The Founders’ Honor: There's More to American Politics Than Self-Interest or Principle, Weekly Standard, 3 September 2001.
THE WORD “HONOR” is not one we hear much these days. It sounds quaint when we read it of the past and pretentious if applied to the present. We prefer to speak more realistically, more candidly, of self-interest.
Yet the biggest recent events in American politics make sense only when seen as motivated by a sense of honor. When President Clinton was impeached, he refused to resign, one could say, for reasons of both honor and self-interest. But the Democrats in public office who supported him could have done so only for honor. They did not want to give in to those prissy, self-righteous Republicans, who would have crowed in triumph at his fall. In refusing to sacrifice their tainted champion as self-interest would have dictated, the Democrats paid a price. Their candidate Al Gore, chief among Clinton loyalists, suffered from “Clinton fatigue” (or Clinton disgust) in the electorate, and he lost a close election he probably would have won if Clinton had resigned and had taken his bad odor with him, leaving Gore to run as a relatively unembarrassed incumbent.
The Republicans for their part might have been well advised by self-interest to leave well enough alone, and not insist on impeachment in the House or a trial in the Senate. But they were overcome by their outrage. They felt it necessary to uphold law and propriety against a liar who had, at long last, been caught in his lie. So the Republicans refused to “move on” and diminished their advantage from Clinton fatigue because they seemed too eager for his removal.
Honor always has a sticking point: something you refuse to accept even though it might be in your own best interest. President Clinton, the one who spoke of “moving on,” stayed where he was and brought his party to defeat. His sense of honor was no doubt perverse, but even in better cases, there is always something perverse about honor.