New York Post
OUR language shows the character of our thinking, like a pond surface
transmitting disturbances below.
A Democratic senator announced recently that he ''didn't agree'' with
some of the president's behavior (although naturally he was opposed to
conviction on the impeachment charges). Now you can ''disagree'' with a
proposition, but not an action. It makes no sense to say ''I agreed with
the president at first, when he walked his dog; when he fell down the
stairs, I disagreed with that.''
But of course it's easier to ''disagree'' with a man than disapprove of
him. Disagreement is morally neutral. The judge doesn't tell the
defendant ''The jury has found you guilty, and I disagree with your
crimes. I therefore sentence you to ... '' The priest doesn't tell the
penitent in the confessional ''I disagree with your sins, and
accordingly ... '' At least I don't think he does.
This senator was talking the new language of American amorality. He was
a good spokesman for a society that is in steady retreat from the idea
of duty.
Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) laid it on the line in an interview that is
already passing into legend and will one day be recounted in history
books. He explained that, yes, the president was guilty of impeachable
crimes - but he should not be (or at any rate could not be) convicted
and removed because he is popular and the economy is strong.
I'm sure many other senators think the same thing but don't have the
courage to admit it. Henceforth any defendant should be allowed to plead
''not guilty by reason of popularity,'' and criminal lawyers will have
to study up on the Soaring Dow defense.
When the murderer O.J. Simpson was acquitted and set free, most
Americans assumed that the verdict was a fantastic anomaly. Many white
Americans assumed also that it was a piece of ugly, vicious racism on
the part of a black jury. Today they owe the Simpson jury an apology, of
sorts. No less an authority than the U.S. Senate has endorsed the idea
that if the facts say ''guilty!'' you are duty-bound to convict -
assuming you feel up to it. Otherwise, never mind.
The Simpson jury evidently reasoned: ''It doesn't matter whether this
man is innocent or guilty; we don't want to convict him. Some people
regard him as a hero. We hate his accusers. And we'd be unpopular with
our neighbors if we voted to bring him down.'' Many congressional
Democrats seem to feel the same way about the president.
Of course there is a large moral difference between Clinton's crimes and
Simpson's. I assume that if the president's crimes had been truly
Simpsonian, even Sen. Byrd would have favored conviction. But I'm not
sure where the switch-over would take place. Once you are cleared to
commit obstruction of justice and perjury, what other crimes can you get
away with? There's a thought to cheer a president on a rainy day.
What have we learned? Where does impeachment leave us? It leaves us
(speaking for southern New England) on a pale day threatening snow, with
a pair of solemn mallards cruising a forest pond.
I visited the pond a few days ago with my boys, and we watched
contentedly for a long time as nothing happened. The outcome of the
impeachment trial merely reflects (like the pond reflecting bare
branches) the nation's spiritual emptiness. The president himself,
having no character of his own, reflects the nation's mood like a
mirror. (He is famous for reading an audience and adjusting his tone
accordingly.) He has made the White House small, mean and cheap, but
eventually it will recover - when the nation does.
In the meantime, there is this pond reminding us of the once and future
dignity of the United States of America, and preserving a small piece of
it. Now is a good time for ducks and quiet.
A NEWS story over the weekend made such a strange assertion, I had to
read it three times to make sure I had understood it. Ultimately it's a
good indication of our state of mind. The National Archives in
Washington has determined that the Declaration of Independence, the
Constitution and the Bill of Rights (the actual parchment originals)
need new cases; otherwise they might suffer long-term damage. Fair
enough. Musing on the Founding Fathers and the Declaration, the New York
Times said this: ''Surely few thought that the text they wrote would
survive for more than two centuries.''
Why should they have doubted that their parchment text ''would survive
for more than two centuries''? Many medieval manuscripts survive today,
and they were all on hand in 1776 - housed mainly in Europe; but the
Founding Fathers were worldly, cultivated men.
I can only guess that this news story projects onto 1776 the world-view
of today's cultural leaders. Most old parchment texts are religious
documents, but editors and reporters rarely think about religion, or
medieval manuscripts - and they assume that the Founding Fathers
approached life on the same basis.
Today's cultural leaders rarely take words seriously, or choose them
carefully, or expect them to last - and they can barely imagine men who
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