The View From 1776
Friday, August 27, 2004
Because He Could? Bill Clinton Conclusively Proves He Is the Worst President Ever
An appraisal by Kerry N. Jacoby of President Clinton’s terms in office animated by the recent publication of Mr. Clinton’s political biography. Mrs. Jacoby is the author of “Souls, Bodies, Spirits:? the Drive to Abolish Abortion Since 1973.”
She also operates her own website at http://religiousredzone.blogspot.com/
So President William Jefferson Clinton (a.k.a. “Saturday Night Bill,” “Bubba,” and “Hillary’s Dog”) has come clean, has he? Apparently he thinks that feeling bad about giving vent to his basest impulses in the Oval Office ought to be good enough for us. In fact, he seems to think we ought to consider his alleged contrition worthy of not only our forgiveness, but our admiration.
I think not.
Shortly after his twinkly-eyed confession of marital failure, worldwide deceit, and unbridled lust first crossed my television set, I heard one of those two-sided cable discussions in which one side was trying to defend the former president and the other was trying not to vomit. “Well,” the first averred demurely, “he was certainly a terrible husband—but he was a good president.”
I beg your pardon?
Anyone who accepts “I did it because I could” as an excuse for the sorry mess Clinton made of his personal life in the highest office in the land knows nothing about what a good president is.
Let me be clear here. It wasn’t my idea to return to the sad spectacle of William Jefferson Clinton. To the contrary: At this juncture, I was well resigned to just letting the whole thing go. It seems the Senate disagreed with me on the import of presidential lying and deception, and there it is. Case closed. Move (you’ll excuse the expression) on. As long as Hillary stays off the national news and only bothers the East Coast, I’ve seen enough of the two of them to last a lifetime.
But then he came back. And he went and said it. He did it because he could. Translation: He had the power. She was young. And he could get away with it because he was the president of the United States.
And that can’t be allowed to go unanswered.
Let us set aside the timeworn wail of wonder that no feminist has the nerve to even object to the idea that the presidency, occupied by a man, renders young women open season. Let us ignore the strange way he claims to be ashamed of himself and still bays loudly at the wicked Ken Starr. Instead, just for a minute, let’s examine what kind of president his own statement makes him.
“Because I could” is not an excuse fitting for an American president, or even for an American. “Because I could” evokes the privilege of a class system we claim not to have. It smacks of a patriarchal objectification of young women and a disdain for those of lesser prestige unworthy of the leader of the free (and supposedly civilized) world.
It is said that the mad and perverse Roman Emperor Caligula once told his grandmother that his true power lay in the fact that “I can do anything to anyone at any time.” Indeed, he could. And, over time, as no one stopped him, he indulged his every appetite to levels that today we would consider worthy of three weeks’ worth of pictures on the front page of the New York Times.
He ate and drank whatever he chose, even while others starved, served by fawning sycophants waiting on him hand and foot. He pursued military adventures as a lackluster hobby, even declaring war against Neptune, without his generals or his military even trying to hold him back, because it soothed his deluded mind to think himself triumphant over the river god. He made his horse a Senator. Most telling of all, he consorted with all manner of men and women in myriad imaginative combinations—sometimes consensually, other times against their will. He bedded and murdered his own sister, cutting his child out of her womb because he believed he was Zeus. Only his own murder could put a stop to the full play of his perverse passions. None could refuse the Emperor; there was nothing he could not do.
Once upon a time, long after the pantheon of the Roman gods had fallen, there developed a theory known as the Divine Right of Kings. It held that the King was appointed by God and was permitted all things under Heaven. By rights, the King could do to anyone anything he pleased. He could be stopped only by another monarch, usually by intrigue, conquest, murder, or some combination of all three. After a long and bloody political and military debate concerning the powers of Kings, King John was coerced into giving up his absolute rights to do anything to anyone at Runnymeade on June 15, 1215 (oddly enough, the same week Clinton popped back into view with his new book.) While the Magna Carta largely returned power to the church and the barons at the time, it has since come to be regarded as a definitive statement on the limitations of monarchy. Still, in matters of the heart, as well as everyday life, monarchs and nobles continued to treat the commoners abominably, simply because they could.
A common person could not hope to press a successful case against a King, for he had no rights. Even a Queen, such as Anne Boleyn, could find herself headless for merely being inconvenient to the whims of the King. King Henry VIII invented a new religion to avoid the problem of not being able to get a divorce as a Catholic. This he could do simply because he was the King. And the Church, though strong and well-corrupted, could not touch him.
Eventually, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther began a movement that advanced the radical notion that the Church had no right to interpret Scripture for the believer, that there was a personal conscience to be considered in all things. This freedom of conscience would eventually lead to an even more radical notion on the part of those who would come to the New World—that even the commonest of men had a right to pursue life, liberty, and happiness in a state of ordered liberty. While there were yet relationships of inequality and systemic classism, the seeds of their destruction were planted in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.
