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Jewish World Review / Dec. 9, 1998 /20 Kislev, 5759

Cal Thomas

Cal Thomas The eclipse of principle

TEN YEARS AGO I wrote a book called The Death of Ethics in America. If ethics died in 1988, what we are witnessing today is rigor mortis and the stench of decay.

Consider our condition. Former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy is acquitted by a Washington jury of 30 counts of corruption. He had been charged with accepting various gifts and other gratuities from companies he was supposed to regulate. Espy claimed exoneration. A USA Today editorial disagreed: "Espy, like others acquitted in similar high-profile circumstances, may not have been guilty of a crime, but he and his like are poster children for the tawdry notion that government officials are on the take from special interests."

The day Espy escaped temporal judgment, Rear Adm. John T. Scudi pleaded no contest to charges that he improperly steered military contracts to his mistress. Scudi was also charged with lying and obstructing justice. The Scudi case was supposed to send a message that the Navy would not coddle high-ranking officers and that ethics rules apply equally to everybody.

Then we have the never-ending soap opera known as President Bill Clinton. Last week, while calling for another increase in the minimum wage to reward the labor unions for giving so much of their time and workers' money to his reelection campaign, the president referred approvingly to hard-working minimum wage earners "who play by the rules.'' Who established these so-called rules and what penalties should there be for violating them? The president appeals to rules at the same time he says they should not apply to him. The U.S. Navy, of which he is commander-in-chief, holds a one-star admiral accountable for rule-breaking, but Clinton's former agriculture secretary is acquitted of breaking some of the same rules.

Scudi is faulted for steering business toward a mistress, but Espy also has a mistress. According to testimony, she, like Espy, received gifts and cash from various companies. One company also gave her a job. Why is this wrong for an admiral and not wrong for a Cabinet secretary? Only in Bill Clinton's America do we debate not the cost of inattention to ethics but the cost of investigating those charged with breaking the law.

The contemporary view of ethics is pragmatic: Mussolini made the trains run on time; Clinton hasn't hurt the economy. In my ethics book I quoted theologian Dr. Carl Henry: "The pragmatic approach to the problems we have may seem to get things done on an obscure basis, but sooner or later the eclipse of principle will exert its toll. Pragmatism has no enduring assurance in terms of the solution it achieves.''

That is a truth to consider as many want to "move on'' without seriously contemplating the ethical lapses of and even lawbreaking by the president of the United States. If principle is jettisoned in favor of polls, then the next time a matter of principle comes up for debate it will be much easier to give in to pragmatism.

It is difficult to find men and women of principle in our culture. Too many shrink from it, fearing they will be branded "intolerant.'' Those who live by a high standard are often criticized by those who live by low -- or no -- standards. Author Walt Harrington once critiqued our contemporary attitude toward standards, "Greed is the universal motive, sincerity is a pose, honesty is for chumps, altruism is selfishness with a neurotic twist, and morality is for kids and fools.''

Not for those men and women Tom Brokaw and Stephen Ambrose have been writing about. "The Greatest Generation,'' Brokaw calls them. Contrast that generation with this one. Compare their leaders with ours. Of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ambrose has written, "When associates, be they superiors or subordinates, described Eisenhower, there was one word that almost all of them used. It was trust. People trusted Eisenhower for the most obvious reason ---- he was trustworthy.''

Who can say that about Bill Clinton or those most closely associated with him? Not his lawyers. None of his other defenders argues that Clinton is trustworthy and truthful. They contend that his lies and lawbreaking aren't bad enough to impeach him. The eclipse of principle is near total.


12/03/98: Destroying Jewry on the installment plan
12/07/98: Before the Age of Clinton
12/01/98: Apathy and ignorance
11/19/98: Ken Starr's moment of truth
11/19/98: The fall of journalism's empire
11/17/98: Republicans drift while conservatives float
11/13/98: Supreme Courtupholds freedom of school-choice
11/10/98: The revolting Republican 'revolution'
11/06/98: Hulk Hogan for president?
11/03/98: Clinton's greatest peril isn't Monica
10/30/98: Mother Teresa was right about killing
10/27/98: Clinton to Netanyahu: 'You're despicable'
10/21/98: A 'peace' agreement: Wye not?
10/19/98: Vanity Fair snubs some of the greatest women 'leaders'
10/14/98:The mean machine
10/09/98: Impeachment: an outside perspective
10/07/98: The corruption of the Secret Service
10/02/98: Land erosion in Israel
10/01/98: The race panel: lies in black and white
9/18/98: The Clinton strategy and the Clinton legacy
9/18/98: Stopping him before he sins again
9/15/98: Repenting when the end is near
9/11/98: Faithfully executing: Congress vs. the President
9/10/98: The degrees of separation between Dan Burton and Bill Clinton
9/08/98: Joe Lieberman and the Democrats' conscience
9/04/98: Clinton vs. Reagan and the struggle for power
9/02/98: If only Bubba had been a Boy Scout
8/31/98: Liberal clergy and the Lewinsky affair
8/27/98: Combating the terrorists among us
8/25/98: The president as 'Chicken Little'
8/20/98: That was no apology
8/18/98: Big government's crab grab
8/14/98:Untruths, half-truths and anything but the truth
8/12/98: Lying under oath: past and present impeachable offenses
8/10/98: Endangered species
8/04/98: In search of an unstained president
7/31/98: The UK is ahead of US in one area...
7/28/98: Murder near and far
7/21/98: Telling the truth about
homosexual behavior
7/17/98: One Nation? Indivisible?
7/14/98: Who cares about killing when the 'good times' are rolling?
7/10/98: George W. Bush: a different 'boomer'
7/08/98: My lunch with Roy Rogers
7/06/98: News unfit to print (or broadcast)
6/30/98: Smoke gets in their eyes
6/25/98: Sugar and Spice Girls
6/19/98: William Perry opposed
technology transfers to China
6/19/98: The Clinton hare vs.the Starr tortoise
6/17/98: The President's rocky road to China
6/15/98: Let the children go
6/9/98: Oregon: the new killing fields
6/5/98: Speaking plainly: the cover-up continues
6/2/98: Barry Goldwater: in our hearts
5/28/98:The Speaker's insightful remarks
5/26/98: As bad as it gets
5/25/98:Union dues and don'ts
5/21/98: Connecting those Chinese campaign contribution dots
5/19/98: Clinton on the couch
5/13/98: John Ashcroft: another Jimmy Carter?
5/8/98: Terms of dismemberment
5/5/98: Clinton's tangled Webb
4/30/98: Return of the Jedi
4/28/98: Desparately seeking Susan
4/23/98: RICO's threat to free-speech and expression
4/21/98: Educating children v. preserving an institution
4/19/98: Analyzing the birth of a possible new nation
4/14/98: What's fair about our tax system?
4/10/98: CBS: 'Touched by a perv'
4/8/98: Judge Wright's wrong reasoning on sexual harassment
4/2/98: How about helping American cities before African?
3/31/98:Revenge of the children
3/29/98: The Clinton strategy: delay, deceive, deny, and destroy
3/26/98: Moralist Gary Hart
3/23/98: CNN's century of (liberal) women
3/17/98: Dandy Dan
3/15/98: An imposed 'settlement' settles nothing
3/13/98: David Brock's Turnabout

©1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Inc.