Judiciary Committee reflects culture at war

October 09, 1998|By Tom Teepen

THERE ARE two struggles going on in the House Judiciary Committee. One, arguably the lesser, is over the fate of William Jefferson Clinton. (As the president is now becoming known, in a reflection of the ambiguity of his status. Our social habits usually give all three names mainly to college presidents and murderers.)

The other struggle, arguably the larger, is over the cultural disposition of the nation. Just look at the muster presented by each party. The difference could hardly be more striking as the TV cameras pan the committee to catch its members' mumbled votes.

The 21 Republicans are all white. Only one is a woman, and Mary Bono is there only by way of her husband's death in office. All are straight, as far as we know. All are Christians. Ten, nearly half, represent Southern white districts.

The 16 Democrats include five African Americans, three women, six Jews, an open homosexual. The group is geographically skewed to the Northeast.

The GOP majority reflects its members' indignation that the nation is not ordered as the bully moralist William Bennett and as Robert Bork, the forbidding jurist, and as the shadows they throw -- Pat Robertson and Kenneth Starr, say -- would have it ordered. Theirs are lives of certitudes, of the straight and the narrow. William Jefferson Clinton is a standing affront to them.

The Democratic minority reflects its members' skepticism at received and by-now rote verities and fear of the political secretariat that offers to enforce them. Theirs is a world of contingencies and accommodations. Bill Clinton is a problem for them.

Both groups misrepresent the nation. You'd be hard pressed to find an outfit as monolithic as the GOP's even in a Moose hall these days. The Democrats look like a parody of diversity. The nation's demographic truth would lie near a mix of both. (Though the Hispanic lapse would be striking.)

Now, as the consequence of an increasingly ideological war that started with Ronald Reagan's election and that begins to look more fateful than random, these two Americas sit in judgment of an errant president and of one another.

The politesse of their first deliberation did not mask severe disagreement. The Republicans held, in effect, that Clinton's lies under oath must be fatal to his presidency, lest the rule of law collapse. A failure to impeach, they fear, would license chaos.

The Democrats held that Clinton's lies in the circumstances -- trying to hide a sexual affair in a legal trap set by political opponents -- are regrettable but manageable, lest common sense collapse. Impeachment, they worry, would secure right-wing hegemony.

The Republican majority has the numbers -- and Clinton has given them the excuse -- to play winner-takes-all if they wish, finally vacating the last two presidential elections, which the GOP right found not just disappointing but so anomalous as to be invalid.

Power will end this business, of course. Will it be power giddy with opportunity and driven by its own indignation? Or power, informed by wisdom instead, that seeks a resolution in political compromise that can be, as well, socially reconciling?

Tom Teepen is national correspondent for Cox Newspapers.

Pub Date: 10/09/98

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.