His Terrible, Swift Sword
Two themes have served as the Times's torchlight through these days of darkness: Clinton's moral turpitude, and the sanctity of the rule of law. "After all, in times devoid of heroes, the law is what this Republic is meant to cling to" (February 1). (Huh? So in times rife with heroes...oh, never mind).
Let's start with the rule of law, of which short shrift can be made. I'm all for the rule of law; who isn't? But these arguments that the rule of law, no matter what, no matter where, must be vigorously and unvaryingly applied (on this point the Times sounds just like Henry Hyde) are specious. Know any criminal trial lawyers? Ask them how often judges and prosecutors decide to throw the book at someone who's committed perjury in a civil case. Yes, yes; it's happened, from time to time. The majority staff of the House Judiciary Committee even dredged up one woman who was prosecuted criminally for lying civilly about sex. Impressive legwork, but all it proves is that one citizen got a raw deal, not that another should. (By the by, if Lewinsky's lawyer William Ginsburg had had the brains to stand up and say, "Go ahead, indict her, make our day," we might have been spared all of this, because there's not a jury in America that would have convicted her.) Does Raines really want citizens who lie about affairs under oath to be subject to criminal prosecution? I would not argue that, post-Starr, such prosecutions will start happening left, right and center, but I have no doubt that enterprising DAs here and there will use the tool against county commissioners and town managers who run afoul of the local power elite. Actually, since district attorneys have to run for re-election, maybe they won't swing those kinds of threats around quite the way Starr does, but this, too, proves a point--the rule of law turns out to be a fungible concept indeed, and it's not at all a bad thing that local prosecutors have to weigh public reaction before they bring such charges.
But Clinton, you say, is the President of the United States; there's only one of those, and of him we must demand more. This, finally, is the principle that seems to animate Raines the most. The Times's editorials constitute one ceaseless jeremiad about the lack of leadership, heroism, moral behavior and respect for the office of the presidency and governmental institutions. The public opinion polls, to Raines, prove only that people have decided "to muddle through with a leader they do not believe rather than go through the trauma of resignation or removal," which "may be a wise choice, but...is an ineffably saddening one," since "Americans place such a high value on admiration of the President" (February 1). Clinton's fitness to be President "has nothing to do with whether [he] ought to be indicted and everything to do with whether he can be admired" (March 8). A "narrow legal strategy will not help him restore Americans' faith in his character" (May 1). Clinton's "leadership stature has declined steadily for definable reasons" (June 16). And so forth.
First, the disingenuous aspect of this argument. From these judgments, Times editorials would often go on to note that Clinton's characterological crisis had suffocated public confidence in him. On August 19, for example, two days after the President's grand jury testimony and his mea-no-culpa, the paper explained that the President's "cavalier response to public concern" explained the "tidal feeling of betrayal and embarrassment running across the country today." Demonstrably, this was not true. Even at that base moment, every poll showed people wishing the matter to be dropped. Later, when the un-cross-examined testimony was aired on national--international, really--television, there was no hint from the editorial page that this might set a worrisome legal precedent; indeed, it said "the event has served a healthy civic purpose." If any tidal wave was building in mid-August, it was the one that achieved its full force on Election Day, the one that told Starr and Newt Gingrich and Raines and Sam and Cokie and Sally Quinn to go stuff it.
Raines is entitled to his hope that the American people still revere their government as they did forty years ago, naïve though it may be. But no informed person with a critical intellect should be able to get away with pretending that the Gulf of Tonkin deceit and the Pentagon Papers case and Watergate and Iran/contra and posthumous JFK revelations haven't already rendered that kind of reverence obsolete. (People's sophistication about both politics and sex is at the center of why Raines and so many pundits can't understand why we aren't up in arms about Clinton's behavior: A politician had extramarital sex? Then lied about it? We're shocked, shocked.) One supposes it's the job of papers like the Times and the Washington Post, where Meg Greenfield's editorial page has been no less judgmental, to prop these institutions up and invest them with a downy, snow-white integrity. People know better.
Raines grew up in pre-sixties Alabama, where politics and morality were more clearly intertwined. Rosa Parks was a hero, Bull Connor was a villain; for a young man such as Raines, admirably striving to shake off the racial demons of his time and place, it was pretty clear-cut. People were judged, and properly so, according to the side of that lot on which they parked themselves. But that war's been fought, and everyone can't be Martin Luther King Jr., least of all Bill Clinton. (Although, now that I mention it, suppose Raines had been editing the Times's editorial page in 1967, and J. Edgar Hoover had invited him to read certain transcripts and view certain photographs, obtained perhaps unethically but providing undeniable evidence of moral weakness on the reverend doctor's part? A troubling hypothetical, is it not? Perhaps too much can be made of rectitude after all.) Raines's background is not unlike Clinton's, speaking demographically and chronologically; it may be that his anger has something to do with their similarities and Raines's belief in some other-than-scrutable Southern idea of honor that Clinton has offended.
That's speculation. Examining what's on the printed page is not. Lately, Raines has cooled a bit; In the days leading up to the House's scheduled vote, the page counseled against impeachment. But it has already spent months constructing every impeachment-justifying argument the Republicans now use, thereby creating conditions that make its late recommendation difficult if not impossible to follow. And even while urging restraint on the part of Congress, the paper could not refrain from a swipe or two: Clinton has become "a prince of disorder" and his actions "cry out for condemnation" (December 16).
Raines would do well, once this is over, to give thought to the legacy he's left--extinguishing many of the Times's nobler traditions while using the country's most important newspaper as his personal soapbox. Next year's review of the independent counsel law will be a useful starting place (for the record, I do not say abolish it; I say place time and money and evidentiary constraints on it), but like the hieroglyphs on Pharaoh's obelisks, the arguments can't be rewritten. History will come along to hand out verdicts on everyone in the chattering class, from Raines on down to the most slatternly Fox News Channel diatribist. Raines should hope history is less moralistic than he.