Few developments in modern times illuminate — and test — the state or American culture and public morality more than the public's reaction to the independent counsel's investigation of President Bill Clinton.
There is more to that investigation than the Monica Lewinsky affair, of course. It began as a probe into the messy financial dealings surrounding the Whitewater realestate development and has ranged through a number of scandals and suspected scandals since. Despite cries about delay and expense, it should not be forgotten that Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel, has achieved much — a number of convictions and guilty pleas.
It is perhaps understandable, nonetheless, that the media, estimating their readers'interests, have focused on the salacious stories about sex in the Oval Office. What is not so easily understood is the public reaction to that aspect of the investigation. There has been a slow accumulation of evidence that makes it a likely surmise that the president has in fact done what he has denied under oath. He, or those acting on his behalf and according to his wishes, have sought to have others lie under oath about what they have seen or heard.
Indeed, the polls tell us that a majority of Americans believe that Mr. Clinton had sex with a 21-year-old White House intern.
Amajority also believes that he has sworn falsely that he did not have sex and that others have been asked to lie also. The public understands as well that the White House is stalling, asserting frivolous legal claims, resisting the production of subpoenaed documents, and smearing the prosecutor, witnesses, and critics. In a word, massive stonewalling is taking place and the inference to be drawn from that is not favorable to the president.
Yet the polls also tell us that the public has a very low opinion of Starr and gives a high approval rating to Bill Clinton. Something is wrong with that picture. Not many years ago, those seemingly contradictory results would have been regarded as an anomaly, as a warning that something was wrong with the way the polls were conducted. The polls seem accurate, however, and one has to ask how to explain it.
One strain of the conventional wisdom is that Americans don't much mind what the president does as long as the good times roll, i.e., the Dow Jones Index keeps rising, inflation is tamed, personal incomes are going up, and unemployment remains low. If that is the correct explanation it is a severe indictment of today's culture.
I prefer to believe that the public simply has not focused sufficiently on what such behavior suggests about the character of the man they elected and the seriousness of the attempt to prevent the law from running its course. The president, after all, is charged by the Constitution with the duty of taking care that the laws be faithfully executed.
But matters may have reached a decisive turning point when the courts decided that Secret Service agents have no special immunity from testifying; as sworn law enforcement officers they are under a statutory duty to report wrongdoing. Eleven judges — the district judge, nine members of the federal court of appeals, and Chief Justice William Rehnquist — rejected the legally preposterous claim that the Secret Service is the president's Praetorian guard. Their testimony, the Lewinsky tapes, and the talking points Lewinsky gave Linda Tripp in an effort to secure her perjury, will bring the matter into sharp focus. Questions about the president's moral character and the lawfulness of his conduct may then be answered.
If the answer is condemnatory, we will then arrive at the “bloody crossroads” where law and politics clash. That will be the test of our culture's morality. Will we choose law or politics? Will material comforts distract us from necessary moral judgments? Will we as citizens be informed enough to analyze which is the right path? Will we have the courage to consider the decision important? That is the test we may face, and soon. The outcome will either raise the standard of an already divisive culture or lower it even more. The American people have a decision to make.
Mary Ellen Bork, a board member of the Catholic Campaign for America and the Institute for Religion in Democracy, writes from Washington, D.C.