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 mattered.

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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