Impeachment's cultural divide

As Senate negotiates trial options, the debate is driven by twomoral visions that mark late 20th-century America.

At a basic level, the national debate over President Clinton's impeachment is driven by competing visions of what constitutes right and wrong.

Many voters believe the process - which the Senate this week is preparing to take over - has degenerated into a partisan brawl.

True, politics and personalities have played a big part in Washington's year-long struggle over the matter of the president and ex-White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

But the volume of the din does not mean the words themselves should be ignored - and they offer interesting and sharply different sets of values for the modern world.

Many of the president's attackers might be called absolutists. They focus on the particulars of the case: Mr. Clinton lied under oath, and that's wrong, period.

Clinton's defenders, by contrast, are relativists. They look at the context of the untruths, including what the president allegedly lied about, and questioners' motives.

It's a cultural divide straight out of the 1960s, when those who accepted authority battled with those who questioned it.

"That is the big subtext to this whole thing," says Steven Schier, chairman of the political science department at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.

It is an inescapable fact that the president's attackers and defenders divide along political lines. But that may have as much to do with what kind of people identify themselves as Republican or Democrat as with a partisan my-team or your-team approach to the subject.

National polls have long found that the activists within the Republican Party tend to be more religious, more churchgoing, more believing in the absolute nature of God and in firm and clear rules.

Democrats, as a group, are more secular, more tentative in their morality, and less judgmental, according to Mr. Schier.

"The thing I think that is missed a lot is the intensity that has driven this thing on both sides," he says. "The public as a group is not paying a lot of attention to this. The people who are, though, have starkly different views of morality."

Societal standards at stake?

The anti-Clinton view is one of surety. Rep. Tom DeLay (R) of Texas, perhaps the president's most vehement accuser, said during the House impeachment debate last month that the matter is about honor, decency, integrity, and the truth - "everything that we honor in this country."

It is also, said Representative DeLay, "about relativism versus absolute truth." In essence, he argued that to give Clinton a pass on perjury is to lessen the importance of the process of law, and thus lower standards for the entire society.

The fact that Clinton's untruths deal with a sexual relationship is irrelevant, in this view. It holds that the GOP is not imposing standards of sexual behavior on the nation, but rather is defending standards of legal behavior.

"The founders understood the idea of live and let live, but they also understood the place of truth in our system of government," says Roger Pilon of the Center for Constitutional Studies at the libertarian Cato Institute here.

The pro-Clinton view is one of complexity. To his backers, the fact that his lies were about a personal matter (sex) does matter. Thus, in the House impeachment debate, Democrats talked about Clinton's embarrassment and surprise when questioned under oath about his affair with Ms. Lewinsky. They also talked about the context of national politics in the 1990s, in which both parties have adopted the use of ethics charges and criminal investigations as tools of political revenge.

The articles of impeachment alleged that Clinton abused his power, minority leader Rep. Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri said during the debate. Yet by preventing a vote on a censure motion, House Republicans similarly abused their majority power, he charged.

"We need to turn away from extremism and inquisition, and return to a sense of moderation in our political system," said Representative Gephardt.

In essence, Clinton's defenders are attempting to equate tolerance of his deceptions with tolerance of human imperfection.

"As a moral philosopher would ask, 'Is there any time that it's OK to lie or mislead people'? ... The answer is yes. Some deeds are darker than other deeds," says Norman Bowie, an ethicist at the Aspen Institute in Wye, Md.

These moral views differ in particular on a president's importance to the nation. Should a chief executive be a national role model, and thus a symbol of the rule of law? Or is the president simply a technocrat who should run the nation without attempting to teach it larger lessons?

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R), in an impassioned speech on the chamber floor, argued that to ignore the symbolic aspects of Clinton's behavior is to dishonor the memory of greats such as Abraham Lincoln.

Thus, the impeachment drive is not the ravings of vindictive puritans but reaffirmation of values "that are tarnished and dim these days," said Representative Hyde.

The Judiciary chairman implicitly recognized that many voters might not demand a high personal standard from their president. "Listen, it's your country," he argued. "The president is our flag bearer."

Inconsistent expectations

The idea of president as role-model-in-chief is one that has waxed and waned throughout the nation's history, according to Schier.

"Hypocrisy used to solve the problem for us," he notes, by allowing a double standard in which adultery and other failings were ignored or unspoken.

Setting ethical standards for the presidency in today's high-disclosure world is a new area.

"We are trying to determine what the appropriate code is going to be for public life," says Schier. "This is a very awkward case."

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