As President Clinton leaves his friends and supporters twisting slowly, slowly in the wind, hoping nothing new or provable emerges in the next series of reports, his situation generates a good deal of false — or at least misplaced — piety about our cherished institutions. Comedian Harry Shearer recently noted on National Public Radio, for example, that while the Clinton-Lewinsky imbroglio was terrific for him as a comedian, providing him with endless material to be delicately and indelicately exploited, as a citizen he felt just terrible about what the country was going through. Numerous others, commentators and politicians, have agonized publicly about what a terrible time this is for the country.
I’ll confess that as a political journalist I sometimes have similar feelings. Bad times for the country usually provide more material to comment about, sometimes even to get excited about, than calm and contented good times. But this scandal is not a bad time for the country; it’s a good time. And the longer the president is under a cloud, the longer he waits for other shoes to drop, the longer he attempts to act his way through the presidency while becoming more of a laughingstock, the more widely apparent it becomes that he has no moral authority and his political capital is steadily dwindling, the better it will be for the country.
Perhaps then we as a country will have taken a few steps toward being cured of our decades-long — all right, it’s been even longer than that — case of presidency-worship. Few developments could be healthier.
For the last 50 years at least, the presidency has grown not just in actual but in symbolic power, assuming a character perhaps beyond monarchy. An official designed by the Constitution to be a chief executive officer, independent of Congress and the judiciary, but charged essentially with carrying out the laws passed by Congress has become almost a high priest of a civil religion. You can see the near-veneration of the office sometimes more piquantly among the critics of Bill Clinton than among his defenders, as they speak of the sacred Oval Office being soiled by the presence of so dishonest and contemptible a figure.
The founders probably knew the president would be a more powerful figure than, for example, a British prime minister, but they would be shocked to hear a mere politician who happens to have been more successful than others at climbing the slippery pole of power being referred to as the First Teacher, the First Parent, the repository of our hopes and dreams, the symbol of our national greatness. They would be amazed that he routinely commits U.S. troops to dubious missions overseas without permission or apparent objection from Congress, or that most historians judge presidential greatness by how the occupant expanded the powers of the office beyond what is specified in the Constitution rather than by protecting the freedom of the people, that a president who provoked war is more likely to be considered “great” than one who kept the peace.
A powerful presidency, centralizing power — often enough quite arbitrary power — in the hands of one man who is viewed as not just a monarch-like figure in politics but almost as a sacred, quasi-religious figure is profoundly unhealthy for a free republic. I suppose that opinion puts me in sympathy with Lew Rockwell, who recently suggested that the best way to resolve the current contretemps would be to abolish the presidency, which has become so much more an autocratic institution than what the founders seemed to have in mind — a hired hand to supervise the execution of the few laws Congress was authorized to pass under the powers designated to it. It’s healthy to talk about abolition of the presidency if only to stretch our political imaginations, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. So what’s the next best thing?
The next best thing to abolition, I submit, would be a rather thorough discrediting of the presidency, at least in its modern form. Bill Clinton has done some of that, of course, but the danger for the country is that he will end up discrediting only himself, while the institution itself continues to be held in near-sacred esteem by most of the population, or at least most of the chattering classes. A long, drawn-out impeachment process (successful or not at driving this particular scoundrel from office) full of accusations and hair-splitting legalistic defenses seems like the best tool at hand at this particular moment to forward the process of de-sanctifying the Oval Office and the rascally politicians who occupy it.
So rather than getting this supposedly unpleasant episode over with as quickly as possible, limiting the scope of any inquiry strictly to the Lewinsky episode — politically the least important of Mr. Clinton’s transgressions against the principles that underlie a free society — those who wish the country well should hope for a process that takes long enough and encompasses enough of the sleazy outrages committed by the Clinton White House as possible to start to sink in. We need to learn, and learn well, that this is not an essentially good man with some understandable human failings but a sociopath of such a character as to make a Mafia godfather seem like a kindly benefactor of humankind — and to understand that it is just such ambitious and ruthless sociopaths that the office with its present powers and perquisites attracts.
If, along the way, we are reminded that the president is not responsible for the health or maladies of the American economy and we shouldn’t want him to be, that a president is almost as poor a place to seek for role models for American youth as among sports heroes, that people who seek power over others are not to be admired but feared, then we might be on our way to recovering the political culture that is more essential even than a constitution taken seriously to the success of a free republic.
So let the inquiry continue as long as possible, overturning numerous rocks covering smelly messes and provoking a maximum of humor and contempt, not just for this president but for the office he holds. It is not cynical but sensible to assume that people who love and seek power are seldom the benefactors but more often the adversaries of a free society.