The Breakfast Table

Canaries in a Coal Mine


Well, my goodness, and here I was, hoping we’d spend the week discussing the retrofitting of the San Francisco Bay Bridge. But maybe your instincts are correct; once we go down that road, there’s no turning back.

I would actually deconstruct the Newt story somewhat differently from you. It’s much too early for major league elected officials to start calling for Clinton’s resignation: Popular sentiment is still far too unsettled and volatile, the thing could still explode in anyone’s face or everyone’s face. This is the period when out-of-office types and ambitious backbenchers, people without too much to lose and lots of publicity to gain, stick their necks out. It’s a reasonable gamble for them. Whereas the Gingriches of the world can afford to sit back and observe these other fellows, treat them like canaries in a coal mine. If the warbling persists, there’s plenty of time to venture down the shaft.

As to the Washington Post report of Clinton’s legal defense, well…What else have they got? I’m not a lawyer, and therefore not qualified to judge what constitutes perjury, but I daresay you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone anywhere who’s going to claim the president told the truth. There are many other questions that cluster around this issue, and I’m sure we’ll be worrying them to death before the week is over, but on this one we’re in accord.

I too caught Bill Bennett on Meet the Press. I suspect we may disagree about that particular performance. My instinctive initial reaction was, God protect us from avenging angels. The smugness of the man, his unhesitating willingness to set himself up as arbiter of other people’s virtue, is frankly appalling. Since we’re all imperfect–all except, perhaps, Bill Bennett–the world’s a better place when we all have (and grant each other) a little space in which to err; I don’t want any ayatollahs, secular or religious (and Bennett’s a bit of both), to be in charge of things. You don’t have to be Hester Prynne to find the prospect of such an arrangement uncomfortable.

As I was shaving this morning (it was probably your lunch time by then, or close to it), the NPR report on Sudan’s complaint about our bombing their orphanage-hospital-leper colony-pharmaceutical factory was airing. My wife said, “Do you think it’s true?” I suspect it isn’t, actually. But it’s probably a little too facile to assert that without any real evidence. Perhaps the fundamental question is, If it is true, does that make our action wrong? It seems pretty clear that when you drop seventy bombs, there’s a good chance your ability to control the damage is going to be imperfect. Does knowledge of that fact prevent you from taking action when it’s otherwise indicated? I’m not comfortable with the question–I assume no civilized person is entirely comfortable with the question–but I think the answer has to be no.

While we’re on the bombing, the San Francisco Chronicle had the latest Field Poll (for some reason, it’s always referred to as “the highly respected Field Poll”) on its front page. Support for Clinton’s action is overwhelming, the poll reports, but trust in him as Commander-in-Chief is seriously compromised. This strikes me as the crux of the problem we face, not only Democrats, but the country at large. It’s a cliché to say of the presidency that the character of the president and his conduct of the office are identical, but in Clinton’s case, as my friend Richard Cohen once pointed out, that’s demonstrably untrue. As far as policy is concerned, he’s been cautious–almost excessively so–and responsible. So how do we square that circle?

But perhaps you disagree.