The Magazine

ANTHONY LEWIS

Mar 9, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 25 • By DAVID FRUM
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Those of us who remember the stirring attacks on presidential lawlessness during Watergate have been startled by the silence from one-time upholders of the rule of law in the face of lawlessness by the Clinton administration. Has something changed between 1998 and 1973? Puzzled, we looked up some of the columns by one of the fiercest scourges of Nixonian wrongdoing, Anthony Lewis of the New York Times, and discovered that yes, it was all the same. Unfortunately, Mr. Lewis appears to have taken an extended sabbatical. So we decided to help out. With just a few changes of proper names and no additions other than those marked in brackets, Lewis's writings from 25 years ago provide a compelling explanation of what's constitutionally at stake today. We'll supply footnotes on request. -- D. F.

There are too many sawdust men in Washington now, men with nothing inside -- no limits of character to what they will do for political ends. If it works, if you can get away with it, do it: That is the only standard.

The lawyers of this Administration have made their names symbols of contempt for law. The lawyer-President has thrown dirt on judges. His lawyers in the White House have sent thugs out after [FBI] files and conspired to obstruct justice.

The old brazen attitude is evident in the President's attempt to keep present and former aides from testifying about his own knowledge of [the scandal], and in his resistance to an independent prosecutor. There could hardly be a more direct challenge to the co-equal constitutional authority of Congress and the courts than the expanded claim of Executive privilege. One must conclude, as did the London Sunday Telegraph, that it was "the gamble of a guilty and desperate man."

[The President] has made a pass at improving relations with the press. But he and his fallen aides still project the "stupefying belief," as the Economist of London put it, that in [the scandal], "the only serious trouble lay in people's inquisitiveness." Leaking is a widespread phenomenon, deeply rooted in the American system of government, and using the criminal law to stop it would raise grave difficulties.

We are admonished not to follow McCarthy tactics and jump from hearsay premises to guilty conclusions. Fair enough. In terms of hard evidence, no outsider can prove today that the president was involved in the original crimes or their subsequent concealment. That is a wise caution, but it does not relieve the political dilemma of [the scandal]. For Presidents are judged by broader standards than personal guilt. They are responsible for the character of their associates and for what is done in the name of the White House. One would expect an inquiry or a detailed, categorical denial of the charges. But no. The White House press secretary dismisses it all as "hearsay" or evidence from unidentified sources. In other words, grave charges will be ignored unless they are proved as they would have to be in a court of law. If that standard applied, virtually no corruption would ever be officially investigated. In the end these brazen tactics failed. The press, or some of it, kept digging despite lies and threats.

What threatens America now is an enfeebled Presidency. At best [the President] will be asking the world to believe that the men he chose as his closest associates committed evil without his knowing it. And it may be much worse: the doubts may come ever closer to him. The authority of the President, which is to say the authority of the United States, will be gravely damaged. [Even] overseas, the poison of [the scandal] is having its effect. Heads of government are not usually finicky about the morals of other powers. But when they deal with an American President, they want to know that he speaks with authority: that he can bring Congress along on a trade agreement or a security treaty.

If [the President] were capable of redeeming vision or self-perception, the prospect would be less painful. But he is not. He is a man who can obstruct election campaign reform and then ask the public to join him in a great reform effort. He is a man without shame. The appalling dilemma facing this country is how to live for nearly four years with a wounded Presidency. Some people argue for what amounts to a conspiracy of silence. We must close our eyes to what has happened, they say, and let government continue -- almost as it was allowed to continue during Woodrow Wilson's illness.

The alternative is forbidding. [Only one] President has ever been forced from office: even a serious attempt would put awful strains on the system. But can this country stop short of the truth, can it live a pretense, and be once again the hope of the world?

The framers of the Constitution plainly intended impeachment to play a broad role as one of their several defenses against abuse of power. That was still the view fifty years later, when de Tocqueville said the main object of the clause was "to take power away from a man who makes ill use of it." It is a historical anomaly, therefore, to treat the idea of impeaching a President as almost sacrilegious. It is inconvenient to change Presidents in mid-term; it is risky. But the risks are not only one way. We can live with a weakened presidency; we have done so before. But can we live with ourselves under a leadership that we know is tainted?

The American system is less flexible than the parliamentary, but it does not condemn us to the rigid embrace of a President unfit for office. The Constitution speaks not only of "removal" but also of "resignation." Is there any serious possibility of resignation? It is an act of self-denial hard to imagine in any man ambitious enough to become President. [Still] one cannot exclude a decision that only [the President's] resignation can open the way to a healing of American politics.