It was a new notion, you see, this American concept that the King couldn’t tell us what to do. The Declaration of Independence makes the astonishing argument that King George, by presuming to control the colonists, was in stark violation of something no one had ever heard of before—the inalienable rights of man. The Framers further argued that the reason for government was to protect those very rights, and if any government (such as the all-powerful Sovereign) failed to do so the subjects (that was us) had the equivalent right to rebel and govern themselves.
In the American antebellum South, as we all now know, men and women who were not white were treated as though they were not human. They were treated—in law—as property. They had no rights, and legions of Southern whites mistreated, raped, and killed “their” slaves. While they would have argued that much of the “discipline” meted out was to keep the slaves in line, there is little doubt in the vast literature on the period that much of the most perverse, cruel, inhumane and even inhuman behavior was a result of the headiness of having absolute power over another person. In other words, they did it just because they could. For America’s “first black president” to invoke such a justification for his own behavior—with or without contrition—is a stunning blow to his image as a “man of the people.”
It is to our credit as a nation that when this elitist excuse appears to rear its ugly head today, we recoil in disgust. The worst excesses of human behavior can be traced to the idea that some people are better than others. From the Taliban’s tyranny to the people-shredding of Saddam’s prisons—yes, even to the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib—unchecked power in the hands of unworthy men ever results in abuse, sin, and shame.
The American notion of equality rejects the idea that any man, of any station, may violate at will the laws of God and man. The “rule of law” was much maligned during the Clinton administration by those who thought the impeachment managers too “legalistic.” Talking heads and law professors alike sniffed at the idea that this mysterious notion was somehow triggered by the President’s “lying about sex.” Yet it is that very rule of equality that protects us all from the tyranny of those who wield greater power than we—the notion that neither the peasant, nor the king, nor the president is above the law. “Because I can” implies that President Clinton believed that these laws and rules did not apply to him simply because he was president.
What else can be meant by this breathtaking admission? What made him think he could get away with adultery, evasion of the Secret Service, sexual misconduct in the Oval Office? It shudders one to imagine what might have happened had he not been stopped by the outrage of Linda Tripp. What else would he have done merely because he could? What else did he do merely because he could?
And one last point must be made on this issue. The Republican party is the founding party of American equality, because it was the Republican party that was founded for the very purpose of abolishing the vile institution of slavery. Thus, I have no qualms pointing out that Clinton’s behavior is entirely un-Republican. We should expect no less.
But it pains me to admit, as well, that the Democratic Party itself has, over the past 4 decades or so, made an attempt to convince the American people that they, too, believe in equality. So much so that, at times, the party has tilted dangerously toward communism—a false system of enforced equality, which has never yet resulted in factual equality. At any rate, the constituent groups of the modern Democratic party are constantly claiming that they believe in equality, that women and men should be paid equally, that no one should be treated as a second-class citizen. And yet, here we have the standard-bearer of the new Democratic party—the practical heart of the movement itself—admitting to a stunningly lopsided view of human dignity.
You see, Clinton believed that because he was president, the law didn’t apply to him. God’s view of marriage and adultery didn’t apply to him. The dignity of office that would prohibit sexual adventure in the Oval Office didn’t apply to him. Nothing that would have applied to anyone else in the nation applied to him. Moreover, we must conclude that, since he lied about it when he got caught, the requirements of truth-telling under oath didn’t apply to him. The promise to tell the truth, “so help me God” did not apply to him.
The saddest part of all is that the Senate, through their cowardice, and the American people, through their unending loyalty to this deceptive elitist adulterer—who, nonetheless, gave them the gift of an irrationally exhuberant economy—proved him right. The law did not apply to him. He left the office of the presidency in a shambles, carried off things he thought he had a right to, and has now begun energetically revising his own history. He wants us now to believe he was more sinned against than sinning, more a powerless victim of Kenneth Starr than a powerful victimizer of young women. If we accept this version of his performance, he will succeed in his quest to escape the truth of the past. But his triumph will be only over the hearts and minds of his contemporaries. It will not last.
What Mr. Clinton and his legion of sycophants do not understand is that his explanation makes him not only an abominable husband, father, and Christian—but fundamentally un-American as a president. He told Oprah that he doesn’t excuse his behavior, but that is unimportant to history’s assessment of him as president. The fact is that his motivations as president were base, selfish, and wrong. It is fine that he now recognizes that his actions were bad, but for some reason it has escaped him that doing bad things for bad reasons as president makes him a bad president.
Yet for those who do make the connection between bad motivations, bad behavior, and bad performance, there is some consolation to be taken from the past. In every case of “because I can,” the tyrant, monarch, and slave-master finally fell, motionless and powerless, before the truth of history. Eventually, in the long march toward greater equality, truth and law triumphed over the brutal passions of selfish men. Let this be the last time such hubris is permitted in a nation of free people. He may have thought he could do what he did, but in the eyes of God and history, he will not get away with it.