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Among the marks of statesmanship is the ability to recognize the moment
for action — when the time for deliberation and discussion is past, and
the time for deeds has arrived. Sometimes such judgments are very difficult, which is one of the reasons that statesmanship is so rightly prized. But the question of whether the time has arrived to impeach President Clinton and remove him from office should not be a hard call for anyone with any pretension to statesmanship — certainly not for a former president of the United States.
I believe that it is pretty clear that we ought to remove this president
right now, and I don’t see why anybody would hesitate about it. But there are still people hesitating, including a former president who really ought to know better. No, not Jimmy Carter — he has actually said some rather forthright things about the behavior of President Clinton. I am referring to recent remarks by Former President George Bush.
Interviewed on NBC-TV, Bush “resisted attempts to draw out an opinion
about Mr. Clinton’s behavior,” according to news accounts. Mr. Bush didn’t want to say too much. He actually said that he was reluctant to criticize or second-guess Mr. Clinton: “He’s got enough critics out there now.”
What exactly would Mr. Bush be hesitant to second-guess him about — the
wisdom of having an affair with a 22 year-old intern? The wisdom of lying about it for months, and deploying the power of his office to assist in that lie? Does George Bush actually hesitate to “second-guess” Mr. Clinton about that?
Of course, it was George Bush’s refusal to stick to his guns and actually campaign on the strong moral conservative message of the `92 Republican Convention that saddled the nation with Mr. Clinton in the first place. So perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that he finds it difficult to rouse himself to oppose Mr. Clinton’s depravity now.
Mr. Bush said something else that magnified my disappointment at his refusal to criticize Mr. Clinton’s behavior. He invited all citizens to join him in doing and saying nothing about the matter. Here is how the exchange was reported in my newspaper: “Asked if the presidency has been diminished by Mr. Clinton, Mr. Bush responded ‘This office is stronger, bigger, than any one person. But I’m afraid that for now it has been diminished. Nothing fatal has been done. Our nation is the finest democracy on earth, and one of the finest aspects of it is that our problems are, in effect, self-healing or self-correcting when a mistake is made.'”
I have to tell you that this is naive. If George Bush had read the Founders and understood what they said — if he understood the genius of
the American way of life — he would realize that what we need to emphasize now is that the “self-correction” of our political system depends at critical moments on responsible, courageous judgment and action by the people who are entrusted with authority — including the citizens of the country. The Founders say so explicitly in their writings about the Constitution. And it is precisely this kind of deliberate and vigorous action that is needed now if there is to be a correction of the political system so badly skewed by the activities of Bill Clinton — and by the passivity of the shuffleboard Republicans who
counsel us to just stand there and watch him wreck the national conscience while the “process” chugs along.
The American political system is indeed remarkable for its artful arrangement of power and authority in ways that prevent disagreement and
misbehavior from upending the ship of state. In much of the ordinary business of self-government, the divisions and limitations of political power do amount to a kind of automatic mechanism to blunt the edge of mistakes that might otherwise do deep damage to our self-government — and this is what the Founders intended.
But some questions, and especially those that concern our fidelity to
the very principles of our system of self-government, require more from us than that we mind our own business. They have to be actively corrected by our courage, by our judgment, by our willingness to accept responsibility and make the decisions that are required. That is why what George Bush said is misleading and unhelpful, and would have been immediately recognized as such by the folks who put together the Constitution.
The fact that a recent Republican president could speak as if the crisis
for our political institutions that the Clinton presidency has become will automatically “self-correct” without a great struggle on behalf of that correction shows how far beneath the level of real statesmanship so
many of our politicians have fallen.
With respect to our national temptation to accept the Clinton doctrine
that character is irrelevant to high national office, the statement that
“our problems are, in effect, self-healing or self-correcting when a mistake is made” shouldn’t be believed for a second, because it is false
and dangerous, as our Founders knew quite well. When John Jay, for instance, addressed the question of how we can be confident that the officers of the government will remain faithful to their duties, he did not say that this fidelity would be “automatic” or “self-healing” or “self-correcting.” Rather, he said the following:
“With respect to their responsibility, it is difficult to conceive how
it could be increased. Every consideration that can influence the human mind — such as honor, oaths, reputation, conscience, the love of country
and family affections and attachments — afford security for their fidelity.”
Those are the kinds of things that are needed to guarantee that representatives will be faithful, and that people will execute their duties. So what happens when conscience is destroyed, when there is no honor, when oaths mean nothing, and when care about reputation is replaced with shamelessness, as it is in Bill Clinton? At that point there is no guarantee for the fidelity of those who represent us, and there is nothing that is going to protect us against the abuse of power and office.
Jay didn’t think that fidelity in public service was simply “automatic.”
He said that there were certain things that influenced the human mind, and if the political order is to function properly, the nation had better have those things in place. If they are, we may have some reasonable assurance as to the fidelity of those who are serving in our government.
In discussing the very structure of the government, and the kinds of things that would preserve the separation of powers and the rest of the mechanism that helps to maintain stability in our government, James Madison said the following in Federalist 51:
“But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several
powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defence must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to
the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights
of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
Certainly Madison here admits that the Constitution establishes a kind
of mechanism to preserve order within our politics. But on what must we depend for those mechanisms of control to work? We must depend on the interests that individuals will have, and on their willingness to act on
those interests, to think intelligently about those interests, and in pursuing those interests to allow the mechanisms of government to operate in such a way that encroachments will be resisted and the concentration of powers in a tyrannical form won’t take place.
When the competing ambitions involve disputes about whether or not we
will insist that the rule of law be applied to the president, there had better be national leaders ready to struggle mightily on behalf of the rule of law. Without such champions, how can we expect the political struggle that is now under way ultimately to vindicate what is right? The struggle between Lincoln and Douglas was ultimately decided the right way, but would that have been the case if the young Mr. Lincoln had been persuaded that the national tendency to “self-correction” was always spontaneous and didn’t require that he spend his very life to provoke it?
Our system does not depend merely on the energy and just ambition of our
national office-holders, either. Every citizen is part of the founding calculation. Our system of government was carefully crafted to work as long as the citizens retain the energy and determination to strive to achieve their decent goals in politics — exercising in this, as in every
aspect of their lives, the God-given right to the pursuit of happiness.
If people just sit back, as is implied in Mr. Bush’s comment, and presume that everything is self-healing and self-correcting, and that they don’t have to worry at all or do anything, they are accepting an implication that will destroy our system of government, by making it impossible for it to work.
I sincerely hope and pray that individuals in the Congress, who have the
proximate responsibility right now for making this system function with integrity, aren’t in the frame of mind that George Bush suggests.
Perhaps retired presidents are tempted to take a passive attitude. Perhaps, from their point of view, they have “been there; done that” and the possibility of decisive action is over for them. And therefore perhaps they are tempted to think “Well, everything will be all right; it will work out. Nobody needs to worry too much about it; it’s self-correcting.”
No, it is not, Mr. President. Our national crisis is not going to be corrected unless people in the Congress of the United States take an intelligent assessment of the interest of this country, and act upon it.
That is what the Founders thought. It is time that we once again reflect the kind of understanding that is needed in order to make this system function with integrity, instead of the lackadaisical attitude being taken and recommended by some. A free people gone astray must take action to correct itself, or soon cease to be free.