An impeachment trial to cleanse the regime

December 17, 1998|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- When Queen Caroline, consort of King George IV, was accused of adultery, one of her critics made a sardonic salute to some of her defenders: "God save the queen, and may all your wives be like her." A similar toast to Democrats opposed even to a Senate trial for President Clinton: And may all your presidents be like him.

Partisan debate about the propriety of a Senate trial proceeds amid bipartisan consensus that there must never be another such president. His fate largely rests with people Democrats praise for their tepid partisanship, people known as "moderate Republicans" and known for inconsistency. (About which Clinton crimes are they moderately miffed?)

Such are the spars to which he clings in the shipwreck of his presidency, now that the Washington Post, which opposes impeachment, dismisses his defense as "a compound lie," and the New Republic, which opposes impeachment, calls him "a moral and cultural disaster" who is "shockingly capable of degrading just about anything he touches."

Poll watchers

Granted, Republicans have mixed motives, some ignoble, for favoring impeachment. Still, savor the rarity of some people unwilling to palter with the truth to pander to public opinion. And salute some of them for an understanding of the popular will far more profound than polls communicate.

The reason judicial review -- unelected judges invalidating acts of elected representatives -- can be compatible with popular government is that the Constitution is the fundamental, the permanent rather than evanescent, will of the American people.

Whoever is scripting Mr. Clinton's various contrition skits misses this point: Serial contrition, carefully calibrated, is oxymoronic. Mr. Clinton's current confessional theme, displayed again in the Rose Garden on Friday, is: I am ashamed of what I did to conceal behavior I was ashamed of, so now I have nothing to be ashamed of. If there were a parliamentarian controlling the current debate, he would declare such skits ungermane. Enough, already, of Mr. Clinton's bulletins on his inner life.

Mr. Clinton, whose self-absorption is the eighth wonder of the world, thinks the current controversy is about the purity of his repentance. He is encouraged to think so by those critics who, steeped in today's confessional culture, say we could "get this behind us" if only Mr. Clinton would come to the front of the tent and testify to having testified falsely under oath. But this reduces an assault on the rule of law to a problem that is half aesthetic and half pastoral.

The vote to impeach should proceed on the understanding that impeachment is not punishment, it is hygiene for the regime. The vote should turn on three questions:

First, is it seemly to spare a president even a Senate trial to consider the Everest of evidence of crimes of a sort for which some Americans are in prison?

Second, is it necessary to avoid a Senate trial, lest the nation be jeopardized? Such a judgment effectively amends the Constitution by repealing the impeachment provision as inapplicable to the modern presidency because the presidency has grown too great to discipline.

Third, what standard of presidential behavior will be endorsed by the House if it votes that not even a Senate trial is warranted by Mr. Clinton's sustained and calculated "private" behavior, which consisted of lying to the public and in two public (judicial) proceedings about behavior in the symbolic epicenter of the nation's public life, the Oval Office?

A censure vote

Mr. Clinton might survive a Senate trial in which the nation's welfare, not his soul, would be the proper subject. But even if only, say, 55 senators, rather than the required two-thirds, voted to remove Mr. Clinton, his survival would not mean (as one of his lawyers says) that this all would have been "much ado about nothing." If Mr. Clinton clings to office after majorities of both DTC houses declare him unfit to do so, that outcome can accurately be called: censure.

But before assuming that Mr. Clinton's support cannot fall below 34 senators, consider: There is scant affection for him among Democrats. Some senior Democrats loathe him for reducing their party, once exemplified by Sens. Scoop Jackson, Hubert Humphrey and Mike Mansfield, to a party exemplified by Reps. Jerrold Nadler of New York and Barney Frank of Massachusetts.

And some Democrats have made themselves hostage to polls by citing them as sufficient reason not to remove Mr. Clinton. They have planted their feet on the shiftable sand of opinion, and the public may yet come to feel about Mr. Clinton as many in England came to feel about Caroline:

Most gracious queen, we thee implore

To go away and sin no more;

Or if that effort be too great,

To go away at any rate.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 12/17/98

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