switch to it, is to say that no promise of any kind ever has any meaning at all. The whole point of putting a Bible under one hand while he raises the other is to say to the people in very specific terms: "You can trust me!"
But even if there were no such formal occasion, a president would be under no less an obligation. His running for the office in the first place, his efforts to keep the election process honest, and then his walking through the gates surrounding the White House and into the Oval Office (a room Ronald Reagan would not enter without a coat and tie)-all these are statements by any honorable person that he will speak nothing but the truth to those who send him there. That is what trust is all about. The cabinet members, aides, and staff who work for such a person, and the media people who cover his words and actions-yes, such people will now and then give their boss a little room to tell a stretcher or to do some political PR. But if even they don't know when he's got his fingers crossed behind his back, and then justifies his falsehoods by claiming like a second-grader that he was just pretending, all those relationships will also soon come crashing down. That's exactly what you began to see last week. It may happen slowly, or it may all come down at once-but it will indeed come down.
That same general sense of obligation, of course, rests upon us all. The ability to expect truthtelling underlies the most elementary of all human relationships. Nobody likes being lied to. You can even persuade people that it's OK for their son to be a homosexual activist, or for their daughter to have an abortion. But don't try lying to those same people!
So if you don't like being lied to-and naturally you do not-then a basic understanding of the Golden Rule says you will not lie to others. It is, in one sense, the essence of our humanity simply because it lies so close to the character of God himself, in whose image we are made. To suppose that you can trust God to be true to his word on Mondays, but never on Thursdays; or when he is in heaven, but never when out to sea-that is to destroy the essence of who God is. No, you will not keep the standard perfectly, because you are still only human and not God; but neither will you mock the standard by claiming that sometimes your friends can expect it of you and that other times they just can't. Trust is about the pattern you have a right to expect.
But the pattern Americans now legitimately expect from their top leader is an unending string of falsehoods. Even when he goes about the task of confessing wrongdoing, he bathes the confession itself in still more lies. In a single breath, he admits that "I was wrong" but proceeds immediately to claim, "I never asked anyone to lie"-when clearly for many months that's virtually all he's asked everyone around him to do.
A few weeks ago, it seemed extreme to insist on Mr. Clinton's resignation as president. His latest behavior makes it a modest demand. A partisan Republican might see value in keeping a weakened president in office for the rest of his term; but that is to put partisanship ahead of the nation's needs.
The nation needs a truth teller as its leader-and that is behavior it now seems clear even a string of oaths could never inculcate in Bill Clinton.