A little goes a long way

On the impeachment battle, some principle is better than none

Issue: "Year in Review 1998," Dec. 26, 1998

So what was it, when the impeachment process seemed dead in the water a month ago in the wake of the November elections, that suddenly pumped new life into it? When pundits, commentators, analysts, and experts everywhere insisted that Slick Willie had implausibly outwitted his tormentors one more time, how did he suddenly find himself on the ropes again?

Make no mistake about it. From Election Day until early November, conventional wisdom had it that only a foolish politician would utter the word "impeachment" favorably. To pursue it would be political suicide. So discredited was the impeachment idea that a Speaker of the House stepped aside, and his replacement seemed afraid to call for anything but a kinder and gentler form of punishment. Even in this space only last week, I referred to a legislative branch of government "so tentative it hardly knows what a principle is."

What happened? No one produced a smoking gun. Ken Starr had no last-minute witnesses or surprises. No new polls suggested voters suddenly wanted to see a little backbone. But the late turn of events is similar to a scoreless baseball game in the late innings. The other team can't get the ball out of the infield, but if you can manage to score just one run even against a crafty knuckleballer like Bill Clinton, it's all you need.

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So what's happened in the last several days is testimony not so much to the brilliance and savvy of the president's critics as it is to the total poverty and destitution of his defenders. Some principle, little as it might be, still trumps none at all.

Some principle is about all the good guys seem to have produced over the last dozen months. Even now, some is all we should give them credit for. American citizens should be astonished that after all their president has done, it should be so difficult and iffy an issue to bring him to account. While other citizens sit in jail for lesser offenses, he jets freely around the world trying to assure us, and other nations, that his word means something. Why should it be so hard to snag someone considered last week by nine Americans out of ten to be a perjurer?

It's hard because we live more and more in a society where even those with some principles are way too enamored of those with none. Never mind for the time being those few with lots of principles. Just add some to none, and you probably have an overwhelmingly unbeatable majority. And recently, the some crowd has been far too willing to roll over and play dead for the none folks.

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) summed it up well. "It's the very nature of the beast," he said. "A moderate tends to be a person-and I plead guilty to this and don't apologize to anyone-who recognizes that on most issues, there is more than one side. The moderates agonize." Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) illustrated such agonizing when he said early in the historic week, "I'm still up in the air on how I'll vote. I'm disappointed [in the president's apology], but I'm not holding it against him."

That's what I mean by rolling over and playing dead-which has far too often characterized the some people.

An amazing thing about what we call God's common grace, though, is how small a portion is usually required to season the whole ugly lump. Throughout human history, God has seen to it that when even a tiny minority stands up for the cause of justice and righteousness, a disproportionate wave can be produced that sweeps across the landscape and often washes away the dishonesty and fear of the larger crowd.

In other words, it doesn't take much. In God's scheme of things, it's not about majorities edging out minorities. It's about minorities hearing the call to faithfulness and sticking by their guns, come hell or high water. Whether it's in our personal lives, our families, our education, our businesses, our communities, or in national politics, God has a way of taking a small step of obedience and making it ever so much bigger than we ever intended or could have anticipated.

Over the last couple of weeks in Washington, a few congressmen-from both parties-apparently concluded they were weary of living only by the polls and popular opinion. Their consciences finally got the better of them.

Self-righteous as we all are, the rest of us could very well learn from the example of such stalwarts. We may not have a whole lot of courage in all the other walks of life to do what is right. But some still trumps none.

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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