The Soapbox

Daily Diatribe 9/24/98:"What Price Justice?"

Okay, it appears to be time for me to take a stand.

The recent release of the report of the special investigator and the ensuing revelations about the scandal in the White House have divided America politically into two distinct camps. One of these camps is hell-bent on bringing an end to this presidency by whatever means necessary. This does not exclude setting the wheels of congressional impeachment in motion despite the apparent lack of evidence of constitutionally-required "high crimes and misdemeanors." Neither does this exclude the defamation of a political office on the basis of sadly all too human hijinks. I do not belong to this camp.

I have read the dirt on Bill Clinton. I have heard and watched his grand jury testimony. And I have made up my mind. Bill Clinton is a human being in the worst sense, but in the same sense that you and I are. He is fallible. He is carnal. But he is not inadequate to lead us, carnal and fallible as we all are, any more than Jimmy Carter was inadequate to lead us on account of his giant chompers. It is not the task of an elected leader to float somewhere above the moral high ground, pontificating down to his constituents and smelling only of rose water and fresh jam. Rather, it is his task to go before us, but still be one of us. Clearly, Bill Clinton has not failed at this task.

The problem, as I see it, is the tunnel vision this episode has created on the conservative playing field. Republicans want to see Bill Clinton removed from office, maybe even summarily flogged just for kicks. Even prior to the Lewinsky soap opera, many conservative zealots wanted to see him ousted despite the absence of any apparent wrongdoing. They want to achieve this end by way of the existing laws of our country. But they are unwilling to abide by the letter of those laws, which is illogical. The anti-Clintites as I call them -- you may prefer a more abbreviated term like "fascists" -- only choose to see the portion of the President's behavior which they find to be reprehensible and which will most effectively get the voting public up in arms. With these right-leaning blinders affixed to their heads, they see a president whose sexual appetite is a danger to the nation -- a man who resisted a litigious lynching by answering questions evasively and then had the audacity to come forward and apologize for it. They see a man who is unfit to be president because he is not one of them. A saner evaluation of the circumstances might illicit a different assessment.

Yes, Clinton lied. But what he lied about was neither material to his duties nor was it any of our business. There remains a legal question as to whether he lied under oath, which appears to be readily answered by his taped grand jury testimony. He was truthful within the confines of the definitions he was given, and he was not legally or morally obligated to do the work of the Jones legal team. We often forget that, particularly in a civil suit, there are two teams at play and they don't like each other. The goal of the process is for one of the teams to end up with a whole heap of the other team's money. This is not an honorable event. But for some reason, conservatives wish to hold sacred proceedings which were subsequently dismissed as being without foundation. On the day the dismissal was announced, we should have collectively jumped up in the air and cheered for the President. See? That bad woman, who wanted to make a lot of money to pay for massive rhinoplasty and the costs associated with suppoting a long-unemployed spouse, failed at her sinister deed. Her motives were sniffed out by the hounds of justice, and she was mauled to death by them. Well, sort of. We should have celebrated in the streets. Instead, grumbling right-wingers ate their nutritious meals that evening and continued to pray for Clinton's downfall while simultaneously kicking themselves for not bothering to vote last election.

I have heard the comment, "Yes, but if he lied about that, he would lie about other things, too," which strikes me as moronic on two levels. We all lie. And we could all be expected to lie in a similar situation, given the embarrassing nature of the information and the consequences on the professional and familial fronts. More specifically, politicians lie to us constantly -- even the good ones. Especially them. It is not an issue of malice but of prudence. We don't need to know everything. We shouldn't want to. If politicans told us the truth, we would discover that we are a nation of fat people whose children are getting progressively fatter and dumber and whose work ethic is shamefully poor when compared to our global competitors. We would discover that the war on drugs is unwinnable and traffic laws are unfair. We would find out that chocolate is bad for us and that O.J. Simpson murdered a couple of people a few years ago and pays for it by playing golf and waving at the press as if to say, "Hi, guys. Please take my picture. I am the world's luckiest murderer." We would learn that the French are right -- we actually are culturally naïve and will likely never be as chic as they. Do we really want to know these things? Of course not.

I have also heard the argument that two wrongs don't make a right. And, while this is of course true, it is irrelevant. This is not a case of our trying to justify the actions of the President. (So all of you who have responded to Clinton's detractors by pointing out the idylls of John Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, and countless other presidents who behaved in the manner of tribal chieftains -- shut up already. You're not doing any of us any good.) Instead, it should be a case of our making a rational determination as to whether his actions merit removal from the highest office -- an office in which he was placed by a mandate from the people. That's you and me, bub. Like it or lump it.

Is he unfit to perform his duties? Of course not. The only thing impeding his ability to effectively act out his duties as president is this inquiry itself. I blame the judicial ruling that a president, despite the importance of his office and the vulnerable position it places him in with regard to civil litigation, should be subject to litigation of any and all kinds during his term of office. While I don't feel that a president should be above criminal prosecution if material evidence suggests his culpability in a serious criminal action, I don't think Paula Jones's suit -- a civil matter with a questionable agenda -- should ever have been allowed to move forward during the Clinton Presidency. The dismissal of the case earlier this year was unfortunately too little too late. The continuing melodrama of the Starr investigation has distracted the public from the crux of the issue. What we are doing is akin to digging a giant moat around the President's desk and filling it with muddy water and hungry alligators and then telling him to get busy and go to work. We are keeping him from his job, and it's becoming offensive to me.

