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Jewish World Review / September 25, 1998 /5 Tishrei, 5759

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg Mr. President, PLEASE don't resign

THE DRUMBEAT OF NEWSPAPERS calling on Bill Clinton to resign mounts: USA Today, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Denver Post, the San Jose Mercury-News, the Orlando Sentinel, the Chicago Tribune, the Des Moines Register, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Seattle Times ....

The count was up past 100 papers last time I checked and still climbing. It sounds like a stampede to judgment. And I take this opportunity to respectfully, even sympathetically, dissent from my colleagues.

Why? Their emotions are understandable, and easy to share. This president has dishonored his office. Surely even Bill Clinton, somewhere on his apology tour, must have recognized as much. And even now his attitude, though contrite, is still half contumacious. He still contends, for example, that his highly inaccurate testimony was "legally accurate,'' or at least his lawyers do.

Even while he confesses his sins to the clergy and the country, Bill Clinton notes that he has instructed his attorneys to mount a vigorous defense. As if impeachment were a detail he could leave to his lawyers while he went on about his business. Yes, even now, this president is still compartmentalizing, still putting things in boxes, still pretending that there is one truth at law and another in the real world.

If widely accepted, Bill Clinton's double standard, his lack of integrity, would corrupt not only his high office, but the system and the society. For ideas, even poorly formed ones, have consequences. And so do attitudes, good and bad. Especially when they are exemplified by a president of the United States.

But is setting a bad example or having a bad attitude grounds for impeachment? Do this president's little wordgames and clinton clauses and oh-so-clever legal subterfuges rise to "high crimes and misdemeanors,'' in the language of the Constitution? Where would Bill Clinton's case fit into the history of impeachment, and how would it shape the future of that constitutional process?

Impeachment began in American law as an echo of the vague English doctrine under which almost any breach of the public trust might lead to dismissal from office. Alexander Hamilton spoke of impeachable conduct as "those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust.'' And when the Jeffersonians came into power and attempted to impeach the Federalist judiciary, they may have been acting more on partisan impulse than because of any concern for law.

But half a century later, after a terrible war, when the Radical Republicans set out to remove Andrew Johnson from office in 1868, essentially because they did not agree with his policies, they were unable to make their case. Not just Andrew Johnson but the independence of the executive branch was saved by one vote in the Senate.

Andrew Johnson had his faults, but he was no criminal. He was accused of violating a law Congress had foisted on him, the Tenure of Office Act, a law later recognized as unconstitutional itself. For it interfered with the president's authority to dismiss his own Cabinet.

And because Andrew Johnson stood and fought, and a crucial senator or two refused to join the mob, a new and higher bar was set for removing a president: actual crimes and misdemeanors, not policy differences. And the Constitution's almost Newtonian balance of strong, independent bodies of government, each a check on the other, was preserved in its majestic course.

Andrew Johnson may have been a drunken lout, but he had the manhood to hold off a vindictive and hysterical mob calling itself Congress, and save the American presidency. Of course he had the great advantage of knowing he was innocent, not just "legally accurate.''

By the time Richard Nixon was accused of high crimes and misdemeanors, the charges made against him had to be clear and irrefutable. And they were. Or at least some of them were -- like suborning perjury and obstructing justice.

And while Mr. Nixon would made a sporadic and unconvincing attempt to deny his crimes from time to time, his resignation and acceptance of a pardon became the moral equivalent of a formal confession and conviction. By the time he left office, his guilt was a moral certainty. The presidency was not weakened by his leaving but cleansed, the rule of law strengthened.

Bill Clinton has not reached that point. Yes, he has been accused of crimes that echo Richard Nixon's, right down to subornation of perjury and obstruction of justice. But are those still high crimes and misdemeanors, or only low ones? Do they have a public or only a private character in Bill Clinton's case? Can a president corrupt the nation's laws, and that remain only his private business?

And should a president be forced to resign before he has a chance to defend himself in Congress? And while he still maintains his innocence? Let us debate these questions, not pass them by. In our anxiety to have done with Bill Clinton, let us not have done with thought, with deliberation, with responsibility for the future we necessarily shape by our present actions.

If a president can be driven from office before he has been convicted, at least in the court of public opinion, what would that do to the presidency? Will impeachment, or just the start of an impeachment, become the American equivalent of a vote of no confidence?

If so, the finely wrought constitutional system that was bequeathed this Republic, with its great but delicate balance among the legislative, executive and judicial branches, and the saving space for maneuver between them, will have been reduced to one more brutal parliamentary system of revolving premiers and rotating governments. (Not the least of this president's destructive legacy will be how he narrowed executive privilege by pushing it to the breaking point and beyond.)

Just as the world needs a strong America, America needs a strong presidency. And if a chief executive can be driven from office by little more than a fit of disgust, however understandable, and however well documented the reasons for it, the American presidency will have been dangerously weakened. And the American system dangerously altered.

For what happens to Bill Clinton will affect more than Bill Clinton. He has already disgraced the office; he must not become the cause of its dissolution into some kind of premiership dependent on public opinion, congressional moods, or polls of newspapers.

Yes, the case against William Jefferson Clinton grows stronger. But there is a constitutional way to decide it. It is called impeachment. Let it go forward-openly, completely, with dispatch and fairness. Until any grounds for impeachment are clear, and the final verdict beyond serious question. Just as was done in the cases of Andrew Johnson and Richard M. Nixon. So that the constitutional system, and the presidency, emerge stronger, not weaker, So the outcome is not skewed by untoward haste, or muddied by doubts afterward.

No, Mr. President, don't resign. Not now. And not so long as you believe you have committed no crime. You've done quite enough damage already. Stay the course and let the Constitution work as it was designed to work.

Americans may have reason to doubt the integrity of this president, but let's not jeopardize the integrity of the presidency.


9/23/98: The demolition of meaning
9/18/98: So help us G-d; The nature of the crisis
9/17/98: First impressions: on reading the Starr Report
9/15/98: George Wallace: All the South in one man
9/10/98: Here comes the judge
9/07/98: Toward impeachment
9/03/98: The politics of impeachment
9/01/98: The eagle can still soar
8/28/98: Boris Yeltsin's mind: a riddle pickled in an enigma
8/26/98: Clinton agonistes, or: Twisting in the wind
8/25/98: The rise of the English murder
8/24/98: Confess and attack: Slick comes semi-clean
8/19/98: Little Rock perspectives
8/14/98: Department of deja vu
8/12/98: The French would understand
8/10/98: A fable: The Rat in the Corner
8/07/98: Welcome to the roaring 90s
8/06/98: No surprises dept. -- promotion denied
8/03/98: Quotes of and for the week: take your pick
7/29/98: A subpoena for the president:
so what else is new?
7/27/98: Forget about Bubba, it's time to investigate Reno
7/23/98: Ghosts on the roof, 1998
7/21/98: The new elegance
7/16/98: In defense of manners
7/13/98: Another day, another delay: what's missing from the scandal news
7/9/98:The language-wars continue
7/7/98:The new Detente
7/2/98: Bubba in Beijing: history does occur twice
6/30/98: Hurry back, Mr. President -- to freedom
6/24/98: When Clinton follows Quayle's lead
6/22/98: Independence Day, 2002
6/18/98: Adventures in poli-speke

©1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate