WILLIAM J. Bennett, America's self-styled voice of virtue, recently included me among those he believes are responsible for the "death of outrage" within the American public. Actually, over the years I have more frequently been criticized for displaying too much outrage over such deep-seated public wrongs as the war in Vietnam and the public immorality represented by allowing a fifth of America's children to be living in poverty.
But these and other political and social injustices do not seem to stir Mr. Bennett's sense of outrage as deeply as the personal sins of others. How, it is asked by those of the Bennett school, can the public accept as president an adulterer, especially one who denies it even under oath? This is my attempt, as one who aspires to be a Christian, a patriot, a confirmed Democrat and a believer in a sense of outrage, to resolve this dilemma.
First, I still believe that the ancient biblical sequence of repentance, forgiveness and redemption is sound doctrine. After an initial effort marred by his anger over Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's relentless probe, President Clinton has clearly repented and asked for forgiveness. As a fellow mortal still battling sin and temptation in my own life, I forgive the president his sins, just as I hope he and others forgive mine.
But what about lying under oath, obstructing justice and other alleged illegalities charged by Mr. Starr as grounds for impeachment? These are not personal sins to be forgiven but public crimes subject to possible legal consequences.
I am a former history professor, not a lawyer, but it would seem to me that while these offenses, if true, are possible grounds for impeachment, they do not automatically require impeachment. In the end, no offense is impeachable unless, in the judgment of Congress, that is the proper remedy. Congress could find that no real grounds exist for impeachment and terminate further consideration of the matter or pass a resolution of reprimand or censure. What Mr. Clinton did is sinful, but it is not likely to destroy our constitutional democracy or America's standing in the world.
Impeachment is, of course, one possible constitutional remedy available to Congress. But there are other profound constitutional considerations. What about the authority of the American people to vote into the presidency the person they want to serve them for a four-year term, even if he is a sinner trying to keep his sins a secret?
Listen to the people
Members of Congress are now getting feedback from their constituents on impeachment and other options, and I believe that factor deserves some consideration. There is no higher court than the American people, who have consistently made clear their belief that while the president is guilty of misbehavior, he should continue his service as president. The renowned Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes believed that great legal questions or trials are seldom resolved either on narrow legalities or on sweeping principles. Rather, he said, "The decision will depend on a judgment or intuition more subtle than any articulate major premise."
It would seem that Mr. Starr's relentless prying combined with media overkill are creating a public sympathy for our beleaguered president. There can be little doubt that this has been the reaction of nearly all the rest of the world, as recently highlighted by the sustained standing ovation given to the president by every delegate even before he began speaking at the U.N. General Assembly.
My hope is that the experienced House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican, and his colleagues will wrap up this sexual sideshow in time for us to enjoy our Thanksgiving turkey.
Message to a friend
Congressman Hyde, my friend, please, we've suffered enough. Show us mercy. A public stoning, a hanging, impeachment, reprimand or exoneration -- let's have a resolution one way or another and put the goblins back in their caves.
George McGovern, former Democratic senator from South Dakota, was the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee. He is U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.
Pub Date: 11/01/98