The New Republic: LIES THAT MATTER

The New Republic

September 14 & 21, 1998

Lies That Matter

By Andrew Sullivan

The essence of Clinton's disgrace.

There can be little doubt that if Bill Clinton were a prime minister in a parliamentary system he would no longer be in office. It is a convention in British politics, for example, that a minister can survive even the tawdriest of scandals, or direst of careers, but, if he clearly lies to the House of Commons, he has no option but to resign. A lie in this context is not merely a hedging of the truth, a ducking of a question, or an act of omission-because the Brits have long understood that these kinds of lies are sadly inextricable from much of political life. What a lie here means is an untruth spoken directly and knowingly in a formal capacity to the political nation.

The reason for this convention is a simple one. If a politician is capable of self-consciously lying to his peers and electorate, then nothing he says from that point on can be reliably believed. Once that happens, politics becomes impossible because trust has been destroyed, both at home and abroad. Domestic politics is as threatened as national security. It doesn't matter what the lie is about. What matters is that it is premeditated and clearly proven. What matters is that the politician knows it is a lie when he says it, and operates not from a position of political engagement, but from political dishonesty.

Bill Clinton has done this in two clear, formal contexts. He did it in the deposition in the Paula Jones case, under oath, an oath as solemn and as binding as his oath of office. He did it from the White House on a presidential podium, wagging his finger for emphasis. He did it to his Cabinet and directly urged others to lie on his behalf. And he lied again when he said he didn't lie or direct others into bald-faced deception.

Of course, the United States does not have a parliamentary system, and so there is greater leeway for an American president. There is the leeway of apology, the leeway of forgiveness, and the leeway of impeachment. Having botched the first two, the president must soon engage the latter. The hearings will surely consume the nation in a marathon of distasteful distraction from which any honorable person would wish to rescue us. Bill Clinton is not such an honorable person, which is why it is unlikely he will quit. But that is not to say he shouldn't.

The defenses of the president, weak from the beginning, weaker as every day passes, are on the verge of collapse. We are told that this is a lie about sex, and everyone lies about sex. Well, to begin with, not everyone. And not everyone's sex life is conducted in a business office with an employee scarcely out of college. Most lies about sex, after all, are lies about equal, consensual, private matters, not about public acts of exploitation. We have been instructed by third-wave feminists that, since the Lewinsky affair was obviously consensual, it was not exploitative. But is there any greater disproportion of power than that between an intern and the president of the United States?

And, second, this argument misses what makes Bill Clinton different from most people. For the majority of us, white lies or discretion about sex are occasional digressions from general, everyday honesty. They are exceptions that prove the rule. But, with Clinton, the lies about sex are not exceptions to the general rule; they are the rule. They are of a seamless piece with his lies about virtually everything else.

The Lewinsky saga, in this sense, is a distillation of everything we already knew about Clinton, the purest proof yet of the moral nihilism that drives him forward. From the beginning, Clinton has lied with indiscriminate abandon. He has lied about genocide and he has lied about his golf scores. Every label he has attached to himself, every public position he has taken, has smacked of opportunism, not conviction, self-interested deceit, not public-interested candor. Very little of it can be taken at face value. He claims to be a feminist and yet treats the women around him as fools, tokens, or sexual objects. He claimed to be a New Democrat and yet embarked first and foremost on instituting semi-socialized medicine. He claimed to be a social liberal, and yet he signed the Defense of Marriage Act and boasted about it on Christian talk radio. He claimed to be in favor of making abortion "safe, legal, and rare," and yet he vetoed a measure to outlaw the most violent of late-term procedures. He claimed he wanted to end welfare as we know it and to balance the budget, and yet he failed to do either until forced to on Republican terms. Like a Visa card, he is everywhere you want him to be, which is to say he is nowhere reliable, nowhere dependable, and nowhere in the slightest bit honest.

