The question of impeaching the president should occupy not only Congress but all of us citizens in the next several months. Many are indifferent or cynical, saying, “Enough, already.” “Let's move on to the nation's business.” “It's too partisan.” “It's just about sex.” “The president has only two more years, let him finish his term.”
There could be no more important “national” business than finding out if the president, the chief law enforcer, has put himself above the law and undermined our constitutional government. The impeachment process was not intended by the founders as punishment for the president, but as a way to preserve our government by removing corrupt leaders.
Independent Counsel Ken Starr has made charges against the president and drowned us in thousands of pages of evidence and the videotape. Most of us will not read through the material, but we should pay attention to the arguments offered, both in Clinton's defense and against him. Why? Because this process of finding the truth and affirming the moral basis of government will have lasting effects on our country.
This political crisis is not just another “inside the Beltway” affair, of interest only to politicians and journalists. Nor will this scandal affect only the Clinton administration. This was brought home to me by a letter to the editor in The Washington Post, in which the writer listed what children will learn from our president:
• Women are sex objects.
•'Tis better to receive than to give.
• Honesty is not the best policy.
• Rules are for losers.
• If you are contrite, they can't indict.
• Certain kinds of lies are necessary and wise.
• Never accept responsibility for your wrongdoing.
• Character doesn't matter.
• If an event is denied by those in attendance, it didn't happen.
• Anything goes if you are not caught.
• A clever lie is admirable.
Young people will learn from the president's behavior that rules do not apply across the board and that the end justifies the means. It matters, says Bill Bennett in his book, The Death of Outrage, “if we demean the presidency by lowering our standards of expectations for the office and by redefining moral authority down.” Lowering the standards of moral authority for the president will encourage indifference and cynicism across the country at a time when most people are hoping for a moral renewal.
Congress will have to have the moral courage and political will to say there is no legal defense for criminal conduct.
A central question for the Judiciary Committee will be whether the president's actions meet the requirement of “high crimes and misdemeanors” required for impeachment by the Constitution. They will assess this question from both the law and politics, since impeachment is basically a political process. They will have to decide, ultimately, if the body politic has been injured by this president. We will learn if our political leaders believe that lying inflicts moral injury. Will they put political achievements ahead of moral values? Will they lay aside principle and say, “all politicians do it,” or will they defend the rule of law and say personal conduct and character matter?
Watching this important process could do much good for the country. It will remind us that large civic questions cannot be reduced to narrow legal ones. The law is a guide, but not all civic relationships can be reduced to questions of law. The picture of the president parsing his tortured understanding of sex in the well of the Senate in his defense is not a happy one. He has grasped at the letter of the law and lost its spirit. Congress will have to have the moral courage and political will to say there is no legal defense for criminal conduct. Not only legal standards but America's spiritual standards have been violated, and only a return to a rule of law based on truth and the raising of the people's standards and expectations can make things right.
What Congress will do (we hope) cannot be dismissed with a hand-washing attitude. Making judgments about moral values is not “judgmentalism,” but the very definition of human freedom, of choosing right from wrong. Congress will be preserving our democratic form of government by saying: Certain actions corrupt the moral basis of democracy, and we stand against them.
There is a time for apologies, and there is a time for judging apparent criminal conduct by a president and seeing it as an important matter. The good that could come out of this sobering moment for the country: delineating criminal actions we will not tolerate, and at the same time affirming our ideals as a nation. If Congress fails to take this action, it may indicate we have lost our moral compass.
Mary Ellen Bork, a board member of the Catholic Campaign for America and the Institute for Religion in Democracy, writes from Washington, D.C.