The Nation’s Business

Clinton has no choice now: he must resign

What this is about is lying, not sex. Consensual sex between adults is not a crime. But lying to the people should be.

Peter C. Newman August 24 1998
The Nation’s Business

Clinton has no choice now: he must resign

What this is about is lying, not sex. Consensual sex between adults is not a crime. But lying to the people should be.

Peter C. Newman August 24 1998

Clinton has no choice now: he must resign

The Nation’s Business

What this is about is lying, not sex. Consensual sex between adults is not a crime. But lying to the people should be.

Peter C. Newman

The Globe and Mail headline said it all: “U.S. sex scandal lifts loonie: dollar rises to 66.3 cents on fears Lewinsky case will breed deep political turmoil.” This is how insignificant a country we have become. The rise we get depends on the rise he got.

That was back on July 29, when our buck was still worth something, and the traders fled the American dollar to temporarily boost the Japanese yen, the German mark, as well as our orphan currency.

How sad. Here we are, with a Prime Minister who plays golf while his country’s money sinks to the value of Monopoly paper, and it takes Monica to rescue us. Maybe we’ll be back trading at par by the time all the dirty linen in the White House scandal is hung out to dry.

What’s suffering here, apart from “Slick Willy” Clinton’s reputation, is not just politicians, but the political system. That system is called democracy, which is practised in its true form by fewer than 50 countries. It’s not perfect. Far from it. But as Winston Churchill rightly maintained, it’s better than “all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

What mainly maintains the brittle viability of democratic governments is the personal values of its leaders. We don’t need or want saints in charge of us, just the odd decent man or woman who follows his or her sense of ethical conduct and provides an acceptable role model we can adopt or at least not be disgusted by.

Deprived of that, we sink deeper into cynicism and opt out of our citizenship obligations. That kind of despair was caught wonderfully in Night Moves, an Arthur Penn film in which Gene Hackman plays a boozy and bummed-out private detective who spends most of his days watching football games on television. When asked by his companion who’s winning, he mumbles: “Nobody’s winning. One side just keeps losing slower than the other.”

The breakdown of trust between the governors and the governed is no longer limited to the radical poor or the discontented young. Pent-up resentment of authority can be felt across the land, as ordinarily placid middle-class Canadians accuse our leaders of lies and damned lies. How can anybody believe in democratic leadership when the guy who’s running the world’s largest, and in many ways most vibrant, democracy can’t, apparently, keep it in his pants while sitting at his desk and trying to run the world.

Bill Clinton was elected and re-elected for two reasons: his Republican opponents seemed even less suitable for the job, and he promised to enact some progressive legislation, to be the kind of small-1 liberal that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was and John

Kennedy aspired to be. (The best definition of a liberal was offered by another prime example of the species, former U.S. senator Eugene McCarthy, who explained: “A liberal is someone who throws a drowning man 50 feet from shore a 30-foot rope while yelling, ‘I’ve met you more than halfway!’ ”) Clinton’s legislative record isn’t that bleak, but the current investigation into his sex life threatens to expose him as a shallow opportunist willing to gamble the sanctity of his high office—for what? We don’t really want to know, but will no doubt find out this week or next.

What we have here is a reversal of Pierre Trudeau’s famous dictum, when he was revising Canada’s Criminal Code, that “the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation.” Right. I say that the bedroom has no place in the nation’s offices of state, either.

Lying comes easily to Clinton. He twists words: for a long time, he vehemently denied having had an affair with Gennifer Flowers, then recanted. In a separate case, he swore under oath that he hadn’t propositioned Paula Jones. And now----

Most American commentators are advising their President to “come clean,” to take the political risk of confessing what exactly happened, and live with the consequences. “By this I mean actually taking the heat for what you have done, not putting on a show of fake penitence,” wrote Meg Greenfield recently on the back page of Newsweek. “Ducking blame—laying it off on others— is always what people find most intolerable in these affairs.”

Maybe, but I don’t think so. Leaving Clinton’s marital vows to Hillary aside for the moment—which he himself certainly has done in the past—there is the question of values. What this is about is lying, not sex. Consensual sex between adults is not a crime.

But what should be a crime is lying to the people.

Back in 1993, when he was first trying to get elected prime minister, Jean Chrétien promised that he would eliminate the GST and renegotiate NAFTA. When he did neither, people shrugged, and voted for him again in 1997. That’s what political promises and policies are—lies, or at best, pragmatic statements of intent that may or may not be redeemed. But there is a deeper issue here. It’s the issue of character.

Politicians constantly underestimate voters, believing that if they smile often enough and tell us that all is well with the world (“Don’t worry, be happy.”), we’ll keep quiet and continue voting for them. I like to think we might be getting smarter, even if they’re not. It’s time we began judging politicians not by their personalities—which can be altered by spin doctors and image consultants—but on the basis of their character, which is a much more profound matter.

When Bill Clinton finally has his say, he should use these three little words: “I hereby resign.”

Allan Fotheringham is on leave.