In its heyday, the Polish Solidarity movement declared that, after the regime's shameless lies about the most obvious matters, two plus two had to equal four again. In its own humble way, the impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton may also affirm that politics cannot be allowed to deny basic truths.
As this issue goes to press, the House debate, delayed by military action against Iraq and momentarily disrupted by apparently well-timed revelations of marital infidelity by Speaker-elect Robert Livingston, goes forward. In all likelihood, Congress will send articles of impeachment to the Senate. Impeachment will not bring closure or catharsis to America about Bill Clinton, but it will bring clarity.
The Clintons arrived in Washington promising to avoid not only the improprieties they attributed to previous administrations, but even the appearance of impropriety. Since then, the administration has become a cloud of improprieties and, more recently, “inappropriate” behavior. Whitewater, Travelgate, Haircutgate, Filegate, Monicagate—and these are only the scandals within the White House. Outside, there have been Buddhist nuns writing $10,000 checks to the Democratic National Committee, the Chinese connection, multiple indictments of cabinet members and more. Perjury and obstruction of justice may seem small by comparison, but so does Al Capone's indictment for income tax evasion. His greater illegalities were difficult to prove, but the lesser conviction, at least, established his criminal behavior as a fact.
In the history of the American Republic, we have never had a leader with such a weak sense for facts, when they do not suit his purposes. Earlier, it would have been inconceivable that a president would stand before a grand jury and claim that whether he had sex with an intern depends on what you mean by the word “is,” as if a trial were an existential foray into the question of being. Politics aside, if the president is allowed to lie under oath, it can lead to only two outcomes: Either we will become a nation with leaders not subject to the law as are all other citizens (there are unfortunate historical and contemporary precedents), or we will become a nation in which swearing to God to tell the truth in legal proceedings becomes a cat-and-mouse game, in which witnesses may “mislead” or “not volunteer information,” and dare the rest of us to call the messy result by its true name: lying.
For some people, these considerations mask a deeper motive: partisan hatred of the president and what he represents. For them, questions of truth are obviously only politics, since they themselves judge truth by its political orientation. No man is entirely responsible for his followers, but it may not be an accident that feminists, homosexual activists, the pro-abortion lobby, and—not to mince words ourselves—the whole anti-Christian side of the culture sees impeachment not as a discrete question about the president's personal responsibility, but as a battle in the culture war.
Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz let the cat out of the bag last week: “A vote against impeachment is not a vote for Bill Clinton. It is a vote against bigotry. It's a vote against fundamentalism. It's a vote against anti-environmentalism. It's a vote against the right-to-life movement. It's a vote against the radical right. This is truly the first battle in a great culture war.” As Cicero said, in war the first casualty is truth. And it appears that the rule holds whether the engagement occurs on the battlefield or Harvard Yard.
Clinton supporter and actor Alec Baldwin went still further: “In other countries they are laughing at us 24 hours a day, and I'm thinking to myself if we were in other countries, we would all right now … go down to Washington and we would stone Henry Hyde to death! … and we would go to [the homes of pro-impeachment congressmen] and we'd kill their wives and children.”
Baldwin was right. In many other countries, that is precisely what happens to people who challenge the national leader. In America, though, we have always thought that, even when it threatens Hollywood's love affair with abortion, vigilantism is for barbarians. Americans take orderly legal procedures to truth—and justice.
A cloud of confusion and untruth has for too long hovered over this fair land. Impeaching the president for perjury and obstructing justice is not a happy solution to that problem. Any American who loves this country cannot take pleasure in the spectacle, particularly when we face grave challenges at home and abroad. But given the character of the accused and the likely consequences of his acts on our moral environment, impeachment seems the only means available to us to declare our allegiance, as Americans, to truth.
Truth is, as Our Lord told us, one of the names of God.
Robert Royal is vice president for research and director of Catholic studies at the Ethics & Public Policy Center, Washington, D.C.