And, more important, he has never taken responsibility for any of this. In Clinton's moral universe, the truth is whatever he can get away with, and a lie is always somebody else's fault. He therefore hardly struggles with the truth, because, where there is no responsibility, there can be no struggle. He can analogize the Bosnian conflict as another Holocaust, take a poll to see whether he should intervene, stand by while tens of thousands of civilians are murdered, and then take credit for world peace when he sends American soldiers to police the aggressor's gains. He can publicly weep for people with aids, and empathize with homosexuals, and then sign a bill that would have thrown every HIV-positive person out of the military and almost double the rate of gay discharges from the service. He can advocate women's rights, and then expose himself to a stranger, and molest a distraught staffer in the Oval Office. (Yes, I believe Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey.) And then he can go to gay fund-raisers, and NOW rallies, and Bosnia itself, and pretend he is still a crusader for morality, civil rights, and peace, all the while corrupting anyone who comes into contact with him along the way.

The notion that this characterological concern should be separate from a consideration of whether Bill Clinton can "do the job" of president betrays a misunderstanding of democratic politics itself. It is not a business. The president is not, and can never be, a CEO because a democratic nation is not, and can never be, a company. The United States is not making a product or selling a commodity. It is an association of laws and customs, the maintenance of which is an exacting and delicate and always moral task. The first responsibility of the person presiding over such an enterprise is not to achieve growth of 2.5 percent but to ensure the legitimacy of the system itself. In this fundamental task, Clinton has clearly not only failed; he has deliberately broken his oath of office. Clinton's attitude toward the law has not been how he can best uphold it but how he can best evade it. His attitude toward democratic political discourse has been not how he can address the issues honestly but how he can best dissemble, obfuscate, and lie. At some point, such a person does not merely demean himself; he demeans and threatens the entire system of government he is elected to defend.

Yes, we knew this before-and he was reelected anyway. But this reelection was based on a spurious gamble: that "results" matter more than political character, that a culture of deceit can be outweighed by an accumulation of prosperity. What we did not count on in 1996 was what making such a moral compromise would further do to the character of the man in question. What our moral insouciance did was ratchet up the scale even further, allowing Clinton to believe he could get away with virtually anything. Which is why, buoyed by the polls, he shamelessly hustled shifty businessmen through the White House in return for campaign dollars, blithely saw Webb Hubbell paid handsomely while staying silent in the Whitewater investigation, and cavalierly carried on an affair in his very office with a lovesick intern. These actions were the actions of a man who had come to believe he was beyond the moral measure of anyone else and beyond the capacity of anyone to catch him. So, when he was finally caught, it was little surprise that his response was not contrition but outrage. How dare we hold him accountable now, when we have let him off so many times before?

And, yes, the Republican alternative is truly horrifying. But there comes a point at which the lesser-of-two-evils argument is a form of moral corruption itself. Just because bigots and fanatics on the far right loathe Clinton for the wrong reasons doesn't mean it is wrong to loathe Clinton for the right reasons. Just because the far right has brazenly co-opted the language of morality to cloak its own vicious prejudices doesn't mean that liberals and decent conservatives can't use a moral discourse to criticize Clinton himself. In fact, the president's own moral degeneracy, by which I mean not his sexual weaknesses but his preference for ends over means, and lies over truth, has fatally co-opted many of the people associated with him. It has largely destroyed the credibility of many American feminists, and it has made much of the gay establishment look cynical when it hasn't looked craven. And this pattern looks only set to continue, until much that is important in American politics-the defense of a secular civic culture, of women's equality, of a genuinely liberal racial politics, of homosexual dignity-will come to be tainted irretrievably with the shadow of Clinton's insincerity. How many elections will Clinton have thrown to the far right, I wonder, how many religious fanatics will he have lent credibility to, how many women will he have abused, and gay soldiers will he have fired, before liberals summon up the gumption to say "Enough"?

My own bet is that we still don't know the half of it: The Starr report might contain information about intimidation of witnesses and encouragement of deceit that might make our hair curl. Yes, it's petty business. Sex is often a petty business. So is money-grubbing commerce, as Whitewater surely showed. But honesty is not a petty principle. Without at least a shred of honesty in the highest official in the land, no system of democratic government can withstand the cynicism and disengagement that will soon overwhelm it. If Clinton is proven to have lied in the most cynical and shameless fashion, and then allowed to get away with it, the damage he has already done to the polity will be close to indelible.

Clinton is a cancer on the culture, a cancer of cynicism, narcissism, and deceit. At some point, not even the most stellar of economic and social records is worth the price of such a cancer metastasizing even further. He should go. And it is a measure of the damage he has already wrought that this should even be a question.

(Copyright 1998, The New Republic)

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