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Presidential privilege

The threshold for removal is low because the office is high

Issue: "Clinton unites conservatives," Oct. 10, 1998

Right at the core of too much of the debate about President Clinton's future is a bizarre assumption by way too many citizens that a president has some sort of right to the office of the presidency.

Such people need to understand that the office is a high and marvelous privilege for the person who occupies it-but never a right. Does a president enjoy fewer safeguards against "invasion of privacy" than might hold for ordinary citizens? Of course he does. It's the very nature of going into public life. Is there a lower standard of guilt that must be established to remove a president from office than is required in a traditional criminal case? You'd better believe it.

The distinction between a privilege and a right is assumed in the profound biblical wisdom that "to whom much is given, much is required." That's why we still talk about how Caesar's wife had to live a life above reproach. Certainly, there were thousands of women who lived during the time of Caesar who, even though their ethics and morality fell short, have never been remarked on. Yet it was absolutely assumed that the record of Caesar's own wife must be clean.

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It's also why Gordon MacDonald, one of President Clinton's three new so-called "pastors," properly asserted in his book Rebuilding Your Broken World that leaders who stumble publicly should withdraw to a quiet place. "This is no hour for plotting what politicians call a comeback," Mr. MacDonald wrote several years ago. Discipline is required, and that "usually means restrictions: being relieved of certain responsibilities."

A "time out," away from the limelight, is a good idea for wounded leaders even when specific guilt has not been established. When a quarterback takes a hard lick and comes up with something of a blank look in his eyes, it's a wise coach who benches him for a few plays until he gets his legs back. It may not even be for punishment. So if the wisdom holds when there've been no infractions, how much more when the rule-breaking has been flagrant?

But the distinction between a privilege and a right is also at the very heart of the impeachment process as spelled out so simply by the U.S. Constitution. While some people complain that the law is vague, the Constitution's framers deliberately gave Congress wide latitude in the matter. By referring as they did to "high crimes and misdemeanors"-but with no specific definitions included for those terms-the early fathers seem consciously to have left this sobering determination to the current wisdom available in any particular Congress. If that seems a bit untidy and risky, maybe they feared that the presidency itself would produce a few exceptionally slick rascals along the way for whom only such an untidy and risky process would work.

It's as if they fully suspected someone would eventually come along to assume the office who would be just as simultaneously careless and careful as Bill Clinton has been. He would clearly deserve to have the office stripped away from him, but he would also have been savvy enough to keep half the population asking, "But did he really break the law?" He would be such a clever legalist that the only ultimately suitable response would be a justly angry Congress that finally rose up like an outraged parent and said, "I don't care what you did and what you said; you were a very bad boy!"

Sadly, of course, we seem not even to have a Congress ready to bite that bullet. Always politically cautious, even in the face of more than 100 major newspapers of all persuasions wanting Mr. Clinton out of office, men and women who should know better are still quibbling over the president's "rights," and letting the needs of the country hang in the balance. Leaders who forget privilege and focus on rights will sooner or later discover that rights as well have mysteriously disappeared.

But that's who we are. We have become a citizenry taught to see everything in terms of rights rather than privilege. The only thing we can see as "high and lifted up" is our own list of personal guarantees. Our view of the presidency is so tawdry that we no longer really care what kind of person occupies it, so long as he keeps reminding us how much our government owes us.

The distinction between "rights" and "privilege" explains why you don't hear anyone these days, even among the president's diehard defenders, saying things like: "Aren't we privileged to have a man like that to lead us?" Even to think of people asking so preposterous a question helps explain the bewildering polls in which the American public keeps saying, "Yes, we know what kind of man we have as president. Never mind. It doesn't matter."


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