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Leading article: Beware his accusers

IT IS a truth universally acknowledged, even by his erstwhile supporters, that President Clinton's personal conduct has been disgraceful, and that the man appears to have no shame. Nevertheless, it is incumbent upon those who would drive him from the White House to ensure that they are not doing more damage to the office than to the man by setting a precedent which makes it impossible for any future president to hold that office. What happens to Clinton is unimportant; what happens to the presidency is vital.

Congress's decision to release the tapes of the President's testimony to the grand jury for public viewing may seem like a triumph for open government, but in reality it is a sordid manoeuvre by politicians so afraid for their own careers in Washington that they do not know whether impeachment of the President will promote or retard them. They hope that, once the public has seen the tapes, it will finally become clear whether it is in favour of impeachment or not: and they will vote accordingly.

But impeachment is a legal process, with Congress acting as a jury, not as an electorate or as representatives of an electorate; and the only justification for impeachment would be if Clinton were suspected on good grounds to have subverted the laws sufficiently to warrant it. This is a matter of evidence, not of opinion polls; and thus the release of the tapes is itself a form of perversion of the course of justice. The impeachability or otherwise of Clinton is no more a matter for opinion polls than was the guilt or innocence of O J Simpson. To think otherwise is to confound democracy and the reign of law with mob rule.

It is the counsel of perfection to expect politicians to behave other than politically, and both American parties have axes to grind. The Democrats have to decide whether, and if so when, to jump ship; the Republicans whether Clinton is more useful to them squirming on the hook or actually landed on the bank. Nevertheless, the electorate has the right to expect its representatives in such a situation to act with a degree of integrity, which very few have shown. It does not augur well for the ability of representative democracy in an age of mass media prurience to deal with national crises - and not only in America, incidentally. Let no one be under any illusions that it couldn't happen here.

The very openness of American society has led to the present impasse. Liberty of opinion is protected under the First Amendment to the Constitution, but as the framers of that constitution understood - and as its inheritors seem conveniently to have forgotten - a free constitution can work only if the people exercise virtue. Prurience is definitely not a virtue, any more than is concupiscence. The right to say anything is not the same as invariably speaking one's mind, no matter what its actual content. The inability to draw a veil over anything whatever will lead eventually to society's self-destruction. If you want someone always to tell you the truth, you don't ask him many questions.

The problem is a genuinely cultural one, not amenable to legislation. It is important in a free society that journalists and others should be able to dig the dirt on those set in authority, otherwise those set in authority will abuse it; but both the purveyors of news and its consumers have to have the good sense to discriminate between what is right for them to know and what is none of their business to know. And a society which increasingly amuses itself not only with tittle-tattle about the great, but with television chat programmes about the sordid real-life dramas of abusive couples, turning domestic crime into an entertainment, is not a society in which this discrimination is likely often to be exercised. But this is a matter which is beyond the law to regulate.

Moreover, those who feel that President Clinton has been harshly dealt with - that the whole business has been a party political witch-hunt - will no doubt be out for revenge upon any successor who has benefited from his discomfiture. The whirligig of time brings in its revenges: and there must be few of us alive who have been so pure that we should unhesitatingly tell the truth in public about everything we have ever done. The next President of the United States, if he wants to survive the American Inquisition, had better be the kind of paragon who would be intimidating if met with in private life.

President Clinton has undoubtedly demeaned his great office (as well as the Oval Office). But his accusers should remember that discretion is not only the better part of valour: it is the better part of many other qualities as well.