Somewhat impudently for a man taken in adultery, Henry Hyde compares himself to Jesus Christ. If Jesus let himself be governed by polls, says Hyde, he never would have started campaigning in Galilee. Leaving aside the matter of those focus groups organized by John the Baptist, let’s go back to the beginning of the Good Book, where Noah (Genesis 9:20 et seq.) plants the world’s first vineyard, gets drunk and falls asleep in his tent.
His youngest son, Ham, sneaks into the tent, sees Noah passed out naked and issues the censorious Ham Report. The other two-thirds of Noah’s male progeny, Shem and Japheth, take a garment, go backward into the tent and cover their father’s nakedness. Ham draws a motion of censure from Noah: "A servant of servants shall he be to his brethren."
Same way today. Two-thirds of the American people (descendants of Ham conspicuously included) say, after a quick peek, that Bill and Monica have a right to privacy and that Ken Starr should never have discovered their nakedness.
Ham was the father of Canaan, and now thousands of years later Bill goes back to Canaan to address the people in a manner one has not learned to expect from American Presidents: "I want the people of Israel to know that for many Palestinians, five years after Oslo, the benefits of this process remain remote. That for too many Palestinians, lives are hard, jobs are scarce, prospects are uncertain and personal grief is great. I know that tremendous pain remains as a result of losses suffered from violence, the separation of families…. I understand your concerns about settlement activity, land confiscation and home demolitions…"
The Canaanites, mustered in the form of the Palestine National Council, were pleased to have an American President not only talk to them but recognize the pain of having one’s house blown up by an Israeli demolition team. Not so long ago Washington took the same view as former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, that Palestinians didn’t exist at all. Clinton angered the Israelis too by daring to imply there is an equivalence in loss suffered by the children of Israelis killed by Palestinians and the children of Palestinians imprisoned by Israelis. Of course, in absolute numbers there are many more bereft on the Palestinian side.
Scarcely had he addressed Palestinians than Clinton began bombing Iraq, an expensive alternative to his preferred objective of lobbing a couple of cruise missiles into the House Republican Caucus, which would have spared the lives of Iraqi civilians and settled the domestic crisis. The Republicans have been craving martyrdom in the name of principle, and we would be afforded a House spring cleaning, done by Christmas.
Here we encounter the whole absurdity of the impeachment process against Clinton. The Republicans would never impeach him for prosecuting an embargo against Iraq that has cost hundreds of thousands of innocent lives. Yet they call for his eviction from office for sexual peccadilloes and for trying to obscure them. It would be easy to draw up general articles of impeachment. Has Clinton lied to the American people? Of course he has, on great issues of state from welfare "reform" to the bombings in Sudan and Afghanistan. Has he perverted the course of justice? Without question. Ask those tens of thousands in prison whose disproportionate sentences for crack possession he has upheld. Ask those on death row whose rights of appeal to the federal courts he has amputated with his Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. Has he abused his powers? Assuredly, with his overriding of laws like the Endangered Species Act.
Clinton deserves the scrutiny of impeachment, like every President in memory. But the articles issued by the House Judiciary Committee plunge an admirable sanction into frivolous disrepute. Clinton’s cited offenses are scarcely more serious than Noah’s solemnly swearing he’d never touched a drop, that it was the heat of the sun that laid him out for the afternoon.
The advocates of impeachment speak sternly of the rule of law, averting their eyes from the shameful parody of the prosecutorial process that has had independent counsel Ken Starr colluding in a manhunt with the lawyers for Paula Jones and discrediting forever the role of the independent counsel.
Respect for law draws its sustenance from a sense of proportion. There is no cynicism more incandescent than in the hearts of those who see a three-time loser draw life without parole for stealing a pizza, while the bank president draws a second home in Lake Tahoe for looting a savings and loan. To impeach Bill Clinton is to invite precisely that cynicism, that disrespect for the law that the President’s assailants claim they most wish to deter. Republicans say that to lie about kissing Monica Lewinsky’s breasts offers the same injury to the rule of law as Nixon mustering half a million dollars to buy the silence of burglars sponsored by the White House. Republicans now solemnly proclaim that somehow Clinton’s fib is more of an affront than Nixon’s bribe.
When the uproar of the elites over the Starr report was at its most pompously intense, I remember writing that it was hard to take an affair set forth in the idiom of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and dress it up as a somber tragedy like Macbeth. And so it seemed. But House Republicans have done the trick. Oberon, Titania, Puck and Bottom have been hauled before the grand jury. Dalliance is reinvented as high crime. The Republicans can scarcely believe their luck in having thus far got away with this ridiculous transmutation, and hope somehow that the people won’t sit up and take notice, won’t bear any grudges next Election Day. Former Republican Senator Alan Simpson says contemptuously that the voters, who care only about the next big movie, the next motion of the stock market, will never remember.
So, in order that the people remember, let us welcome this solemn farce, this elephantine procedure so foolishly perched on its circus ball. At the end of the nineteenth century Oscar Wilde’s trial was the signal for a phase of cruel repression in British life. The stakes now are not so high, but let us hope that the Puritans, the hypocrites, will be routed; that Bill Clinton’s sex life will be his lighthearted legacy and not his political tombstone.