More and more, reading the newspapers gives one the feeling of wandering in a phantasmagorical dream-house in which nothing is as it seems. You know the dream. Solid objects cannot be trusted to be solid; empty space cannot be trusted to be empty. Hands pass through walls, yet bodies cannot pass through an open door. The floor quakes, though it ought to be as steady as rock; if you step on the wrong tile, a trap-door opens and you slide down a chute into Somewhere Else.
For me the trap-door opened sometime after January, when the Clinton scandal broke. It wasn't the tales of lechery that gave me the feeling that I no longer knew where I was; nor was it the lies under oath, the soiling of the office, the corruption of subordinates, or the intimidation of everyone who might talk. No, what opened the trap-door for me was the polls that showed that two-thirds of my countrymen knew about it all, but thought the man on the watch was doing a good job. I no longer knew where I was because I no longer knew who I was with.
Increasing the sense of unreality is that those who want to bring the president to justice have an inherently stronger position yet act as though it were weak, while those who excuse him have an inherently weaker position yet act as though it were strong. It seems that the former lack the courage of their convictions, while the latter have the courage of their lack thereof.
What is the explanation of this mystery? Can we overcome our nightmare feelings and achieve some insight into what is going on?
Two things must be remembered. One is that our countrymen really do know what justice requires in the matter. The other is that they really don't want to admit that they do. The party of accusation can be effective only by bold reliance on the fact that the public knows; the party of exoneration, only by shameless reliance on the equally compelling fact that the public denies. Regrettably, although the exonerators understand and capitalize on public denial, the accusers have lost confidence in public conscience. Why should we believe that our countrymen know what justice requires? Because God has made us in his image, and although that image can be obscured, it can never be simply erased. For all our relativistic bravado, we know there is a law, and we know when we have broken it. If it were not so, God would not hold us responsible. Sinners though we are, we know not only that we should do right but that we should call each other to account for doing wrong: the strong with the weak, the high with the low.
Why then do our countrymen deny what they really know? Because if they accuse their highest statesman they accuse themselves. We the people knew what kind of a man we were choosing when we elected him-both times. We knew he was a liar, a manipulator, and a cheat. It was not that we disbelieved the mountain of evidence; it was that we did not wish to be reminded of it. It was not that we wanted corruption, but that we wanted other things more than avoiding it. Desiring other things more than virtue, in the end we got them and not virtue.
Besides, the president's sins, though lurid, bear an unpleasant resemblance to our own. More and more of us have more and more reason to be ashamed of ourselves. If we shudder less at what he has done than at the fact that it has been exposed, the reason is that our own lives could not bear exposure. If we find him a lovable scoundrel, it is because it takes the comparison with a scoundrel to make us feel lovable again.
These are not reasons to let the scoundrel off the hook, but reasons to keep him on it. By bringing him to judgment we take responsibility for accepting him. He may not repent; he may go on mouthing the words of repentance while denying, through lawyers, the very thing he says he regrets. But we can repent. We can repent of conniving at his vice; we can repent of marrying the whole nation to a man to whom we could not trust our daughters.
Cleansing our House is a step toward cleansing all our houses. It is time to turn him out.