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Jewish World Review / Nov. 18, 1998 /29 Mar-Cheshvan, 5759

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg Guide to the perplexed

SPIN CITY HAS BECOME SPIN NATION in the wake of this year's midterm elections. A vote that wasn't supposed to have anything to do with the impeachment of a president is now interpreted as a signal to forget it.

Well, the politicians certainly would, if they could. Nobody but the crazies would actually enjoy seeing this thing through to the finish.

The sophisticates who read the election results, polls and tea leaves say impeachment isn't smart politics, either.

But the law seems to have a life of its own. As if ideas lived in us that we can't shake. Ideas about oaths and justice and faithfully executing the laws of the United States.

So can't some way be found out of this? A quick resolution of censure? A fine maybe --- the way we handle double parking. Nothing unconstitutional, you understand, just sort of aconstitutional. If censures and fines for, well, medium-high crimes and misdemeanors aren't mentioned in that antiquated document, surely it's only because the Founding Fathers lacked inventiveness.

It's going to be fun watching the lawyers and scholars and historians and congressmen search around for some trap door in the Constitution that will make all this go away. Dusty tomes will be trundled out of the library of Congress in search of, yes, Closure.

We all want a shortcut, don't we? The whole constitutional system will be searched for the little red, glowing sign somewhere in there that says EXIT.

For what good would it do to see this process through to daylight? It doesn't take much to see the subtext under all the politicians' speeches and the analysts' analyses: The country doesn't want this to proceed any further. It will only upset the markets. It will interfere with the smooth operation of government. (Speaking truth to power always does.) It's a bother. So let's forget it.

To be sure, some arguments can be made for going through the constitutional process -- quaint arguments about law and virtue and conscience -- but law and justice and virtue are only abstractions. Removing a president from office is real and time-consuming, and may not be smart politics.

Where then shall we turn for guidance? Where does a people go when it needs sage counsel? Assailed by arguments and appeals but wanting only out, where do we turn? Where shall we find the right incantations to pronounce, the appropriate liturgies to perform, to be rid of all this? To put it behind us and Move On?

Learned Hand told us where to turn. A judge and sage, he told us in one of the few memorial addresses since Pericles' that was worthy of the dead. He said it Dec. 21, 1942, in his tribute to another great judge, Louis D. Brandeis, and it remains his Guide to the Perplexed:

"A great people does not turn to its leaders for incantations or liturgies by which to propitiate fate or to cajole victory: It goes to them to peer into the recesses of its own soul, to lay bare its deepest desires; it goes to them as it goes to its poets and seers.''

Its poets and seers. Yes, that is where light may be found. The most incisive and insightful commentary I've seen on the approaching unpleasantness in Washington came not from a politician, but a play. It's called "A Man for All Seasons,'' and it keeps showing up on late-night television like a sign.

It's a play about Sir Thomas More, who also had a problem with oaths. Only he refused to take one and perjure himself. Naturally, he was not a great success in politics.

In the play, Cardinal Woolsey tries to tell Sir Thomas why reasons of state must take precedence over scruples about sworn oaths. Statesmen, the cardinal explains, must take certain regrettable but necessary measures. And then he asks: "Now explain how you as Councilor of England can obstruct those measures for the sake of your own, private, conscience.''

Sir Thomas falters, knowing what is at stake -- his soul and quite possibly his head. And he tries to explain as simply as he can why conscience should figure in statecraft: "Well ... I believe, when statesmen forsake their private consciences for the sake of their public duties ... they lead their country by a short route to chaos.''

If statesmen do not uphold the law, who will? If statesmen do not honor their oaths, who shall? And if sworn testimony is worthless, on what does the law rest? If truth is fungible, why are we having this conversation? Why would you want to read this column, or I listen to you?

Yes, in clear moments we can see where the short route out of impeachment leads: to a world in which every man makes his own truth to suit himself. Yes, a short route to chaos.

Naturally, Sir Thomas pays a price for his foresight. And when he lands in the Tower, his daughter Meg, apple of his eye and light of his life, perhaps the only thing he will miss in this life with his heart, as well as his agile mind, pleads with him to just put his hand on that old black book, take the oath he doesn't believe and then come home to life, to peace and rest and love, to the sweetest of all things: domestic tranquillity.

Conscience? If conscience troubles, she urges, "Then say the words of the oath, and in your heart think otherwise.'' God will understand. To which Sir Thomas replies: "What is an oath then, but words we say to God?'' He tries to tell his daughter why perjury is no slight thing: "When a man takes an oath, Meg, he's holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. And if he opens his fingers then --- he needn't hope to find himself again.''

Cardinal Woolsey would find himself quite at home today in the well of the U.S. House of Representatives, arguing that private conscience is a luxury no statesman can afford, or perhaps that oaths are slight things, or that even if the president committed perjury or obstructed justice, those are no great crimes. There has never been a shortage of Woolseys in politics. Congress is full of them.

And Sir Thomas? Where would he fit in today, or would he? He would still be shunned, at least by the savvy, by those who know how politics works. Or think they do.

Still, some of us perverse types would rather take bread and water and, most of all, conversation with Sir Thomas in the Tower than enjoy the choicest viands at another state dinner in the White House.


11/09/98: A vote for apathy
11/03/98: Global village goes Clintonesque
11/02/98: Farewell to all that
10/30/98: New budget, same swollen government
10/26/98: Of life on the old plantation -- and death in the Middle East
10/22/98: Starr Wars (CONT'D)
10/19/98:Another retreat: weakness invites aggression
10/16/98: Profile in courage
10/14/98: A new voice out of Arkansas
10/09/98: Gerald Ford, Mr. Fix-It?
10/07/98: Impeachment Journal: Dept. of Doublespeak
10/01/98: The new tradition
9/25/98: Mr. President, PLEASE don't resign
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