The Magazine


In Defense of the House Republicans

Feb 8, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 20 • By DAVID FRUM
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Kenneth Starr never set out to win a putative culture war; it was Clinton's defenders who feared that by letting their man be impeached, they would lose a culture war. "The president must not lose his job," wrote Maureen Dowd, the New York Times's bellwether columnist, in her remarkable September 1998 pivot in favor of the president. "Not over this." Not because a "middle-aged married man has [an] affair with [a] frisky and adoring young office girl." A failure to defend the president, she feared, would jeopardize everything won in the 1960s. Apparently, requiring presidents to tell the truth under oath is the first step on a slippery slope to the prosecution of fornication and the outlawing of abortion.

Poor Richard Nixon. If only he'd thought to say that he wanted to wiretap Larry O'Brien's telephone at the Democratic National Committee because he had reason to believe O'Brien was using it to receive pro-life marching orders from the Vatican. Then Nixon, too, might have gotten a pass from the Times op-ed page!

Dowd had it really exactly backwards. One of the things that the Lewinsky affair illuminates is how very difficult it is to sustain any idea of public virtue in a society unable to agree on what constitutes private virtue. Clinton committed a public wrong. But he got away with it in very large part because it was connected to a private wrong, at a moment when Americans seem to find it uniquely difficult to express judgments about private wrongdoing. It was not conservatives who used perjury as a way to punish adultery; it was the Clintonites who saw they could use adultery to excuse perjury.

A cunning trick, but one likely to leave behind a certain odor. Nevertheless, for the moment it has been effective. Fearful Republican senators are now looking for some "exit strategy" that ends the trial rapidly. There is only one exit strategy that will work: Call the final vote and be prepared to lose. Impeachment was unpopular primarily because voters interpreted it as a cynical partisan gambit. For once, this suspicion was entirely misplaced, and it would be an act of self-betrayal for Republicans now to do anything to justify it. Cutting short the trial of a felonious president because the polls oppose it may seem like smart politics. But ending the trial hastily for political reasons only lends credence to the charge that Republicans started the trial for political reasons.

And once over, Republicans must not disown the trial. When they permitted Jennifer Dunn and Steve Largent to appear on national television after the president's State of the Union address and chirrup that the trial involves no big issues that justify disrupting the cozy comity of the capital, they raised the question: Well then, if the trial was so bogus, why did the Republicans start it? If Clinton feels no need to apologize for breaking the law, why do the Republicans feel the need to apologize for enforcing it?

President Clinton deserves to be convicted and removed from office. His popularity has saved him. Very well: Let his party go on record, in the Senate as in the House (and on Lincoln's birthday too!), that lying under oath and corrupting justice just do not seem to them to be impeachable offenses. Let them identify themselves as Clinton's apologists and defenders. And let Republicans retain enough of their old and deserved confidence in the American people -- who are seldom deceived for very long -- to believe that there will be a reckoning. Those same polls that show Clinton's popularity as president also show how little Americans like or trust him personally. A man who might have gone down in history as the Democrats' Eisenhower -- a likable, cautious character who presided over an era of wonderful peace and prosperity -- has instead been exposed as their Nixon.

Was it worthwhile to impeach Clinton? The impeachment proved to the American people that the charges against Clinton were in every particular true. It blackened the name of a law-breaking president. It destroyed the Democrats' quarter-century moral upper-hand and exposed the party's cynicism in pursuit of power. It gave American liberals one more opportunity to display their disdain for the law when it threatens to curb their appetites. It has ended in at least momentary defeat. Oh well. For a good cause, even defeat is worthwhile. But it's funny about good causes: Somehow, the defeats rarely last for long.

David Frum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.