Life Watch: A Time for Recriminations

With the long lead times of Crisis, readers will understand when I report that this column was filed just after the impeachment of the president had failed in the Senate. By this point, it will be old news to the reader, though it is still too early to know whether Andrew Johnson will be damaged in the rest of his presidency.

As for Bill Clinton, he will be gone in two years—though we must suspect that if the public were asked in a survey whether Mr. Clinton should serve yet another term, about a third would probably say yes: That is, with the level of ignorance reflected in the polls, we can probably expect that about a third of the respondents are blissfully unaware that Clinton is barred, by the Constitution, from a third term. But unless Clinton returns as an adviser to his wife, risen from the Senate to the presidency, we can expect him to be mercifully gone. Yet, he has helped to instruct and confirm the public in a new set of moral understandings, which promise to be quite corrosive of our public life. For what was revealed in this crisis is that a large portion of the public and our political class have absorbed the kind of ethic that may mark these years as the Machiavellian Moment in our politics.

My late professor, Leo Strauss, remarked in a telling passage that we are no longer shocked by the teaching of Machiavelli because the intellectual classes in America have long ago absorbed Machiavelli’s premises as their own. And so, after listening to the careful presentation by the House managers making a compelling case on perjury and the obstruction of justice, the White House correspondent for USA Today was asked for her assessment. She responded that there were not enough votes to convict the president. In the same manner did Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia “respond” after he weighed the evidence: By his own reckoning, the president had lied under oath and obstructed justice; Byrd was persuaded that these acts counted as “high crimes and misdemeanors”; and yet he moved to dismiss the charges because, as he said, there were not enough votes to convict. In both instances, a question of moral substance was transmuted into a question of power: Who had the votes?

Imagine for a moment that the jurists involved in Brown v. Board of Education were asked what they thought of this matter of mandating, through the law, a separation of the races. And what if one of those jurists had responded by saying, “We may not have the votes to overturn that policy”? The assessment might have been quite accurate, but it would have been the mark of a mind that was terminally trivial.

And speaking of things terminally trivial, the recent crisis should have cleared up any lingering doubts about Senators Joseph Lieberman and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Lieberman is always wringing his hands, making a show of something that resembles a “moral” concern. He is often on the verge of casting a vote to protect nascent life, but something, some high reason of state, always holds him back and finds him voting, at last, comfortably within the fold of his party. As for Moynihan, his antics on the impeachment finally stamp his character unmistakably. H. L Mencken referred to William Jennings Bryan as the “National Tear Duct,” and Moynihan must now be styled as the National Windbag: a vast repertoire of affectations and posturings, utterly without moral substance. For the sake of purchasing two more years of Clinton, Moynihan had to agree to end his career affecting the mind of a hayseed. Did he really think that Monica Lewinsky had filed anything but a false affidavit? Did he think that Vernon Jordan had bestirred himself to call the heads of corporations, arranging interviews at the highest levels for a 24-year-old with no evident credentials—and that none of this had anything to do with the need to lure this young woman and keep her from testifying in the Paula Jones case? Was Pat Moynihan really so dim as to believe all of this, or even any of this?

But then, what corruption or surprise could Moynihan have revealed that he had not already revealed quite fully, much earlier, on the matter of abortion? He was a professed Catholic, representing a state containing New York City, a city in which the right to abortion is regarded now as the “first freedom,” more important than the freedoms of speech or religion. To preserve his standing in the politics of that city, he was willing to say in public that he did not know when human life began, or that people indeed had a right to take life as it suited their convenience. As for the teaching of his Church, he was willing to advance the project of discrediting Catholicism by teaching in public that one could reject the most serious moral teachings of the Church and remain a good Catholic. That vulgarity was never beneath him. And that should have been enough to pronounce the enduring estimate of the man, even before the crisis over impeachment. He does not merit more words, and so let it simply be said that he is not to be taken seriously; he does not deserve to treated hereafter as anything more than the buffoon he has made of himself.

From the beginning to the end, the Liebermans and Byrds made it clear that the “rule of law” was just so much twaddle; they would stand with their friends. There was no attempt to explain how they would reconcile their judgment in this case with the standards that had been brought forth 25 years earlier to judge Richard Nixon. Neither would there be any gesture toward explaining whether the “pass” they were offering now on perjury and the obstruction of justice would be settled only on this president, or whether they were installing a new rule, to be applied to all presidents in the future. In other words, there was not even the faintest attempt to establish the rudiments of a principled decision. Aristotle had remarked caustically on those people for whom life was but a series of disconnected emotional episodes. For those people, the study of philosophy would be without point, for they had no interest in establishing a principled ground for their motivations or their judgments. But that was what the Democrats were willing to make of themselves, and in that “ethic” they were now schooling the public.

With these lessons taught from the top of the state, there should have been no wonder that the same moral obtuseness became incorporated in the surveys of the public. The people canvassed in the polls were treated as the bearers merely of “opinions,” not as citizens who might be asked how they reconciled their judgments with the precedents of the past, or whether they were installing a new rule to cover cases in the future. Apparently, they were not even asked, as a condition for their responses, whether they had bothered to read the relevant documents. In this manner, the media and the political class revealed that they no longer remembered the rationale for representative government itself. People may vote their raw opinions in the isolation of voting booths, but we expect our representatives to do something strikingly different. We expect them to deliberate. We expect them, that is, to confront arguments, offer reasons, read the documents, reconcile interests, and consider the constitutional principles that bear on the problem at hand. Since they make politics their vocation, we ask them to deliberate in a far more strenuous way than other folk, who are busy making their livings at other things. And yet, reporters would be brazen enough to ask Henry Hyde just why he and his colleagues were willing to persist even in the face of the polls. It never seemed to occur them that the question should have run the other way: Why weren’t the pollsters posing to the public the kinds of questions that Hyde and his colleagues had to face as they sought to reach a principled judgment? Instead of asking citizens to rise to the level of citizenship, the media asked legislators to take their guide from people who were counted as “representative” Americans precisely because they were untutored in the things that Henry Hyde knew.

For the past year, we have been startled by the evidence of a public growing ever dimmer in its moral reflexes. And yet, even many savvy commentators have shied away from drawing the dark conclusions that spring from the evidence. But why the powerful need to deny what is plainly before us? After all, do we deny that ordinary persons, individuals, can become corrupted in their judgments? Do we deny that institutions, ensembles of men, can become corrupted? Why is it suddenly so unthinkable that a public, sensitive to the lessons taught by our leading figures, may itself come to absorb that corruption? Lincoln had grasped this sobering point long ago as part of his own realism about politics. As Harry Jaffa recalled, Lincoln understood that “once the government was established upon a popular basis, the great danger was the corruption of the people” themselves. For they would soon bring forth talented and ambitious men, all too ready to echo their clichés and cater to their diminished wants. But whether the problem springs from the people or from the top of the state, the remedy points in the same direction: The only corrective can come from political men and women who are willing to frame these moral questions in public, and begin to teach, in public, some different lessons.


  • Hadley Arkes

    Hadley P. Arkes (born 1940) is an American political scientist and the Edward N. Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions at Amherst College, where he has taught since 1966.

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