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Our Dreyfus Case

11:00 PM, Feb 21, 1999 • By CHARLES MURRAY
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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?"

THINK OF THE IMPEACHMENT ACQUITTAL as the Dreyfus conviction: Deceit at the highest levels. A verdict that ignores the facts. A verdict rationalized because a revered institution must be protected. Popular approval of the verdict. A disdained minority protesting it.

After Dreyfus's conviction there followed the unraveling of the lies, a slow reversal of public opinion, the overturning of the verdict, vindication for Dreyfus, and disgrace for his accusers. Some mirror image of this -- the acquittal condemned and the accusers vindicated -- seems inevitable in the Clinton case. The accounts of the Clinton White House that have already been published by sympathetic observers portray an immature, frighteningly incomplete person in the presidency. In this tell-all age, the rest of the story will be on the public record within a few years after Clinton leaves office, and it seems likely to be comprehensively dismaying.

But the greater parallel with the Dreyfus case is this: Dreyfus the man was a trivial part of what history has come to call the Dreyfus affair, and Bill Clinton the man will be a trivial part of the Clinton affair. From history's perspective, I suspect his presidency and the impeachment will be recalled as the turning of some social or political tide for which he is an emblem. Here is my candidate:

Independently of Clinton, a case can be made that the national government has been losing legitimacy. It is a complicated case, but can be exemplified by the answers to a single polling question asked consistently since 1958: "How much do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right?" In 1958, three out of four Americans said most or all of the time. In the 1990s, that figure is one out of four. This is not a negligible downturn on a minor polling topic. It is the rumbling that portends a constitutional earthquake.

In the short term, the Clinton affair has increased public alienation by demonizing the independent prosecutor and Congress. In the long term, the Clinton affair is corrosive of other institutional foundations. There is the despoiling of the White House -- Clinton serviced in the Oval Office while talking over the phone about Bosnia; the Lincoln bedroom sold for $ 100,000 a night.

These are images that demean the presidency more harshly than we have yet understood. There is the courtroom oath unmasked. Before the Clinton affair, who among us -- except the lawyers -- knew how empty is the requirement to tell "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth"? Now we all do, a costly disillusionment in a system that works only if people take those words seriously. Perhaps most painful, there is the transparent posturing about the Constitution.

Everyone knows the truth: Clinton was acquitted because he got a thumbs up from the populace, Constitution be damned. Same charges, same evidence, but thumbs down from the populace, and he would have been thrown out, Constitution be damned. It is popular democracy, which the Founders rightly feared, come to pass through polls and focus groups. And these are just a few fragments that are already obvious. In a hundred other ways we cannot foresee, the Clinton affair will be "See-I-told-you-so" proof that the government is for sale, politicians are contemptible, the law plays favorites -- in short, that the system is corrupt.

If it were an isolated aberration, the Clinton affair would amount to a new Teapot Dome and presidential girlfriend in the closet -- Bill Clinton as Warren Harding with a high IQ. But instead the Clinton affair comes after decades in which the Congress, the presidency, and the Supreme Court have had their constitutional frameworks continually eaten away. The Dreyfus affair labels a defining moment that exposed the rot in the institutions of the French right. The Clinton affair and its aftermath will, I think, turn out to be a defining moment that exposed the rot in the institutions of American republican government. Whether the response will be to shore up the structure or abandon it remains an open question.

Charles Murray is Bradley fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.