Bill Clinton and the Corruption of the American Republic

Mackubin T. Owens

February 1, 1999

It was a defining moment in the history of the Democratic Party, illuminating with stark clarity the depths to which a once great political party has descended. Tim Russert of NBC’s “Meet the Press” had as his guest Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, a passionate defender of Bill Clinton. Several years ago, Sen. Kerry had voted to convict and remove a federal judge who, like Bill Clinton, had been impeached on charges of perjury.

If Bill Clinton were a federal judge, asked Mr. Russert, would you vote to convict him and remove him from the bench? Sen. Kerry squirmed, but there was no way to avoid answering the question. “Those are the kinds of hypothetical questions that get you in a bad place, ” he replied. “And I’m not trying to avoid the question. It’s not a question of having a lower standard [for a president]. It is a question of having a different standard. ”

The cornerstone of republican government is the rule of law, especially equal justice before the law. The failings of America in the past have all been the result of not fully living up to this fundamental principle, e.g. slavery and Jim Crow. Now the party that spearheaded the civil rights movement three decades ago was revealed to all the world as subscribing to the principle of inequality before the law in the cause of protecting a Democratic president’s hold on power.

The exchange between Sen. Kerry and Mr. Russert is merely symptomatic of a larger, more pervasive corruption of the republic as a whole, a corruption largely obscured by complacency arising out of prosperity. This corruption extends from the president through his party to the electorate itself. It was this sort of corruption Benjamin Franklin had in mind when he replied to a Philadelphia woman who asked him what the Constitutional Convention had created: “A Republic, if you can keep it. ”

Franklin, like the other Founders, understood that republics were fragile. Thus, they strove to establish balances between public virtue and private interest and between the power of government and the rights and liberties of the citizens. The Founders’ great fear was that corruption would destroy this balance, leading on the one hand to tyranny and oppression by the government, or on the other, servility and susceptibility to demagogues by the people.

The Founders believed that the great threat to the longevity of republics arising from the latter was what the Greeks called idiotikos (from which we derive the word “idiocy”), the exclusive preoccupation with private matters. The idiotes lacked a sense of honor and any commitment to the public weal. For the political writers of the 18th century, the equivalent vice was “luxury.”

The great accomplishment of the liberal republic exemplified by the United States was the creation of a private sphere within which an individual could pursue happiness. But the Founders understood the critical importance of virtue and honor if the American Republic was to survive, much less thrive. Thus the signers of the Declaration of Independence mutually pledged not only their lives and fortunes, but also their “sacred Honor. ”

President Clinton epitomizes the death of honor and the loss of republican virtue. His failings are not those of mere human frailty but of a corruption that follows from the absence of any conception of honor. An honorable man takes responsibility for his own actions. He stands for right in matters both large and small.

Instead, this president has not only lied to the American people (an element of one of the articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon) but also committed perjury. He has employed every imaginable tactic to obfuscate the legal issues and purchase the silence of his subordinates. Comparing himself to Nelson Mandela and Ulysses Grant, he has blamed others, primarily his “political enemies, ” for the scandals that have dogged him since he was governor of Arkansas. He has essentially claimed that the rules do not apply to him. He has denied that his actions have any consequences.

He has corrupted normal conceptions of loyalty, allowing his wife, his cabinet, and his friends and advisers to swear to his fidelity to the truth. He has corrupted and debased republican rhetoric for his own political aggrandizement.

Consider his invocation of George Washington during the recent State of the Union speech. Mr. Clinton told the American people that “we are keeping alive what George Washington called ’the sacred fire of liberty.’” His shameless corruption of republican rhetoric is evident to anyone who examines the context in which Washington, in the course of his First Inaugural Address, employed this phrase.

“[T]he foundation of our national policy,’ said Washington, ’will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality….[T]here is no truth more thoroughly established, than that there exists in the economy and course of nature, an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness; between duty and advantage; between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy, and the solid rewards to public prosperity and felicity’ [W]e ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the external rules of order and right, which Heaven itself has ordained’ [T]he preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the republican model of government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people. ”

Corruption engulfs the Democratic Party as well. Of course given its underlying political philosophy, this corruption has been effected with ease. As my friend Larry Arnn, President of the Claremont Institute in California recently observed, while the Republican Party was established on the statesmanship of Abraham Lincoln, the modern Democratic Party was founded on the statesmanship of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt.

The former, like the Founders, believed that our equal rights are fixed by an unchanging human nature; the latter that human nature is evolving and alterable. Thus according to Democratic political dogma, a government staffed by experts can bypass the private institutions that many of us believe perform vital function on behalf of liberty and civilization, and reach directly into society to alter fundamental human relations.

This view of human nature and the nature of government explains Hillary Clinton infamous statement that “our mission is to change what it means to be a human being in the 21st century. ” For the Democratic Party government, far from being a necessary evil arising from our imperfect nature and therefore to be limited lest it become despotic, is instead a project in engineering human perfection.

One consequence of this underlying political philosophy is that the Democratic Party has become a mere collection of interest groups united not on the basis of any principle but rather their common dependence on governmental largesse. Since their power largely flows from Democratic control of the Executive Branch, these interest groups often find themselves in the position of having to sacrifice their cherished beliefs so that Bill Clinton might cling to the presidency. Thus, these groups have been easily corrupted.

The case of the feminists is a particularly egregious example of this corruption. Apparently because of his support for abortion rights, groups such as the National Organization of Women (NOW) have remained silent despite overwhelming evidence that Mr. Clinton has, at a minimum, violated the sexual harassment laws they have championed. Despite their view that pornography degrades women, they have bitten their tongues as Larry Flynt, the president’s pornographer, has mobilized his smut machine against Mr. Clinton’s accusers. Their silence has led some to suggest that NOW’s new slogan should be “from barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen to on your knees in the office, you’ve come a long way, baby!”

We have come to expect the snarling of partisan attack dogs like Barney Frank and James Carville, and the annoying yapping of lap dogs who think they are attack dogs, like the Boy Congressperson from Rhode Island’s second district. But it is troubling to see other Democrats, heretofore known and admired for their decency and sense of honor, allow themselves to be corrupted so that Bill Clinton can hang on to power.

A sad case in point is Gregory Craig, a member of the Clinton defense team. Fifteen years ago when we were both Senate staffers, I got to know Greg Craig and came to admire him greatly. Since he worked for Sen. Edward Kennedy and I worked for Bob Kasten, a conservative Republican from Wisconsin, our political views differed substantially. But because of his decency and sense of honor, we were able to work together on a number of issues and indeed, became friends. Thus it is a source of great personal distress to see Greg, precisely because his reputation for decency and honor is so great, being used to generate more legal sophistries on behalf of Mr. Clinton.

But the consequences of the corruption of the Democratic Party pale in comparison to those of the corruption of the public at large. If Americans ever come to accept the argument that the “people’s business” has nothing to do with the rule of law and our fundamental equality before it, and that presidents should be held to a different standard than other citizens because the economy is doing well, it will signify nothing less than that the idiotes, the intemperate, licentious individual who cares for nothing but his private pleasures, has replaced the citizen; that we have descended into what Tocqueville called “soft despotism; ” and that republican government has reached a sad end.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center and a professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War college in Newport.