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

So What If Hillary Is Guilty?

James Skillen


February 19, 1996

Ever since Watergate and the downfall of Richard Nixon, there has been a strong sub-plot to national politics involving the public's perpetual quest for a scoop on the immoralities and illegalities of high public figures. Anything that even appears to be dirty or crooked becomes a magnet for the press.

The good thing about this is that our body politic ought to have leaders of integrity. Leaders who lack sound character or give evidence of questionable behavior ought to be kept on a short leash. Citizens and their leaders ought to share a strong bond of trust and an ardent commitment to the integrity of the political order itself. Corruption ought to be exposed.

Our problem today in the United States is that suspicions about, and investigations of, prominent public figures have become a substitute for something much more important. The sub-plot has become the main plot. We now focus too much attention on the flaws of individuals and not enough on the larger crisis of leadership in government.

What, if anything, are the Republicans and the Democrats doing to strengthen themselves as leadership teams so they can put forward and hold accountable their candidates and elected officials? What are they doing to build strong party platforms that can bind members together so they can offer the electorate trustworthy promises? We have become so focused on individual politicians and their personal weaknesses that we hardly stop to ask questions about how to strengthen the accountability of the leadership teams.

There will always be some infidelity, some illegality, some lie that shows up in one politician or another. The question is, How should such problems be handled so the country can continue with its public business? Our pattern has increasingly become one of pursuing individual public figures by means of prolongated media investigations combined with partisan opposition attacks followed by long and drawn out congressional hearings or court cases.

Why not reform the system to require political parties, for example, to bear greater responsibility for their own leaders both in and out of office? Why can't we find a way to develop internal party discipline so that parties can keep members in line while building up their programs and reputations over time? Now the parties function simply as mechanisms for individual election campaigns. After the election the parties have little control over those elected. We need a system where parties as teams can discipline members and maintain the public's confidence despite the foibles and failures of a few individuals within them.

There are ways to reform the system in order to strengthen party discipline and accountability. Restricting the funding of candidates by PACS and interest groups and instituting proportional representation for congressional elections would yield immediate benefits. But the press and the public are not seriously discussing such reforms. We're all too intent on watching the rise and fall of individual politicians—or their spouses and cronies.

What the public and the press ought to be investigating and debating today is how to achieve real reforms that the Republicans and Democrats have not accomplished. In between elections we need real government, not just probing and posturing. In this regard, Hillary's guilt or innocence doesn't much matter. One of the tragedies of American politics is that with so many larger issues at stake, the First Lady's problems appear to matter so much.

—James W. Skillen, Executive Director
   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.”