Defending Propriety

"Defending Propriety," Weekly Standard, 21 February 1999.


WHEN I LAST APPEARED IN THESE PAGES it was to complain that the Republicans had not made an issue of President Clinton’s misconduct during the election campaign last year.  After the impeachment I withdraw that point.  Reluctantly, but with increasing courage and conviction, the House Republicans were brought to accuse the president, partly because Kenneth Starr’s report forced them to act, and partly because the president and his party goaded them beyond bearing.  What the Senate has done is accommodate the president’s popularity and the partisan determination of his defenders.

Now that the die is cast, neither Democrats nor Republicans can be entirely happy with the issue that the impeachment has made between them.  The Democrats risk being branded as the party of moral laxity, the Republicans as the party obsessed with sexual peccadilloes.  But in truth, the issue is over propriety, over how it is proper to appear, more than about sexual morality simply.

The president admitted that his conduct was “inappropriate,” by which he meant something less than “immoral,” as Sen. Joseph Lieberman pointed out.  Being merely inappropriate, Clinton’s conduct should be overlooked, just as it is polite to overlook offenses against politeness.  It is disconcerting that offenders against propriety should profit from the fact that propriety usually defends itself by ignoring what is inappropriate.  Clinton’s very admission becomes almost a demand to do nothing about it.

Weekly Standard