The Starr report is wholly partisan and makes little effort to disguise its agenda. Specifically, the White House calls attention to the blatant omission of Monica Lewinsky's emphatic testimony that she was never asked to lie, nor was she promised a job in return for her silence. Amidst hundreds of pages of lurid descriptions of tawdry entanglements in the Oval Office, Kenneth Starr couldn't seem to find the space to include the portion of Lewinsky's testimony which most clearly addressed the matter at hand. According to the only person who would know, Bill Clinton did not attempt to obstruct justice. He did not engage in witness tampering (watch and learn as I avoid the clumsy and uninspired use of double entendre here). He did not abuse his executive power in the interest of his nads. And good for him, I say. Despite an obviously partisan agenda, I would have expected Starr to attempt to veil his political leanings in the issuance of the report. As a judge, his ethical responsibility to pursue an unbiased truth is compromised by what is a patently politically-motivated conclusion.

My frustration arises from the narrowmindedness of people who, like our newest Miss America, believe that the greater good is served when competent people make mistakes and are publicly destroyed as a result, when this nation was founded on an ethic of second chances and opportunities. Vanessa Williams was chased out from under her Miss America crown because of some naughty pictures of her that ended up on the pages of Penthouse, but she was embraced by box office-goers and top 40 record buyers worldwide and is one of only a handful of former Miss Americas whose names we remember. (And then she was in Elmo in Grouchland. So, even though I don't really care for her singing, I will always err on the side of Jim Henson.) Marion Barry served prison time for crack cocaine use ON THE JOB and was eventually re-elected to the office of Mayor in the City of Washington, D.C. And what about Jimmy Swaggart? We are obviously able to forgive wrongdoing. Even really gross stuff. We are able to accept that, in life's whirlwind, the chips occasionally fall in the wrong places and sometimes have to be washed carefully before they can be used again.

We cannot in good conscience impeach Bill Clinton for attempting to cover up an illicit affair in a civil matter which was eventually dismissed on the basis of the fact that Paula Jones lacked the evidence necessary to support her claims. More importantly, even when perjury has clearly been committed, perjury in a civil matter is almost never prosecuted, and it is particularly unlikely to be prosecuted when the testimony relates to non-material issues. The judge hearing the Paula Jones complaint ruled that Monica Lewinsky's testimony and any facts or testimony relating to Monica Lewinsky and her relationship with the President were inadmissible and not material to the case. Conservatives keep ranting about holding the President to the same standard to which you and I are held. But I guarantee that Fred Garbageman wouldn't be prosecuted even for getting caught in a lie in say a divorce hearing.

If we could just stick to the facts of the matter, perhaps the storm would subside. If we could just remind ourselves that from time to time, we have a president that isn't very good. We almost never have a president that everyone likes, but occasionally we concurrently have a president who botches the job. We know what that's like, and this is not one of those presidents.

The state of the nation is sunny with cool breezes and little to no chance of rain. We're in Fat City. The economy is great. Most of us have jobs. We're educating our young people better. We have money in the bank. Retirees will have social security checks to look forward to. And things aren't looking so bad on the global front, either. Just a few years ago, these things could not be said.

Professionally, Bill Clinton has done an exemplary job. The impeachment process exists to protect us as a nation from the perils of a leader who cannot carry out the duties of his office for whatever reason. You know, a president who runs around the White House in a corset and a jockey helmet shouting "Give me liberty, or give me a spanking!" A president who is in a coma. A president who wakes up suddenly incredibly dumb. Or with leprosy. Stuff like that. It primarily exists to protect us from a president who might willfully or incompetently compromise our Constitution. We should not be invoking that power today.

There are sins, and there are sins. We all have failures. We all make choices we regret. But few of us are subjected to the scrutiny of high public office. We understand that the world is a competitive place. We know that in our most shining moments, there will be people milling about wishing we had failed so that they might soak up a little of the limelight. How much more evident is this truth when our successes cast shadows on the professional achievements and livelihoods of others?

Bill Clinton's successes have been a thorn in the side of the Republican party for six years, and now it's apparently payback time. When a Texas cheerleader's mom tried to arrange the murder of one of her daughter's cheerleading rivals, we gulped down a mixture of horror and bewilderment and congratulated ourselves for being neither as greedy nor as kooky as she. When Tonya Harding and her cronies sought to clutch the gold medal by clearing the path with a crowbar, we scowled our disapproval and marveled at how just plain dumb some folks are.

Consider this analogy, then: Bill Clinton is skating towards Olympic Gold (and maybe a Big Mac Extra Value Meal) and Kenneth Starr is waiting off to the side so he can whack him in the knee with a crowbar. Why are we cheering?

How do you like them apples?

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