The Magazine


Mar 1, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 23 • By JAMES BOWMAN
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Bill Clinton has managed to maintain his grip on power by exploiting every advantage the law supplies. Although we would not wish to do away with these legal safeguards, such a means of remaining in office, even if not prosecutable, is surely an abuse of them. In fact, it is probable that large majorities of both houses of Congress have lost confidence in the president's good judgment in power, but a smaller majority had no stomach for branding him a criminal and disgracing him for life over what began as a private vice. His resistance to those defenders of the Constitution who insisted on the rigorous application of the law -- in this case a sexual harassment law enacted at Clinton's own insistence -- was defensible, though his continuance in power was not. But he could argue that the Constitution admitted of no other option than clinging to office in order to defend himself against the operation of a foolish law.

It is said that America's is a government of laws, not men, and that this is one of the things Americans have most to be proud of. But governments inevitably consist of both laws and men, and we do not exempt ourselves from the necessity to balance the two by the dream, derived from that of the Founding Fathers, that we can write laws to solve all human problems. T. S. Eliot once observed that the socialist project was to design a system so perfect that no one would have to be good. The socialists were anticipated by the Founders of the American Republic, whose aim was to design a system so well that honor would not have to be relied on. But, it turns out, we have to rely on it still.

James Bowman is American editor of the Times Literary Supplement of London.