Please bring an end to tawdriest presidency

January 27, 1998|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON — ''Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?''

-- Joseph Welch, Army special counsel, to Sen. Joseph McCarthy June 9, 1954 WASHINGTON -- Those words, spoken in a televised meeting

of a Senate committee, in response to a politician's legal but contemptible behavior, lanced a boil on the body politic. They catalyzed public revulsion about Joseph McCarthy's recklessness; his swift downfall began. Today's question is: Who will speak comparable words to another political sociopath, President Clinton?

The words that might be required to expedite his resignation can be spoken in private by a delegation of Democrats. Until then, the nation's dignity and security are hostage to this paradox: If Mr. Clinton had sufficient moral sense to see his duty, he would not be in a position where resignation is his duty.

Disgrace to the office

His presidency is beyond resuscitation. He can compound his disgrace by clinging to office, heedless of damage done to the national interest abroad or the tone of civic life. But the condition of his presidency is permanently more parlous and dangerous to the nation than that of Woodrow Wilson's presidency after his crippling stroke of October 1919.

Wilson's administration continued to function, however imperfectly, because his condition was secret, and because he retained high moral stature. Mr. Clinton's problem is an indelible and unconcealable stain of disgrace.

In 1967, the Constitution was amended to provide for the removal of physically incapacitated presidents. However, the Constitution has always contained a provision for the removal of morally incapacitated presidents. Its impeachment provision supplies a remedy for certain kinds of political problems, such as chronic lying to the nation about chronic behavior deeply offensive to it.

The apparent Republican consensus, perhaps principled but certainly convenient, is that the independent counsel's investigation should be completed before any impeachment process begins. This subordinates broad concerns about the nation's civic health and security to considerations of prosecutorial tidiness. It misses the point, which is not to punish Mr. Clinton but to end the punishment of the nation.

It is timely to assert that the impeachment provision is open-textured enough to encompass behavior which, by disgracing a president, annihilates his capacity to function. The constitutional provision that is sufficient for removing presidents who violate this or that law is surely not impotent to cope with presidents who flagrantly violate the implicit ''moral turpitude clause'' in the de facto contract that presidents have with the nation.

Winning a majority of electoral votes does not license anyone to behave as disgracefully as he likes, so long as he eludes the ''controlling legal authority'' of criminal law. To argue otherwise is to assert that ''permissible'' is a synonym for ''legal.''

Disgrace will drench Republicans who, relishing the prospect of wielding Congress against a neutered president, become accomplices in Mr. Clinton's clinging to power. America cannot count on the continuation of the holiday from history that blind good luck has given the country during the tenure of this inadequate president. And in fact, the holiday is over.

Saddam Hussein is repealing a crucial result of the Gulf War, the measures against his production of weapons of mass destruction. Meanwhile, the U.S. commander in chief is preoccupied, responding to revulsion about his sexual incontinence with sophomoric sophistries that reduce him to a tawdry joke ineligible for the minimal respect requisite for command.

Come clean, Mr. President

Mr. Clinton, who possesses all the pertinent information (from how many times his favorite intern visited the White House to how many gifts he sent her, and why), is said to be too busy gathering information to answer questions about it. All other Democrats indicate by their reverberating silence that they have

drawn the obvious conclusion: Mr. Clinton knows that the truth is lethal.

Among congressional Democrats, prudence may buttress, or substitute for, civic sense. They are remembering 1974, when voters inflicted condign punishment on the GOP for its lawyerly, reluctant, tardy response to a bad presidency that was its responsibility. The Democrats' additional peril is the recrudescence of a vulnerability they thought they had laid to rest -- the public's suspicion that their party is the incurable carrier of the 1960s virus of disdain for the civilized restraints and values of normal Americans.

The swift, irremediable collapse of Mr. Clinton's presidency has not really occurred in one week. Rather, one week's revelations have ratified six years of suspicions extending to matters beyond his personal conduct; no one sent for those Republicans' FBI files; and so on, and on -- that have crystallized into the unassailable conclusion that this is America's tawdriest presidency.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 1/27/98

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