What the Senate Morality Play Tells About Morality of U.S. Institutions


October 17, 1991|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris. - Three things remain to be said about the Thomas hearings, now that they are over, having irremediably harmed the lives of two individuals, and soiled the Senate and the presidency of the United States.

The first should be obvious. A person nominated to the Supreme Court should be a jurist or legal scholar of distinction, or a figure of weight and experience in American public life. The Constitution endows the court with potentially the highest powers in the government, since its decisions can only be overcome by amendment of the Constitution itself, and they effectively shape the development of legislation and the execution of executive authority.

Judge Clarence Thomas is an impressive figure in many respects, but at this point in his career, at 43, with only brief experience as a federal appeals judge, he has no evident qualification for the Supreme Court. The same was true of President George Bush's last nominee to that court, Justice David Souter.

Both were nominated for ideological and partisan reasons. These nominations of unqualified men amount to contempt for the court on the part of the president and his staff. They are acts of aggression against the constitutional order. Mr. Thomas should never have been named; nominated, he should have been rejected by the Senate on grounds of lack of qualifications and only that.

Instead, the Democratic assault upon him in the Senate was equally ideological, an attempt, like that of President Bush, to pursue a legislative agenda in the Supreme Court. The majority's questioning of the judge consisted chiefly of improper attempts to evoke from him anticipations of the positions he would take on controversial matters yet to come before the court.

In the end, of course, the hearings were turned into a trial of the alleged past conduct of Judge Thomas, a matter beyond the competence of a Senate hearing to determine. As the events of the past week have amply demonstrated, it was also beyond the competence of this committee to investigate such a matter without abuse to the normally accepted rules of evidence and the rights of both the principal figures in the final confrontation. The ordeal of Professor Anita Hill has been no less than that of Judge Thomas, and has served neither public nor private interest.

The third thing to be said is the one most difficult for Americans to accept. It is that a distinction must be maintained between morality and competence. Judge Thomas was accused of lecherous and sexually aggressive behavior toward Professor Hill. If true, this nonetheless would have left him in congenial company in the Supreme Court, which has harbored lechers before, and voyeurs, adulterers, racists and slaveholders distinguished justices all.

The rich hypocrisy of last week's hearings invited speculation on the outcome of detailed investigations into the private lives not only of the seated justices of the Supreme Court but of the members of the Senate panel, Sen. Edward Kennedy among them, and the ideologically righteous staffs of those senators, and the lobbyists so determined to destroy Judge Thomas and Professor Hill in the service of their advocacy-group clients.

Sexual misconduct is commonplace - certainly it is in Washington - and is matter for private condemnation, or the action of law when it is criminal. High government, however, has been and is occupied by women as well as men who are adulterers or sexually aggressive, by women who are emotional blackmailers, betrayers, emasculators or prepared to sleep their way to the top. Their conduct, like that of their male counterparts, is the business of themselves, their families and their associates. It is not matter for congressional inquiry or quasi-judicial judgment. There is remedy in the law for sexual harassment.

Good men and women often do things that end badly. Bad ones often do good. Professional competence and intellectual capacity are frequently accompanied by moral qualities that invite neither respect or emulation. That is mortality. But the puritan component in Protestant America characteristically conflates private with public virtue.

This produces our recurrent efforts to legislate or administratively impose virtue (Prohibition, aspects of the abortion debate, the ''Political Correctness'' movement of the present day) as well as our periodic national seizures of political censorship and ideological repression: the Sedition Act in World War I, the subsequent deportation of ''radicals'' by Woodrow Wilson's attorney general, attacks by students and graduates as well as outsiders on university independence during that period; the post-World War II McCarthyite and ''un-Americanism'' uproar, etc.

This all is of a piece with what has been going on in Washington. While purporting to establish the rule of morality, it actually subverts the public morality.

For a public morality does exist, which in another time would prompt a president to nominate to the high judiciary men and women who possess compelling professional and intellectual qualifications. It would lead senators to place the common interest before partisan interests. It is a morality which leaves the private lives of individuals to another justice than that of Senate committees and Washington lobbyists and journalists.

8, William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.