The President's Price Tag

by Walter Lee

Jonathan Wallace correctly notes in his essay, Congress of Scorpions, that the political world is full of hypocrites. If private morality is the issue, and every life examined under the life of the office of a Special Prosecutor, who could stand? Very few, I'm sure. The peccadilloes of youth, the trivializations of marital vows, the extingencies of the shadowy world of tax preparation, the deal cuttings of both business and electoral politics can all marginalize the purity of those inclined to stand for (or run after) high political office. In fact, I would suggest that no American citizen is cognizant of all the laws pertaining to the various circumstances of life. If the adage, "Ignorance of the law is no excuse," then we are all guilty. Thus, for anyone to demand moral and legal righteousness is hypocritical. Anyone not tainted has led a life sheltered in the extreme-- perhaps to the degree of disqualifying him or herself from high positions of leadership.

However, the case presented to the Senate by the House Managers is not about inadvertent transgressions of the legal code. (Mr. Clinton is a lawyer, a former law professor, and a former AG.) The case concerns willful and intentional attempts to conceal evidence and information declared "appropriate for discovery" by a federal district judge. If the subterfuge had been successful, I am sure that many in this nation would be far more comfortable. The problem is that the light of day has broken forth to reveal the tawdry details of both the President's personal life and his attempts for concealment of facts deemed proper for a court case. Yes, this is the result of the Special Prosecutor's four year sortie into a multitude of fields. If Mr. Starr had not been in place, if he had not acted with (perhaps premature) speed, if he had not requested jurisdiction, it is unlikely that another Special Prosecutor would have been appointed. But he did, and thus an American tragedy.

In the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), an instruction is given to the committees dealing with hearing charges against officers and congregations of the church. They read: "It shall exercise wise discretion in determining when to take cognizance of information concerning difficulties within a church..." The truth behind this statement is that not every rumor must be investigated. A further truth is that there are times when the cure is more destructive than the disease. All of this is but general wisdom, and with the Special Counsel's report to the House Judiciary Committee, the issue moved from the general to the specific.

The specific case before us is a whole lot more than a president with a forked tongue and open zipper. As the Special Prosecutor presented evidence of presidential felonies (provable or unprovable) in an open forum, the die was cast for this showdown. What was the Judiciary Committee, and the House itself, supposed to do? There were but three options: (1) refuse to hear the evidence, (2) declare that the evidence was meaningless and refuse to continue the case, or (3) pass the buck to the Senate. The light of day came upon this whole affair, and it demands a verdict. On trial is not simply the President, but the entire system of American jurisprudence.

Mr. Wallace is correct as he suggests the issue before us is plagued with hypocrisy. Most Americans are highly suspicious of our court system. The "OJ Trail" revealed what most suspected to be true: the outcome in court is often determined by the pocketbooks of the parties involved. Robert Frost once wrote: "A jury consists of twelve persons chosen to decide who has the better lawyer." (Nobody believes that OJ would have won acquittal if he pulled down 20K/year and was represented by the average public defender.) Furthermore, in a world where "some pigs are more equal than others," there are those who get charged, and those who don't. How many cases involving police officers and federal agents are left to "internal discipline" (suspensions, letters of reprimand, and the occasional dismissal)-- cases that would have brought criminal prosecution if the average man or woman were involved? Do we really believe that the mayor in the average town will be subjected to the same treatment as another driver who is suspected of having "one too many" before getting behind the wheel? I know of cases where even the mayor's son (and others in comparable positions) have been driven home. It is only when the harsh light of public scrutiny is cast upon the situation that "equal justice" becomes an issue.

This situation is complicated further by the fact that the President is quite popular in many circles. The majority believe that he is doing a good job-- at least in his official capacity. This is a case where even the public wishes someone would turn off the spot lights. But this presents an ugly precedent. If the lights had been turned off in the Judiciary Committee or the House as a whole (and everybody knew that they had been), what would that say for the next (or the last) person brought to trial for perjury and obstruction of justice? If Mr. Clinton is acquitted by the Senate, and any of the Senators voting against conviction declare "Yeah, he was guilty, but the penalty didn't fit the crime," it will make the case for jury nullification in any successive trial.

Equal justice under the law is a harsh and tough way to live. But what are the alternatives? Remember Arthur's dilemma in "Camelot." The law demands that the one he loves be executed. Does one choose the law, or does one choose the beloved? It is a terrible box to be in. The question is to consider the alternatives. Where shall we go? Might makes right? Shall people be tried on the totality of their lives and contributions to society? What if their lives are a failure but they are innocent of the immediate charges?

We would be far better off if Starr had never made his report. However, we would have been even better off if Mr. Clinton had never sent an Arkansas State Trooper to bring Ms. Jones to his hotel room-- if he had kept his pant's zipped in the Oval Office-- if in January of last year he had told the truth in the first deposition and then looked the American people in the camera's eye and said, "I have made a terrible mistake. I had an inappropriate relationship with a White House employee and all I can do is beg your forgiveness." In two months, things would have settled down. He could have given Paula Jones an apology and a check. The election was over. Some people would laugh because they knew before they voted for him that he was somewhat of a "ladies' man." Some would have bellowed from their pulpits. Some would have called him names, but it would be over and we could have gotten back to the nation's business.

That's not how it went. He lied in the deposition. He lied to his family. He lied to his attorney. He lied to the American people. He lied to his Cabinet and staff. He lied to the Grand Jury. I suspect he lies to himself. And the result is that he has put the entire system of justice on trial. If he is acquitted for any reason other than innocence of all charges, the victim will be American Jurisprudence.

I hope those moments of pleasure were worth it, Mr. President. They have one heck of a price tag.

Walter Lee is a former law enforcement official living in Texas.