How Low Can You Go? Made of Sterner Stuff


The Lewinsky investigation has put me to reflecting about the many
opportunities for rectitude that were missed in our past. Americans have now
been told, all too late, about the illicit sexual behavior of presidents from
Thomas Jefferson to JFK. Just think of how much better informed and more
righteous the American people might have been if the methods of uncovering the
truth familiar to us today had only been used when they could have really

Earlier presidents, for example, were never the target of civil suits in
which the attorneys for the opposite side could oblige them to answer questions
about their sexual relationships. Americans would have known so much more about
the true moral character of our presidents if they had been subject to such
unlimited questioning. It is interesting to speculate whether Jefferson might
have been induced to lie under oath about his slave Sally Hemmings or whether
Franklin Roosevelt might have been tempted to shade the truth about his private
life, and perhaps whether they might have even encouraged the women involved to
withhold information from a plaintiff's inquiry.

But, alas, if they had done so, there would have been no independent
prosecutors ready to follow up with criminal investigations for perjury and
obstruction of justice, thus no leaks from the investigations to the press, and
no clamor from high-minded editorialists to disclose all the facts.

Nor were the staff and associates of earlier presidents ever offered the
opportunity to avoid jail if they would just implicate the president in sordid
and criminal activity, sexual or otherwise.

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What is particularly lamentable about these oversights is that our forebears
had no technological excuse for failing to use these methods to pursue
presidential iniquity. After all, I am not talking about DNA tests that hadn't
yet been developed, but about investigative procedures that were as feasible 200
years ago as they are today.

Some approaches using modern technologies have been available for decades but
astonishly overlooked in uncovering presidential wrongdoing. Why, you might ask,
have tape recordings of private gossip about presidential behavior never been
used to launch a criminal investigation before? Why indeed. How is it that no
prosecutor before Kenneth Starr ever sought to wire a witness to snare a
presidential malefactor in a sting?

Apparently, the law enforcement agencies were coddling high officeholders,
but those days are over. In fact, with Secret Service agents being eligible to
testify, we will have all future presidents under 24-hour surveillance.

Americans used to think it a blessing that political opponents in this
country did not send each other to jail, much less to the guillotine. But this
pride was unjustified. If the sins and crimes of our country's leaders had been
thoroughly investigated, many of them could probably have been impeached,
convicted, and imprisoned. Imagine how much cleaner and purer our history—and
our sense of ourselves—could have been if prosecutors and the news media in the
past had displayed the aggressive tenacity that they demonstrate today.

Critics of American culture and politics have sometimes talked regretfully
about the weakening of our moral fiber. One critic has even suggested that the
public itself is now on trial because at least in the initial weeks of the
Lewinsky scandal, it was insufficiently outraged. Perhaps, to paraphrase Brecht,
the public will have to be dissolved and a new one elected.

But the evidence of the Lewinsky investigation is that we, the living, are
actually made of far sterner stuff than earlier generations were. Our forebears
shrank from subjecting their leaders to the full force of the law. We are
prepared, however, to see the great panoply of modern prosecutorial techniques
used to destroy a president. And he may be destroyed not for such high crimes as
treason or bribery, but for actions that in the past would never have risen to
the horizon of the law. Who can doubt that we are making moral progress?

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