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Defending Propriety

11:00 PM, Feb 21, 1999 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
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In light of the conclusion of the Senate trial of the president, the editors of THE WEEKLY STANDARD asked 22 writers, thinkers, and political actors the following questions: "President William Jefferson Clinton has been impeached and acquitted. What have we learned? What should we do now?"


WHEN I LAST APPEARED IN THESE PAGES it was to complain that the Republicans had not made an issue of President Clinton's misconduct during the election campaign last year. After the impeachment I withdraw that point. Reluctantly, but with increasing courage and conviction, the House Republicans were brought to accuse the president, partly because Kenneth Starr's report forced them to act, and partly because the president and his party goaded them beyond bearing. What the Senate has done is accommodate the president's popularity and the partisan determination of his defenders.


Now that the die is cast, neither Democrats nor Republicans can be entirely happy with the issue that the impeachment has made between them. The Democrats risk being branded as the party of moral laxity, the Republicans as the party obsessed with sexual peccadilloes. But in truth, the issue is over propriety, over how it is proper to appear, more than about sexual morality simply.


The president admitted that his conduct was "inappropriate," by which he meant something less than "immoral," as Sen. Joseph Lieberman pointed out. Being merely inappropriate, Clinton's conduct should be overlooked, just as it is polite to overlook offenses against politeness. It is disconcerting that offenders against propriety should profit from the fact that propriety usually defends itself by ignoring what is inappropriate. Clinton's very admission becomes almost a demand to do nothing about it.


And the argument has had considerable success: Many feel that it was improper for Starr and the Republicans to pursue impropriety so relentlessly -- which means, at all. They do not themselves necessarily think that adultery is a peccadillo, a "slight sin," but, having been taught by Hollywood, they regard it as endemic to celebrities, among whom (thanks to Clinton) they now include politicians.


Republicans, however, have come to the defense of propriety. They are the respectable party and always have been. The earnest House impeachment managers were typical Republicans, rightly but easily shocked by Clinton's flouting of the law. Democrats are on the whole a little less scrupulous to deal with, and a little less dull to be with. They represent people who are impatient with propriety and intellectuals who are contemptuous of it.


How can Republicans do a better job of defending propriety against impatience and contempt?


Although attacks on respectable America are nothing new -- think of Sinclair Lewis -- it was the '60s culture that spoke out for liberation from propriety as such. That counterculture has now become the official culture and acquired a propriety of its own. But it cannot escape the contradiction that came out in Clinton's case. To be contemptuous of propriety means to declare loyalty to the urges that propriety restrains, hence to a certain spurious honesty to oneself as against the hypocrisy of the proper and respectable. But in fact Clinton was unable to be honest in this way because he was unable to escape the shame of being caught. He had to lie. His honesty showed, however, in his attitude, in his brazen refusal to knuckle under to Republicans. So his dishonesty got him in trouble, his honesty got him impeached, and both together got him off. For Democrats either thought it improper to pursue him despite his dishonesty, or honestly did not care whether he behaved inappropriately.


Propriety is something we are more likely to learn about from Miss Manners than from moral philosophers, who today typically ignore it. It's not cool to defend propriety. There's no roguishly congenial way to do a job for which you have to heat yourself up like Henry Hyde. You can do it with dignity, as he did, but a certain self-inflation is required that is easily mocked even when it is impressive.


Propriety is stronger than the law because it is enforced with shame, not prison. Propriety, more than sexual harassment law, perhaps more than diamonds, is a girl's best friend. Since propriety is concerned with appearances, it is less than the morality of the heart. But like a broken window left unfixed, which signifies a bad neighborhood, impropriety left unreproved shows people do not care about moral standards. Propriety and morality are close friends, and an assault on the first undermines the second.