THE PRESIDENT IS SECOND TO NONE in recognizing what was wrong in his behavior and apologizing to those who he's affected and hurt." Those few words by presidential spokesman Joe Lockhart last Monday unintentionally revealed how President Clinton has come to stand on the brink of impeachment by the House of Representatives. He has apologized to those he believes have been affected by his behavior; by implication, then, those to whom he has not apologized are (in the president's opinion) unaffected by his behavior. Let's tally them up.
No apology has been offered to Judges Susan Webber Wright and Norma Holloway Johnson, although it was in their court-rooms that the president told his lies. No apology has been tendered to Paula Jones, either, despite the fact that it was her lawsuit that the president was attempting to thwart by lying. No presidential "I'm sorry" for obstructing, impeding, and deceiving Kenneth Starr's duly authorized investigation; no "won't do it again" to Congress for violating its statutes against perjury and witness-tampering; no "pardon me" to the American people for twisting and bending their courts and their laws.
To protect himself from personal liability, Bill Clinton orchestrated a fantastic campaign of lying. And even at this late date, the president cannot see that anybody except his wife has any right to complain.
This is not merely the idiosyncratic misjudgment of a clueless president: It's the heart and soul of the president's defense. The president's friends are now ready -- eager -- to concede that their man's behavior was "wrong," even "sinful." What they refuse to concede is that it was lawless. Thus an eminent professor of law at Yale University, Akhil Amar, could complain to Salon magazine that the House Republicans "keep saying [rule of law]. I have taught law at Yale Law School for 15 years, and I just don't understand what [Hyde] means when he says that."
What does Hyde mean? The case against the president is that he lied and enticed others to lie in an attempt to win a personal lawsuit. Then, when caught, he told further lies to a federal grand jury. And all the while he used public funds and public employees to impede and delay the investigation into his lies. Virtually nobody disputes this bare statement of the facts: In two days of defense argument before the House Judiciary Committee, even Clinton's lawyers chose not to dispute it, preferring instead to ransack the thesauruses for synonyms for "deceive." The question before the House of Representatives is whether a president who has lied like Clinton and who continues to repeat those lies, is worthy to preside over the American system of justice.
Akhil Amar not only thinks that such a president is worthy -- but he cannot imagine how anybody could think otherwise. Some 200 congressional Democrats and four or five congressional Republicans appear to see things Amar's way. Some 200 House Republicans, on the other hand, believe that Clinton deserves impeachment and a Senate trial. And two or three dozen Republicans and Democrats in between will make the final decision.
One shudders to think of the terrible pressures that will be brought to bear on those three dozen men and women. They will hear that the fate of the global economy and world peace hangs on their vote; they will be bribed and bullied; they may even catch whispers that the sort of embarrassment that befell Henry Hyde, Helen Chenoweth, and Dan Burton is waiting for them. But one equally shudders to think of what it will mean for American society if this House can contemplate the truth about Bill Clinton -- that he repeatedly, willfully, and unrepentantly perverted justice for his own personal and political advantage -- and decide to let him off with a vigorous tut-tutting.
We've been hearing a great deal of late about Sen. Edmund Ross of Kansas, the Republican who cast the deciding vote against removing President Andrew Johnson from office in 1868 (and who was lionized for that vote by John F. Kennedy in Profiles in Courage). It's more than a little amazing to hear Clinton's supporters lauding the congressman who kept America's most nakedly racist president on the job. They do it because they want to reassure waverers frightened to cast a vote against the president that their timidity is in fact bravery. But it's worth remembering that Roth did not vote against removal until after Johnson's plan for fastening permanent white supremacy on the South had been defeated. What would we now think of Roth if he had voted to save not just Johnson's job but Johnson's scheme? That is what Clinton is asking.
Clinton, we are told, fears being indicted for perjury after he leaves office, and so can admit nothing. He wants Congress not just to reprieve him, but to reprieve him in a way that facilitates his legal defense after January 2001. This is not courage; it is not even leniency; it is complicity.
Bill Clinton wants Americans to see his behavior as within the bounds of permissible presidential conduct: a peccadillo, really, the equivalent, as Judge Leon Higginbotham Jr. told the Judiciary Committee, of a speeding ticket. Will Congress assent to that proposition? Will it say that a president can tear up this country's laws when those laws threaten to cost him a few bucks in damages? Or will it serve notice, to this guilty president and to future presidents who may be even more ambitious, that unlike the distinguished law faculty of Yale, Americans and their political representatives still understand what is at stake when the country's chief executive demands the right to ignore laws and defy judges when they inconvenience him?
Everybody -- Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative -- wants a strong and effective presidency. Nobody is comfortable calling for or casting an impeachment vote. Given the polls, it's understandable that a prudent congressman, Republican or Democrat, might hesitate to cast a vote against the president. But let us at least honestly describe this state of affairs. It is not a happy day for republican self-government when Congress acquiesces in presidential law-breaking for fear of the president's power. If Congress fails to impeach Bill Clinton, the encomium it least deserves for its performance is courageous.
David Frum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.