Defining the Presidency Down

Intellectual Capital
October 8, 1998 by Pete du Pont

In his 1996 book Miles to Go,Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) identified a salient trend in American social policy; he called it "defining deviancy down." Moynihan said "the amount of deviant behavior in American society has increased beyond the levels the community can afford to recognize," so we are "redefining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized and ... raising the 'normal' level in categories where behavior is now abnormal by any earlier standard."

Similarly, the Clinton administration has increased deviant presidential behavior beyond what the community can afford to recognize, so the liberal left is in the process of defining presidential deviancy down. Feminists, artists, writers, New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis -- all enamored of President Clinton and his policies -- recently have told us that nothing close to impeachable conduct has occurred in the Lewinsky perjury/obstruction-of-justice matter, so we should forget the whole thing. Thus they are defining the presidency and its moral authority down.

Not much of a leg to stand on

The feminists' disregard for the good of the nation is at least explainable, for they are a small interest group bought and paid for by the president's support on a policy issue (abortion). An iron rule of politics is that when you are bought and paid for, you are loyal to the end, so they support their "ally in the White House."

The literati and Lewis have no such cover and so have set an even more destructive standard. In their September 24 statement the intellectuals, led by the former French culture minister Jack Lang conclude that "A statesman is answerable to public opinion or to the law only for his public acts. All else is solely a matter of his own conscience."

In other words, a president on his own time may commit any acts he chooses, illegal as well as legal, and not be held accountable. He may kite checks, run red lights and injure people in the resulting crash, or falsify financial documents, and because he is not acting in his public capacity as president, he is both blameless (his transgressions are a "matter of his own conscience") and unaccountable (not "answerable to ... the law"). A curious standard indeed. Now we can see what Bill Buckley meant when he said he would rather be governed by 100 people selected at random from the Boston phone directory than by the faculty of Harvard University.

In his Sept. 23 column, Lewis states a different absolute: "Sex and lying about it are not grounds for impeachment." No citations are given for the legal basis of this conclusion, but let us accept it at face value for the moment.

That there are serious and principled thinkers on the other side bothers him not at all. Constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe of Harvard Law School says the standard is whether the conduct, "if clearly proved, fatally undermines our ability to trust the only official elected to lead the entire nation -- the distinguishing feature of an impeachable, as opposed to an ordinary, offense." Andrew Sullivan of the New Republic writes that "it doesn't matter what the lie is about. What matters is that it is premeditated and clearly proven." Doris and Richard Goodwin believe that "the base campaign the president began on Jan. 21 clearly constitutes an abuse of presidential authority, a deliberate decision to use the precious platform of the presidency ... to present a false picture to the American public."

In the Sept. 24 Wall Street Journal, Yale Law School Professor George L. Priest argues that the correct standard is different: The issue is why the president lied. The lies in Clinton's case, Priest writes, "are not about sex or personal privacy. Rather, they are intended to influence a material witness, Monica Lewinsky, to sign a false affidavit denying a sexual relationship so that the president can in his deposition credibly deny a sexual relationship."

Is anything impeachable?

But the Anthony Lewis position raises a basic question: If sex and lying about it are not grounds for impeachment, is there any conduct a president may engage in and then lie about that is an impeachable offense? For example:

  • Raising, in the White House, foreign contributions for a re-election campaign. It is against the law but is private conduct, so is lying about it under oath not impeachable?
  • Filing an intentionally false income-tax return and denying it under oath. Again, private conduct, so are the intellectuals correct that the president cannot be held accountable?
  • An automobile accident in which the president is driving; the car crashes; his companion is killed. He lies under oath to cover up the death and ensure that no charges are brought. Impeachable?
  • Long before he was elected, a president is involved in a barroom brawl and the physical beating of a person of another race. Money changes hands, no charges are brought and the matter is hushed up. Years later the incident becomes public, is verified, and the president denies under oath that it ever happened.
  • The president fathers a child out of wedlock and pays the mother large sums not to disclose the matter. The child is discovered, and the president denies the paternity and the payments under oath.
  • All five of these examples are private conduct. The first two are illegal; the second two might be, but no charges were filed. The first three acts were contemporaneous with the presidency; the last two were not.

    Liberal artists and writers would say that none of these actions by a president are impeachable. Lewis likely would say that the last two are not impeachable because the conduct is not illegal and that the false tax return was not either because the House Judiciary Committee voted such a charge down in the Watergate matter. He also might argue that accepting foreign campaign contributions was wrong and illegal but not central to the presidency and so not impeachable either.

    End the double standard

    By pursuing these lines of reasoning, Lewis and his liberal left followers are defining the office of the presidency down, lowering its standard of conduct and the people's expectations of it and, in Tribe's words, "undermin[ing] our ability to trust the only official elected to lead the entire nation."

    The ordinary citizen would say that there cannot be two standards, one for us and one for the president, and that perjury -- lying about things under oath -- is illegal, wrong and thus impeachable, regardless of what is lied about. He or she would be elevating the standards of the presidency up rather than defining them down.

    But by saying none of this matters, that the president has suffered enough and we should move on, the liberal establishment is moving in the opposite direction. That leads to the final question: What are the consequences for the institution of the presidency if Clinton's transgressions are forgiven, accepted as the norm for future presidents and we move on?

    Pete du Pont is the editor of He is a former Republican governor and congressman from Delaware. His e-mail address is