The day after we first learned about the Lewinsky tapes and heard from the Drudge Report of the kinds of details that would prove embarrassing to Bill Clinton, I jumped to the conclusion that his presidency would not survive the scandal (“President Gore,” January 22, 1998). It was the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Billy Graham, and the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan who helped persuade me that the American people would forgive the President not only for his sins against the flesh, but also for trying to conceal those sins from his family. I’d only read of comments of Jesse Jackson and Billy Graham, but Min. Farrakhan last spring engaged me in a discussion about the issue in a way that reminded me why my own Catholic Church provides a very private ritual of confession and penance. These men of the cloth have spent their lives ministering to sinners. As a result they know the myriad ways that people succumb to human weakness and how rare it is to discover someone who does not. Farrakhan is not a political admirer of the President. He simply does not look upon the Lewinsky affair as a political matter, where power and revenge motivate, but as one that belongs in his realm, where motivation is exclusively devoted to bringing lost sheep back to the fold and praying for the return of the prodigal. There must be penance attached to the Clinton confession and a plea for forgiveness, but not removal from office.
In the next several weeks, the Independent Prosecutor is going to deliver his findings to the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois. An important issue Hyde will have to decide is whether to make public the entire report, or as House Majority Whip Tom DeLay suggests, “leave out the pornography.” I completely agree with DeLay, who is one of the President’s harshest critics, that the graphic details of Monica Lewinsky’s grand jury testimony be put under seal and filed away for 50 years. Monica’s mother may persuade her to tell all for a $10 billion book deal, but our government should not degrade itself in such fashion. Only the professional moralizers in the Republican Party are eager to have no expletives deleted from the published report, relishing the idea that the details will surely disgust the populace and drive the President back to Little Rock.
I talk to people every day who find it easy to say that Clinton MUST resign in order to spare us the sordid mess. They invariably say it is irrelevant to ask what kind of President Al Gore will be or to express concerns about how he might handle the ship of state and manage the world. When I point out that 90% of black Americans support Clinton, they seem puzzled about why I bring that up. It has to do with the nature of democracy, though. The American people went to a great deal of trouble in 1992 and again in 1996 to choose Clinton as President out of all the possible candidates. The people who are most concerned about Clinton being driven from office for these sins are those who for the first time in decades see some light at the end of their tunnel. These are not men and women who worry about meeting a mortgage payment, but men and women who worry about having any source of income next year or the year after. They don’t know about Al Gore, nor do I. A poll this week showed only 25% of Americans have a high level of confidence in Gore. He might deserve more, but we don’t know that. We know he was a popular senator, but when he ran for his party’s presidential nomination he didn’t do well, which only may mean he needed more experience or it wasn’t his time.
What essentially is shaping up this fall is an informal presidential election, where the American people are going to be asked to go into the secret voting booth of their own minds and decide whether they want Clinton to remain President or Gore to replace him. Of course there is no formal electoral mechanism, but the people will let their representatives know what they want through all the avenues available. Country-club Republicans, who have the luxury of being able to vote their moral standards instead of their pocketbooks, of course will vote for Gore. So will Republicans and those Democrats who think Clinton is too wimpy on foreign policy and suspect that Gore would be much more pliable when it comes to bombing this rogue nation or that. As stupid as it was to bomb the medicine shop in Khartoum, because some weed-killer was taken for nerve gas by Inspector Clouseau of the CIA or Israeli Mossad, at least Clinton insisted it be done at night, so no employees would be killed. He even asked if there would be a night watchman. You can see why the GOP warriors would prefer the Vice President, whose mentor at The New Republic, Martin Peretz, would like to carpet bomb the Islamic world in hopes of killing a terrorist. Night watchman? Gore would like to shut off the world economy to prevent global warming. The billion people who would starve to death or die of disease? Collateral damage.
Jack Kemp has said nothing about Clinton’s trials and tribulations, just as he refused to serve as Bob Dole’s pit bull during the 1996 campaign. (Last night he express delivered a letter to the President in Moscow offering suggestions on how he might help Boris Yeltsin fix the Russian financial system.) Kemp, by the way, was in Nixon’s corner at the very end in 1974. I was too, believing he would win a Senate impeachment trial, although I knew he had to resign because he had been so thoroughly crippled. Also, we were deep in the Vietnam War, deep in the Cold War, the stock market and economy were in collapse, and the Vice President, Gerald Ford, was a known quantity. I’ve not talked to Kemp about this now, except that I know he would not be concerned about the politics of Gore becoming President prior to 2000 and thus getting a leg up. If Gore were worse than anticipated, he would have a leg down. If better, he might deserve the White House. As a man who came out of professional football and was president of the AFL players’ association, Kemp saw more human weakness than most preachers do. Long after he came to Congress, he was still counseling old colleagues who had been broken by alcohol, drugs, marital problems, and every other form of human weakness. I believe him when he repeatedly says he hopes the President can survive.
Even if the expletives are deleted, there still will be more stuff coming out in the weeks ahead. Clinton can’t help himself by fighting back in kind, as some of his allies in the White House have shown a willingness to do. Even if he survives with a proceeding that leads to a Senate censure, it would be better than to be “voted out” of office by an electorate that will take the unknowns of the Vice President on any terms, rather than see Clinton soil the presidency in that fashion. He can still survive if he behaves in manly fashion, realizing there must be a penance he must pay. If he makes that decision instead of playing the victim, Hyde could respond by deleting the expletives -- sparing the news media from having to publish them.