Cover Story

Parable of the perjurer

He goes by "Bill" and tolerates "Bubba," but on Dec. 19, the whole world seemed to be calling him "William Jefferson Clinton."

Issue: "Parable of the perjurer," Jan. 9, 1999

He goes by "Bill" and tolerates "Bubba," but on Dec. 19, the whole world seemed to be calling him "William Jefferson Clinton." It was a bad omen for the beleaguered president. As any naughty child knows, being called by one's full name is a sure sign of an impending spanking. At 1:25 p.m. on that last Saturday before Christmas, with U.S. troops scrambling in the Gulf and U.S. newsmagazines on their holiday hiatus, William Jefferson Clinton finally went to the woodshed. Rep. Ray LaHood, the acting speaker, intoned the president's full legal name again and again as he read the charges against him: "Resolved, That William Jefferson Clinton, President of the United States, is impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors ..." "William Jefferson Clinton ... has willfully corrupted and manipulated the judicial process of the United States for his personal gain and exoneration ..." "William Jefferson Clinton willfully provided perjurious, false and misleading testimony to the grand jury ..." "William Jefferson Clinton has undermined the integrity of his office, has brought disrepute on the Presidency, has betrayed his trust as President and has acted in a manner subversive of the rule of law and justice, to the manifest injury of the people of the United States ..." "Wherefore, William Jefferson Clinton, by such conduct, warrants impeachment and trial, and removal from office and disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust or profit under the United States." Then, after the charges were read, William Jefferson Clinton was impeached on two of the four counts against him in a historic and largely party-line vote. It was a spanking that will never stop burning: The scarlet letter of impeachment was affixed to his administration for all time, securing his place in the basement of the presidential pantheon. In the debate leading up to the vote, Republicans sounded somber but certain. Calling Mr. Clinton "a serial violator of the oath," Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), who will lead the team that presents the case in the Senate, insisted that the day's proceedings were not simply about the president's private life. "Equal justice under the law, that's what we're fighting for," he said. "And when the chief law enforcement officer trivializes, ignores, shreds, minimizes the sanctity of the oath, then justice is wounded, and you're wounded, and your children are wounded." Mr. Clinton, as usual, sounded defiant and unrepentant. In a carefully choreographed White House appearance shortly after the vote, he bitterly denounced the process that brought his administration into permanent disrepute. "We must get rid of the poisonous venom of excessive partisanship, obsessive animosity, and uncontrolled anger," he said with his jaw set. "That is not what America deserves." The president was flanked by the first lady and leading congressional Democrats, who voted party-line against all articles of impeachment. The president's remarks were directed above all to the 100 senators who will sit in judgment on his conduct. With 67 votes needed to convict, almost no one expects Mr. Clinton to be removed from office. But the mere spectacle of the chief justice of the Supreme Court presiding over the Senate trial of a disgraced president will further damage Mr. Clinton's standing and add yet another black mark to his historical legacy. For conservatives who care about truth and justice and the rule of law, that may be victory enough. And for Christians who care about virtue and morality, the impeachment vote had yet another happy outcome: People are now talking about those subjects once again. Calling for a return to virtuous leadership, Speaker-designate Bob Livingston abruptly resigned his post and his House seat just hours before the impeachment vote and just days after revealing his own sexually checkered past. It was a stunning moment that reinforced a long-forgotten lesson: Private actions have public consequences. In schools across the country, curricula driven by pragmatism and relativism have been hijacked by the impeachment scandal and its undercurrents of morality. After casting his vote against impeachment, Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) returned home to face an audience of high-school honors students. Along with the expected questions ranging from diversity to drunk driving, the students also wanted to talk about sex, about lying, about right and wrong. If the President of the United States will lie to us, asked one young man, how can we trust any politician? Why shouldn't the president be held to the same moral standards as the military? asked a classmate. Students in history and civics classes debated those questions right along with their representatives in Congress. "It's a matter of trust," said a 14-year-old student at St. Richard's School in Indianapolis. "If we can't trust him with family matters, how can we trust him with other things, like Iraq?" The class voted 8 to 1 to oust the president. In Columbus, Ohio, high-school students were talking about virtue, too. "I don't believe he's a good president at all," said a young woman. "The president should be a role model, and what he did was terribly wrong, not to be looked up to. I think he should be impeached, and the Senate should get him out of there." Whether they think Bill Clinton got justice or got the shaft, students are being confronted with biblical truths that the National Education Association might have preferred to ignore: You reap what you sow. Actions have consequences. Sin hurts. In that sense, the impeachment of President Clinton was more than just news, more than history, even. It was a parable.

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