Why the Lewinsky Case Matters

In the matter of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, almost everything points to the conclusion that something unseemly happened: the tapes; Ms. Lewinsky's 37 visits to the White House; Mr. Clinton's morning-after-the deposition meeting with his secretary, Betty Currie; the gifts; the talking points; Vernon Jordan's many activities; the job offer from United Nations Ambassador Bill Richardson; the president's stonewalling; his initial, unconvincing denial; his refusal to explain what happened; Press Secretary Mike McCurry's remark that the relationship is probably “very complicated”; and White House surrogates' declaration of “war” against the independent counsel.

Nevertheless, many Americans think the scandal—even if true—is either “none of our business” or not worth the effort to inquire about. This apparent indifference is surprising and unsettling. It is therefore important to respond to the most common arguments made by those who believe that a president's sexual involvement with a 21-year-old intern, and the ensuing suspected cover-up, are essentially irrelevant to our national life:

1 We shouldn't be judgmental. At a recent speech before an organization of religious broadcasters, I criticized the president's unwillingness to explain what happened in the Lewinsky matter. A member of the audience took me to task for “casting stones.” I responded that it shows how far we have fallen that asking the president to account for possible adultery, lying to the public, perjury, and obstruction of justice is regarded as akin to stoning. This is an example of what sociologist Alan Wolfe refers to as America's new “Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not judge.”

Lost Its Way

Even the Rev. Billy Graham declared [recently]: “I forgive him. I know how hard it is, and especially a strong, vigorous, young man like he is; he has such a tremendous personality. I think the ladies just go wild over him.” Mr. Graham, perhaps the nation's most admired religious figure, apparently is willing to shrug off both adultery and lying, without any public admission or apology on Mr. Clinton's part. This is what the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.”

All of us are in favor of tolerance and forgiveness. But the moral pendulum in America has swung too far in the direction of relativism. If a nation of free people can no longer make clear pronouncements on fundamental matters of right and wrong—for example, that a married, 50-year-old commander-in-chief ought not to have sexual relations with a young intern in his office and then lie about it—it has lost its way.

The problem is not with those who are withholding judgment until all the facts are in, but with the increasing number of people who want to avoid judgment altogether. For it is precisely the disposition and willingness to make judgments about things that matter that is a defining mark of a healthy democracy. In America we do not defer to kings, cardinals, or aristocrats on matters of law and politics, civic conduct, and moral standards. We rely instead on the people's capacity to make reasonable judgments based on moral principles. Our form of government requires of us not moral perfection but modest virtues, and adherence to some standards. How high should those standards be? Certainly higher than the behavior alleged in this case.

Those who constantly invoke the sentiment of “Who are we to judge?” should consider the anarchy that would ensue if we adhered to this sentiment in, say, our courtrooms. What would happen if those sitting on a jury decided to be “nonjudgmental” about rapists and sexual harassers, embezzlers and tax cheats? Justice would be lost. Without being “judgmental,” Americans would never have put an end to slavery, outlawed child labor, emancipated women, or ushered in the civil-rights movement. Nor would we have mobilized against Nazism and communism.

Mr. Clinton himself put it well, in a judgment-laden 1996 proclamation he signed during National Character Week, which said that “individual character involves honoring and embracing certain core ethical values: honesty, respect, responsibility.... Parents must teach their children from the earliest age the difference between right and wrong. But we must all do our part.”

1 A president's private behavior doesn't matter. In a recent Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll, 57% said that private character doesn't matter at all or matters only if it interferes with his ability to do the job. Of course, if Mr. Clinton did have sexual encounters with Ms. Lewinsky, it involves at least adultery and lying to the public—and probably lying under oath as well. In any event, the attempt to rigidly compartmentalize life in this way is divorced from the real world. A mother would not accept from her son the explanation that his drug habit doesn't matter because he did well on the Scholastic Assessment Test; a police commissioner should not dismiss the raw bigotry of a detective because he has a good arrest record.

Yet in the name of “compartmentalization,” many now seem willing to accept raunchier behavior from our president than we would from any CEO, college professor, or army drill sergeant. Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo put it this way: “Let's remember what's important here. The lives of the American people are more important than the personal life of the president.” But Mr. Clinton is a laboratory test case of why private character is relevant. Prevarications typify his private and public life. A seamless web of deceit runs through the man and through his administration.

John Adams held a far different view than Mr. Cuomo does. Adams wrote that the people “have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge; I mean, of the characters and the conduct of their rulers. Rulers are no more than attorneys, agents, and trustees, for the people; and if the cause, the interest and trust, is insidiously betrayed, or wantonly trifled away, the people have a right to revoke the authority that they themselves have deputed.”

To better understand the limits of the “private public” argument, imagine the storm that would engulf a president who privately supported a whites only membership policy at a country club. Most voters would rightly deem this private sentiment to be of intense public interest. Why, then, are we supposed to accept a man in the Oval Office whom many parents would not trust alone with their daughters?

1 The only thing that matters is the economy. “What we should be talking about is that we are going to have the first balanced budget in more than three decades,” says one citizen, who voted against Mr. Clinton in 1996. “That's going to impact our children, not this sleaze that is masquerading as news.” This sentiment reveals an arid and incomplete understanding of the presidency. More than any other person, the president symbolizes America. He stands for us in the eyes of the world and of our children, who inevitably learn from his example. Whether or not Bill Clinton escapes impeachment, his legacy will be one of pervasive deceit, squandered trust, a reckless disregard for the truth, heightened cynicism, and a nastier political culture.

A Rogue in Our Midst

This corruption matters a great deal. Even if the Dow Jones breaks 10,000. Even if Americans get more day care. Even if the budget is balanced. It matters because lessons in corruption, particularly when they emanate from the highest office in the land, undermine our civic life. Children are watching, and if we expect them to take morality seriously, they must see adults take it seriously. As C.S. Lewis wrote: “We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”

Today we find not a traitor but a rogue in our midst. Of course, rogues have been with us forever, and the corruption of people in power is at least as old as the Scriptures. But in America today, more and more citizens seem to be complicit in that corruption. One worry of the Founders was that luxury and affluence might dull our moral sensibilities. The next few months will go a long way toward determining how strongly we believe in something we once revered as “our sacred honor.”

William J. Bennett is author of Our Sacred Honor: Words of Advice From the Founders in Stories, Letter, Poems and Speeches (Simon & Schuster, 1997). This article is reprinted with the kind permission of the author and The Wall Street Journal.