The Breakfast Table

The Clinton Style

I admit it: I turn first to the stock market pages. I know that lives up to your darkest imaginings about non-Progressives, but there it is. And I don’t even own stock! (Not very much anyway.) At 8.35am, according to the New York Times, the London market was up slightly. But a tone of relentless gloom has filled the web sites of the non-metropolitan papers. The Toronto Star reports that no bottom is in sight. (Today is publishing day for the Picton Gazette, the newspaper of the seat of the county in which I’m staying: I’ll let you know this afternoon what it makes of Monica, the stock crash, and the county’s big news: the condition of the beef farmer tragically gored on Monday. Where do Progressives stand, by the way, on beef farmers: are they still, as they were in the 1930s, workers & peasants? Or has the line changed, damning them as anthropocentric oppressors of our hoofed comrades?)

Today’s big political story is the report in the Washington Post that Starr will report to Congress only on the Monica Lewinsky matter. If true, this will undoubtedly be construed as good news for the president: it implies that the Independent Counsel has concluded that Whitewater, Travelgate and Filegate present no potential grounds for impeachment and can thus be wrapped up in his report to the appellate court that appointed him. But overlooked in the good-news theory is the corollary: if the report is true, and if Starr does have a report for Congress about Monica, it suggests that all the loose chatterboxes on television who have speculated that serious crimes were committed by the president to cover up his sexual relationship with Monica were indeed correct.

For me, though, the most interesting items on the web this am were two pieces about the Clinton method, one by attorney Nathan Lewin on the New York Times op-ed page and one an unsigned editorial in the Washington Times. Lewin, who represented former Attorney General Meese in his independent counsel investigation, proposed that Clinton avoid perjury at the grand jury by invoking his Fourth Amendment right of privacy and refusing to answer questions. Legally, Lewin cheerfully conceded, this argument is worse than worthless: it’s a deliberate misunderstanding of the Fourth Amendment that any judge or lawyer would laugh out of court. But since it isn’t any more worthless than other privileges the president has claimed, why not give it a shot? Especially since it might move public opinion?

The Washington Times piece noted that Charles La Bella, the man named by Janet Reno to head her internal investigation into the Democrats’$2 1996 campaign finance abuses, has just been punished for filing a report arguing that an independent counsel in this matter is indeed called for. La Bella had been named acting U.S. Attorney for San Diego before his report was filed, on the assurance that a permanent job would be forthcoming. He failed to take the hint, handed in an inconvenient report, and was promptly given the boot by Janet Reno.

I once had a professor who liked to pooh-pooh the claim, propounded in the “Federalist Papers,” that it was the mechanics of the Constitution that safeguarded the integrity of the Republic. Constitutions, he said, do not enforce themselves. What preserves the system are a set of cultural and moral norms shared by all the leading participants: the assumption, too deep for thought, that some things are simply not done. What would happen, he asked us, if a president should come along who did not respect those norms-who refused to accept the unspoken rules of the republic and instead bent the law as far as he could bend it? Fascinating problem: and with Clinton, Reno et al, we’re conducting an experiment into how far such a president can go.