The Book Club

Antinomian Arguments

Dear Brent,

I should probably begin with a disclosure. Once upon a time, Bill Bennett was my boss. We are still friends. Shortly before he submitted this new book to Free Press, Bennett asked me to have a quick look at it. I did–and then sent him a handful of minor, line-edit suggestions. Rereading the book now, in hardcover, I detect only one significant change from the typescript. Originally, as I recall, yours truly made a brief appearance, in Bennett’s chapter on “Law,” as “the fine editorial writer for The Weekly Standard.” In the published version, I am demoted: just “the editorial writer,” no longer “fine.” Needless to say, as they always needlessly say, responsibility for all such grotesque mistakes is the author’s own.

But I do not think he has made the particular grotesque mistake you seem most exercised about. Bennett nowhere suggests that Bill Clinton’s “personal conduct”–by which I take it you mean his sexual contact with Monica Lewinsky–constitutes the book’s subtitle “Assault on American Ideals.” The Death of Outrage is a seriatim response to the most commonly circulating arguments in defense of the president’s Lewinsky conduct generally–the sex and the follow-on perjuries and judicial obstructions. It is those arguments that Bennett finds assaultive, ideals-wise.

And one of those arguments, current long before Clinton even pretended to “apologize” (see, for example, Billy Graham), is the argument from the principle of Biblical forgiveness. Alas, I am not qualified to play pass-the-Scripture with you. My family does not produce preachers as yours does. (Nor, it seems, do we live as long. Your great-grandfather began walking Virginia in the 1700s; mine was still breathing on the Lower East Side during World War II.) But in my amateur fashion, I have a slightly different reading of the New Testament’s revelation of Grace.

Repentent sinners are always forgiven, yes. But spiritual forgiveness coexists with spiritual judgment. And the requirement for such forgiveness does not and cannot obviate corporeal judgment–the “grimy, empirical reality,” as you say, of law and politics. Any contrary notion is antinomian. It is to antinomianism, and only antinomianism, so far as I can tell, that Bennett objects.

Bill Clinton got blow jobs from an intern in the White House, and lied about it repeatedly under oath, and used public agencies and officers to conceal that lie for eight long months. For the blow jobs, you’re prepared to see Clinton’s soul re-sanctified. Fine. So am I, and so, I suspect, is Bill Bennett. But that isn’t the question. The question is whether Clinton should get to keep his job.

And if he does get to keep his job, if he goes practically unpunished, then certain non-Biblical ideals–embodied, for instance, in the statute books and the Federalist Papers–will be badly wounded. It isn’t true that “the merely real never intersects the ideal.” Mozart and McDonald’s french fries are real. So is the Constitution. I don’t think our constitutional order can admit a president who is a perjurer. Maybe you disagree.

Couple questions for you. Which exit poll was it that had “reformed pot smokers in the suburbs” as the presidential swing vote in 1992? Also, I’m helplessly curious about your work as a Monicagate editorialist. I think I’ve read every Times editorial on the subject. None of them reflects your present mood or bottom-line. Which ones did you write, and when did you change your mind?