Standing Up for the Truth

US News and World report
November 30 Edition David Gergen

BY DAVID GERGEN / EDITOR AT LARGE Standing up for the truth Clinton's offenses may not be impeachable, but they are unacceptable

 The central question hanging over American public life today is whether, in our exhaustion, we will slink away from evidence pointing toward perjury and obstruction of justice by the highest officer in the land. For the sake of our children, not to mention the rule of law, we cannot and should not.

 Kenneth Starr laid before the House Judiciary Committee a compelling case that at six critical forks in the road, President Clinton knowingly chose the wrong path, lying in court and encouraging others to lie in his behalf. Starr carefully avoided saying that he had an airtight case; "the evidence suggests . . ." he said repeatedly. But if the charges are true–and even many Democrats think they are–they represent a scathing indictment of presidential behavior.

 Whether they are impeachable or not is a close call. While a minority vigorously disagrees, most legal scholars believe they do not rise to the level of "high crimes and misdemeanors" as envisioned by the framers. Indeed, they are nowhere near as egregious as the abuses of official power by Richard Nixon, nor are they heinous acts of private conduct that one might expect for eviction from the White House.

 A matter of trust. In such a close case, it is also right and proper that Congress pay heed to public sentiment. Through the ballot box and polls, Americans have sent abundant signals that they believe Clinton has otherwise been a good steward and should remain in office. Overwhelming majorities oppose impeachment. In the elections of 1936, the public sent a similarly clear signal, in that case that it was sick of having the Supreme Court overturn New Deal legislation. Afterward, the court magically reversed direction, recalling the remark by Mr. Dooley, the fictional Irish philosopher, "Th' Supreme Coort follows th' iliction returns." What was good for the court then is fine for Congress now.

 Yet, for the House to turn down impeachment, based on current evidence, does not mean Congress should wash its hands of the matter, as a growing number of Republicans and Democrats are now asserting. GOP Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania argues, for example, that Congress should leave the matter to Starr to bring criminal charges against the president when he becomes a private citizen; as a practical matter, it's doubtful such charges will ever be filed.

 At the end of the day, we should recognize that the heart of this case is not about Clinton, nor is it about Starr. It is about us, the citizenry: What standards do we demand from our elected representatives, and do we apply them equally, even to a popular president?

 His defenders would have us believe that lying under oath, especially about sex, is a trivial violation of the law. Not so. The New York Times reviewed over 100 cases of perjury in state and federal courts and found that scores of people have been sent to jail or otherwise punished for lies under oath.

 This episode challenges our political standards, too. After scandals of the past, as in Watergate and Iran-contra, politicians concluded that the one thing worse than a crime is a coverup. The lesson: "If caught, come clean." Should the president now go scot-free, we will teach the next generation very different, more cynical rules: "If you're questioned, deny; if pressed, attack; if caught, lie. And if you just string it out long enough, the public will grow bored and walk away from the scandal."

 Journalists, lawyers, and historians do not have the political and moral authority to speak on behalf of the nation; only Congress can do that. Our lawmakers must now render a verdict in our names. Democratic statesmen like Joe Lieberman, Pat Moynihan, and Bob Kerrey should take the lead, along with Republicans like Trent Lott, Bob Livingston, and yes, Newt Gingrich, to pass a joint resolution of censure. It should sternly proclaim, "These offenses may not be impeachable, but they are unacceptable. Whatever his other virtues, the president's acts have violated his public trust and stand condemned." One day, the next generation will thank them.