Bill Clinton and Civil Disobedience

Surprisingly little Flytrap comment has focused on the phenomenon of the president of the United States committing an act of civil disobedience. That, Chatterbox thinks, is the best possible face one can put on Clinton’s lies under oath in his Paula Jones deposition and grand jury testimony. In essence, Clinton was saying: “I have no obligation to answer that question truthfully because you have no right to ask it.” Clinton hasn’t made this argument himself, because he continues to maintain, improbably, that his answers, though misleading, were technically truthful. But Clinton’s supporters, virtually none of whom believe Clinton did tell the truth, even technically, have made the “they had no right to ask about his sex life” argument a pillar of his defense. Yet it is rarely spelled out that, logically, this means Clinton’s perjury was an act of civil disobedience. Why not?

Chatterbox thinks it’s because this stance would be highly problematic for Clinton. For one thing, he’s the president, not some peace activist getting tossed into the clink for pouring ox blood onto Pershing missiles. For another, Clinton isn’t getting tossed into the clink; the whole point of civil disobedience is that you’re supposed to suffer legal consequences, so as to throw the system’s injustice into relief. Yes, Henry David Thoreau’s Aunt Maria sprang him from Concord Jail by paying the poll tax he refused to pay out of opposition to slavery. But Thoreau still spent the better part of a night in Concord Jail. There’s also the problem of defining the magnitude of the particular injustice. Quoth Thoreau: If an injustice “is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law.” Hmm. But the injustice in this instance–and Chatterbox agrees it was unjust for Paula Jones’s attorneys to quiz him about Monica Lewinsky, about whom there was no evidence of sexual harassment–wasn’t against “another,” i.e., Monica (who, by all evidence, was thrilled to share with friends and family the details of her affair with the president). It was against Clinton himself.

But the thing that really kills a civil-disobedience defense, Chatterbox thinks, is that Clinton is unwilling forthrightly to say: “Yes, I broke the law, damn it, but it was an unjust law forcing me to make wholly private sins public.” Here Chatterbox takes for his text a line from Bob Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie” (the 11th track on Blonde on Blonde): “To live outside the law you must be honest.”

–Timothy Noah