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Why Clinton can't govern

There's still this bothersome tie with the past

Issue: "Clinton: Capitol crimes?," Sept. 26, 1998

It's been four weeks now since I suggested in this space several reasons, rooted in principle, why President Clinton should resign his office. Although the opinion struck some as brash when WORLD said on its Aug. 29 cover that it was "Time to resign," a surprising number of the nation's columnists and commentators-perhaps even a majority now-have during those few weeks come to agree. Many others, of course, still do not. To listen to the opinion polls, the American people are lagging considerably behind the "media elite" (see p. 22, "A man-bites-dog story") in concluding that the president is no longer fit for office. They don't like what he's done, many say, but they still don't see his action as basis for removal. Let's learn our lessons, they say, and-to use Mr. Clinton's repeated counsel-move on with the nation's business. If only we could. The problem is that there's still this bothersome tie with the past. There are all these much-too-real connections and reminders between the things Mr. Clinton has already done and the common, everyday things a nation likes to have a president do-but which now he either just flat can't do or should be highly embarrassed to do if ever called upon.
For example: (1) The presidency by all standards is, and ought to be, a consuming task. Even if he escapes with nothing more than a reprimand, Mr. Clinton will of necessity continue to be distracted over the next two years by the fallout from his misbehavior. There will be more lawsuits and more accusations to go along with the tedious mopping up of the mess already on the floor. There's no way even the energetic Mr. Clinton can give the country the time and the focus it deserves. And let no one blame that on his critics; it is the natural consequence of his own behavior. (2) Then there's the issue of his trustworthiness and believability. If it's true that citizens have a preexisting inclination to discount everything said by public officials these days, how much steeper is the cost to a president who has with such calculation lied repeatedly to us all? Can he, his aides, and his party blame any of us for carrying a large degree of cynicism with us for the rest of his term, however long that may be? Can any of the nation's business really get done under such circumstances? (3) These first two points come to bear most acutely on that aspect of the presidency that interests many people least but which is perhaps his most important: the conduct of foreign policy. If that task was daunting during the Cold War, it is even more complex and tedious these days, demanding all the energy a president can muster. And the foreign-policy task, even more than domestic issues, demands believability. Our country's foes, as well as its allies, must know that the word of the president and his people is as good as gold. Without such trustworthiness, there is no deterrence to our enemies and no glue to cement our friendships. (4) The administration of justice is paramount. There was concern during the distribution of the Starr report-and properly so-that fairness be observed, that the president's rights be kept in mind. But how can our nation now not be deeply infected with new cynicism about the fairness of the whole process? Within recent months, military officers, school administrators, and corporation officers have all lost their jobs for lesser offenses than that already admitted by the president. Judges have been impeached and removed from their benches. Will those penalties now be undone? Or will the population at large be emboldened to imitate the president's crass behavior? Or will we simply live with a double standard that by its very nature unravels our society? (5) There are also the specific issues Mr. Clinton has always said he wants to be his legacy: women's rights, for example, both here in the United States and in Muslim countries. But the snicker echoes throughout the world. And there's education. But do we set aside all propriety and continue to welcome this sexual predator to our elementary schools and to our college and university campuses as platforms for his program proposals? Even if he escapes impeachment and agrees to some sort of congressional reprimand, ought there not to be some terms for his probation? And generosity. Here's the man who wanted to establish a late '90s model of the Peace Corps through which young adults could volunteer their best years to serve various human needs under the sponsorship of their federal government. So Bill Clinton's the one who will show them now what a truly selfless spirit is all about, and how they should put the common good ahead of personal ambition? There is, you see, an unalterable and unbreakable linkage between our personal lives and our public performance. The same linkage binds our moral obligations to the practical living out of our day-by-day schedules. It's why it makes no sense at all to say that we're just going to get on with the nation's business. You don't glance at a shoddy foundation, throw on a few shovelfuls of dirt to cover the defects, and pretend to get on with building a skyscraper.

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Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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