The Magazine


Oct 19, 1998, Vol. 4, No. 06 • By DAVID FRUM
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It's worth stopping to think what would have happened if the White House counsels were right -- if Clinton really had followed Hamilton's precedent. Suppose, when asked by the Jones lawyers about the Lewinsky affair, Clinton and Monica had told the unflinching truth. The ensuing news leaks would surely have been unpleasant for the president. But the truth would not have helped Jones's case very much -- a consensual affair initiated by the woman does not prove a propensity to harass -- and after a week or two of jokes by Jay Leno, the story would have blown over. Clinton today would be happily chatting on the telephone to congressmen about Kosovo while under the ministrations of one of this year's crop of interns, and the Starr investigation would be limping its way to an anticlimactic end.

It's worth bearing this alternative in mind when friends of the president say his scandalous behavior is "just about sex." It was within Clinton's power to keep the story strictly about sex, and if he had done so, there would have been no scandal, no Starr report, no impeachment hearings. We have all three because Clinton chose the opposite course from Hamilton's: He disdained his public trust and broke the law, rather than suffer the exposure of his false pretenses as a father, husband, and national leader.

What would Alexander Hamilton himself say about all this? As it happens, we can hazard a reasonably well founded guess. At Philadelphia in 1787, Hamilton unveiled his own preferred version of a federal constitution. Article IV, Section 13, of the Hamilton draft expressed Hamilton's own preferred grounds for impeachment: The president, he suggested, should be impeachable "for any crime or misdemeanor."

If it were up to Hamilton, of course, a character like Clinton would never rise to the presidency in the first place. But if he somehow did make it, there would be no bizarre debate over precisely how many felonies a president must commit before he can be removed. The very first one would do it.

David Frum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.