Not-so-private sins

The president has touched people where he shouldn't have

Issue: "End of the innocence," Jan. 30, 1999

You cannot finally measure the evil our president has wrought with an embarrassing but still superficial discussion about where and how he may have touched particular women, or how old they were, or how they related to him as an employer. All those are serious in their own way, but they ultimately distract us from the truly wicked manner in which Mr. Clinton has touched people in their even more intimate places. That touching has occurred when the president has crassly put his hands all over other people's consciences.

  • The president has trivialized the consciences of his critics. Since he first came to office, he has arrogantly mocked those who differ with him. And for as long as the office of the independent counsel has been gathering its case against him, Mr. Clinton has heaped disdain and scorn on both the process and the people who were exercising it. Not once has he had the grace to acknowledge that serious people might honestly be troubled by the things he has done. All of which is why it has been so easy for him more recently to claim that the case against him is strictly partisan. But calling the issue partisan is to dismiss as frivolous the distressed souls of sober and earnest men and women. If Mr. Clinton truly believes that more than 200 Republicans and a handful of Democrats in the House of Representatives have taken his actions overly seriously, let him say so with respect and humility. But the cheap contempt he has piled on them has coarsened the exchange.
  • The president has at the same time compromised the consciences of his defenders. The canard that this is simply a partisan issue will in the end make the Democrats, not the Republicans, look bad. The end may be many years from now, but history has a way of straightening out such matters. The marvel is not that a virtually solid Republican majority has listened to its conscience about the president's guilt. The marvel is that so few Democrats have broken ranks to say, even minimally, "Yes, you have a good point. I need to struggle with that." There is no need to be harsh here, or to whine on forever about the inappropriateness of holding a "trial" without witnesses. All we need do is remind ourselves how rare in the whole matter it has been to see the president's defenders seriously grappling with the issues. Where is the first among them to say quite simply: "This is hard!" The very fact they've all made it so easy shows how overwhelmingly their consciences have been compromised.
  • The president has through all this numbed the conscience of the nation. It is neither accurate nor fair to put on Mr. Clinton the full blame for the moral relativism that has consumed us. Such relativism has always been part of our fallen human condition, and its proponents have especially gained dominance in our own society and legal system within the last generation. But it is quite right to charge that as our nation's leader, Mr. Clinton has an extraordinary responsibility first to see the dangers of such relativism and then to be clear in warning against them. Instead, he has married himself to the very danger he should be leading us away from. Never in our nation's history has a father had to worry about watching the news with his junior high daughter, fearing what reports and what words might prompt impossible questions. Never has it been easier for a seven-year-old boy, caught in a lie to his mother, to plead that if a president can lie, why can't he? The loss of innocence is profound. The ultimate privacy barriers Bill Clinton has ripped down have little to do with sexual issues. The really lasting damage comes from his having either demolished or badly damaged the consciences of millions of people-both friends and foes. That is an invasion of privacy of the most grievous sort.

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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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