Relief Clinton didn't get away unscathed

Like most Americans, I was glad to see President Clinton's impeachment trial end. And like most, I look at the rubble of a 13-month moral and political war, and wonder: Can any good thing be salvaged from this?

As a college writing instructor - who wants to teach honesty as well as proficiency in scholarship - I can only say yes.

In 1998 - a year marked by the plagiarism of professional journalists, increased concerns about students using the Internet to cheat, and mushrooming presidential malfeasance - honesty became a tough sell.

So I felt some measure of relief when Mr. Clinton was impeached. Relief, not gladness.

For all the flaws of the impeachment process, it has provided America's students with this important if simple lesson: Dishonorable acts still carry a heavy price, whether you're a charismatic president or just a college kid.

Last semester, I raised the subject of academic honesty with wavering confidence. I had no doubt that the message was right. But would it stick? There was the shabby example of the supposedly hip and youthful president: his finger-wagging lies to the American public, his "misleading" testimony in court proceedings.

Meanwhile, the public lies of journalists had been Boston's biggest local story. One metro columnist at the Boston Globe had admitted making up sources while another had been caught plagiarizing a comedian's one-liners.

And then there were the polls. Night after night, TV newscasts told us that public opinion surveys seemed to say that lying, even in under oath, was no big deal. Depends on the circumstances, right? Or what the subject was?

I wondered if we, as a society, had come to the consensus that honesty - even in courts of law - no longer mattered. If so, how could I encourage students to stick to the academic straight and narrow without sounding like some "out of control" special prosecutor enforcing a moral code written in the Stone Age?

The question of honesty took on new meaning midway through the fall semester when I learned that some students might try to download essays from the Internet and pass them off as their own. I surfed the Web and found that, indeed, several sites were offering term papers for sale or, in some instances, for free. Emerson, like most colleges and universities, suspends students who cheat. "Plagiarism," the college handbook says, "is unethical in any context, and especially in college, where the development of personal integrity and original thinking are the primary goals." Even inadvertent plagiarism would be considered a "serious offense" because "the accurate and honest communication of ideas is fundamental." In college, yes. And in court?

The connection between plagiarism and perjury may seem tenuous until one considers that both offenses do harm to vital organs of democratic society. Plagiarism undermines not only a particular student's development, but scholarship generally. Perjury corrupts not one witness or one case alone, but the entire system of jurisprudence.

Complicating my efforts to promote academic honesty, 412 of the nation's top historians and constitutional scholars inserted themselves into the impeachment process at the end of October.

Led by renowned Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz, the scholars issued a statement declaring that the impeachment of Clinton would leave the presidency "permanently disfigured." While the group acknowledged it could not condone the president's "private behavior or subsequent efforts to deceive," the statement amounted to little more than a wink and a nod at the president's abuses of the public's courts and trust. Sadly, this Gang of 400 squandered the important currency of scholarly credibility at the ring-toss booth of a seedy political carnival.

So according to Princeton's own policies, a student in one of Mr. Wilentz's classes would be kicked out of school for cheating on a term paper. Yet the president of the United States should have been able to end-run the judicial system with no more than a "tsk tsk." Try telling a roomful of college students why that's fair.

In a sense, Clinton himself redeemed the cause of honesty and sealed his own unfortunate place in history as only the second impeached president. Emboldened by the de facto endorsement of prestigious scholars and the Democrats' modest gains in the November elections, he got cocky.

The contrition he had expressed in September - "The children of this country can learn in a profound way that integrity is important and selfishness is wrong," he told a group of ministers - turned to Thanksgiving's nose-thumbing response to the House Judiciary Committee's questions.

It is one thing for the fox to raid the henhouse, quite another to flaunt his kill before the farmer. The president's hubris galvanized his opponents. At the same time, the country seemed to recover its moral senses.

Though most Americans still opposed Clinton's conviction and removal, few were implying to pollsters that honesty didn't matter. The nation somehow found the voice to reassert our long-held common belief that honesty is right, if not convenient.

The message is clear. In the classroom as well as the Roosevelt Room, dishonesty still rates an "F," which still stands for "failure" and not, as the president might have wished, "fuhgedaboutit."

* David T. Gordon, a former Newsweek staff writer, teaches in the School of the Arts at Emerson College in Boston.

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