Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Stand Up for Something

James Skillen


January 4, 1999

It was eclipsed immediately by the vote to impeach the President so it didn't receive much notice. But of all the appalling things spilling out of Washington, DC, in 1998, one of the worst was the reaction of Mr. Clinton and his supporters to House Speaker-elect Bob Livingston's decision to resign.

Livingston decided not to become speaker and to resign from Congress later this year when he realized that public exposure of his adulterous affairs meant that he could not be, in his words, "the kind of leader" he had hoped to be. But instead of applauding him, the White House and the President's supporters condemned Livingston's action and actually pressed him to reverse his decision and to cling to office.

As The Washington Post editorialized, this was "an extraordinary performance," "an instant and complete inversion of the truth." It's like the kids who broke old Mr. Smith's front window urging little Johnny not to confess his guilt lest they all be called to account by conscience, parents, and police. In the Post's words, "What most people would regard as having been a show of strength on Mr. Livingston's part was converted into evidence of pitiable weakness."

Of course, the President and his partisans claimed that all they were trying to do was to stop the snowballing "politics of personal destruction." Rep. Livingston's private sexual behavior has no bearing on his fitness for office, they said, so that by resigning all he had done was to "surrender to a developing sexual McCarthyism," as Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) put it.

There is a valid point somewhere in there. We really are all sinners. And it is true that not all sins disqualify a person from leadership. Choosing a public official is not the same as ordaining a minister or voting on sainthood. And it is all too easy, in the heat of battle, to ignore the necessary distinction between a person as an office holder and that person's other behaviors.

But that distinction must never be allowed to grow into a chasm. Office holders are also examples, role models, leaders. And leaders must be people of integrity—not saints, not perfect—but men and women who live up to high standards and, when they fail, put to rights what they have gotten wrong. We cannot expect perfection but we should expect leaders to correct, and not excuse or hide, their mistakes. And when leaders have forfeited the trust placed in them, we should expect that they will acknowledge that they have failed those they were called to serve.

President Clinton stands accused of having "egregiously failed" in his obligation to "set an example of high moral standards and [to] conduct himself in a manner that fosters respect for the truth." He has been judged to have "violated the trust of the American people, lessened their esteem for the office of the President, and dishonored the office which they have entrusted to him." Those are not the words of the Republicans; they are quotes from the censure resolution offered by the members of the President's own party on the House Judiciary Committee.

Surely one who stands so judged by his fervent supporters ought to be urged by them to follow the example of Rep. Livingston and step down.

Instead, Mr. Clinton and his friends claim he must remain President for the sake of those who voted for him. But his office and its dignity are weightier than his own temporary popularity. Furthermore, the voters picked a team, which includes the Vice President. And beyond Al Gore is, of course, the Democratic Party, which surely stands for more than Mr. Clinton.

So come on, Democrats. Where are your principles? Who will defend the party's legacy and its vision? Call the President to account and stand up for your party!

—Stanley Carlson-Thies, Director of Social Policy Studies
   Center for Public Justice


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”