Executive Follies


by Jack L. Walker, Jr.

At the time, I thought the president's mea culpa speech on August 17 was going to be well-received by the American people. Its themes were those that the public seemingly wanted to hear from Mr. Clinton upon his most recent testimony: admitting the affair, taking responsibility, reclaiming his privacy and stating that it was time to move on. I underestimated the effect of him avoiding any direct apology in his brief address. So did he.

The public was most displeased by this notable omission. Clearly the people wanted an apology for the matter, regardless of whether or not it was sincere. This fact makes clear our expectations of executive leadership. We do not ask the postmodern president to be genuinely apologetic for covering up his outrageous behavior, only that he give an Oscar-worthy performance in pretending that he is.

Before long, however, Mr. Clinton was playing the role we cast for him: apologizing at every stop. Now that Mr. Clinton-despite his initial reluctance-has finally apologized, do we forgive him? Should we forgive him?

Many are saying that we should just give Bill Clinton our forgiveness and stop judging him. "Have we not all sinned?" - "Judge Not!" - "Let us not cast stones" are frequently heard phrases when the president's mistakes are mentioned in conversation. How should we respond? Let me state clearly that I am no theologian on the matter of forgiveness or any other matter. But I do want to respond to these opinions as expressed in common Biblical paraphrases.

Forgiveness presupposes wrongdoing or sin. Sin involves a judgment as to what is right and what is wrong. Therefore, we cannot speak about forgiving anyone unless a judgment has been made. To forgive without having made some judgment is impossible. True, we cannot judge a person's ultimate fate. We may, however, judge their actions based on what we know about that which is true.

In this case, his actions were clearly wrong; even the president admits that. He does need forgiveness. We all do. But forgiveness is not really the pertinent question here. The question involves the appropriate public consequences for his actions. Does he indeed deserve impeachment for what he has done? Failing to forgive him does not necessarily mean that he should be impeached. Nor should forgiving him stop an impeachment process.

In fact, he does not seem to be asking for our forgiveness for anything that must be considered an impeachable offense. He has not admitted that he perjured himself or obstructed justice. How could he be forgiven for that which he never committed? And if pardon involves only his personal misdeeds, then having mercy on the president might involve insisting that he resign and get help for what might be compulsive, if not addictive, behavior. I do not think forgiveness in any meaningful sense of the word is what his defenders really want. Rather, they seem intent on blurring the very distinction between private forgiveness and public pardon. Although related, the two must remain distinct. The rule of law requires that there be civil penalties for wrongdoing. Issuing forgiveness, for instance, should not clear out the local jail.

But in an age replete with ever greater degrees of toleration, we should not wonder if this strategy of pardoning the president through Biblical misapplication might actually work. Or to consider it from another angle, there may be no need for any such strategy, unless a weakened economy lowers the president's poll ratings to a margin similar to that of recent dips in the Dow.

The economy has been Bill Clinton's friend for some years now. How much he directly had to do with strengthening and maintaining the economy is a matter of debate. We will not consider that question here. In fact, for the purposes of our discussion we will assume that he merits a fair share of credit for the country's strong economic performance during the middle and latter part of this decade.

But I do want to briefly consider just a few of his policies. Not all of Mr. Clinton's policies are bad. But those that are bad seem to strike at the core of what it means to be human. This is particularly where Christians and, in fact, all decent citizens should be concerned with Mr. Clinton as president. His stands with regard to abortion-on-demand, partial-birth abortion and the promotion of homosexuality as a civil rights issue (without even the benefit of legislative deliberation) should cause us to reflect on the direction in which he, as our most powerful political representative, wants to take us. Allow me to broaden my earlier inquiry: should Christians forgive? Yes, Christians should be professional forgivers. Should Christians be prudent about the political leaders that answer to them? Yes, it is also their responsibility to be discerning and prudent in matters that affect public life. Unlike many countries, America's leaders answer directly to the public. Although the economy remains an important issue, the lives of innocents and public decency should not be traded for comfortable self-preservation.

I believe the the ongoing policies of the president and his scandalous behavior (particularly any illegalities) should concern us. We should respond to them with the appropriate severity. But I do not want to leave the impression that I think the president is the real problem here. As others have pointed out, his behavior is a symptom of a much greater problem. That problem is our own permissiveness. Our nation tolerates things previous generations would have found unthinkable. We do it in the name of tolerance, rights and progress, as well as a host of other noble-sounding banners. We do so at the expense of decency, an attribute now relegated to the realm of private taste.

By continually overlooking Mr. Clinton's behavior, we enable him to continue in his apparent belief that he should be shielded from any serious consequences for his actions. Experts on behavior can attest that people with certain strong behavioral patterns do not really change until they "bottom out." People abandon their compulsions when they exhaust all other possibilities. We willingly provide more opportunities for the president to avoid the burden of what he has done. Our continual pardon comes without real forgiveness. We expect no real change. We have decided it is not our place to be Mr. Clinton's keeper. This is prudent to a degree. Many even admit that they would participate in similar behavior if they were certain of not getting caught. But where do we reach that point where things have gone too far? When do we deem it our place to say that what we have seen enough and that we will tolerate no more? Will we ever become outraged at the outrageous? Perhaps what we need is a healthy dose of good old-fashioned indignation.

We ultimately have trouble confronting the president's radical policies and indiscriminate behavior because we have trouble facing our own shortcomings. His actions reflect our own. His lesser side personifies certain unpleasant things about us. And we have just enough decency to abhor the hypocrisy it would take to criticize that manifestation, at least while times are good. Besides, who wants to scrutinize that person they see in the mirror? We are pleased enough with what we see. That reflection we see is our own: corruption coated with a nice face and a pleasing presentation. We are the willing participants in a Faustian bargain.

Should Mr. Clinton be impeached? Perjury and obstruction of justice certainly seem crimes worthy of such a penalty. Would it be better to not have some of his darker policies represented in the White House? Certainly. But we should not think of impeachment as a great remedy for the ills of our nation. Rather, we should use this opportunity as a time to examine ourselves and and our nation. I began this discussion on the matter of seeking human forgiveness. I close it with this statement: let us seek divine reconciliation, both in our personal and national lives.