BOOK REVIEW: AN AFFAIR OF STATE: THE INVESTIGATION, IMPEACHMENT, AND TRIAL OF PRESIDENT CLINTON by Judge Posner
(Part Two of Two)
In Part One of this book review, we covered the distinction Judge Posner draws between private morality and public morality, and the importance of that distinction for Presidential Impeachment and legal ethics. There is a bit more to cover on this topic, especially as it factors into the decision to impeach Clinton.
To sum up the final section of Part One of this review, I left off by describing Posner’s distinction between private morality and public morality. Private morality is what we expect from our friends, neighbors, family, coworkers, employees, business associates, etc. We expect them to abide faithfully by the agreements they make, and we consider it a serious breach of private morality if they knowingly and intentionally lie to us. Also if someone has a known history of failing to abide by their agreements, we think carefully and perhaps think again before we allow this person into our private lives.
On the other hand, we expect our elected officials to lie if it serves the aims of their office and the aims of the country as a whole. The example I used is international diplomacy – few if any Americans have a problem with the fact that international treaties are frequently ignored or even broken outright as soon as they no longer serve the interests of the United States, and it is safe to assume that we not alone in this regard.
Posner goes on to point out that breaches of private morality by an elected official can, however, rise to the level of a breach of public morality, but even this alone would not suffice to measure the importance of a President of the United States. Posner allows that in some (perhaps many) situations a President’s moral flaws could well be balanced out by extraordinary executive talent such that any moral failings should be ignored. Indeed, seen in this light, the mere fact that a President is a liar (or possibly even a criminal) is not, in and of itself, grounds for impeachment.
Posner spends considerable time compiling an impressive list of Clinton’s undeniable talents and then weighs those talents against his moral failings; I will not describe this balancing test here, but this part of the book is especially well-worth the read.
The Undercurrent of Emotionality, the Mystery of Why Conservatives Hated Clinton So Much, and the Failure of the Public Intellectuals
This all feeds directly into an important theme of the book – namely, why conservatives hated Clinton so much. On the facts of his presidency, there is no reason why conservatives should have hated him. He governed from a position that was decidedly right-of-center, and he did so in a way that would be impossible for a Democratic president today.
In my own personal recollection of the Clinton presidency, I seem to recall him being “taken out to the woodshed” by Congressional Republicans (and the electorate, who gave the GOP major gains in the 1994 Congressional mid-term elections) over his failed national healthcare law; but, after that, he seemed to have learned his lesson and chose to work with the Republican majority rather than spend the remaining years of his presidency resigned to irrelevance, as Presidents of both parties (and their voters) seem to prefer today.
The list of conservative objectives that Clinton endorsed and pursued following his failed try at healthcare reform is long. He may well have been even more to the right than a second-term George Bush would have.
In addition to asking why Republicans hated Clinton so, we have to ask: Why did liberals love him? Prior to the Lewinsky scandal, true leftists in the Democratic party had been at best lukewarm to Clinton, for understandable reasons. Clinton compromised on everything important to the true leftist — and sometimes he eschewed them completely.
Just as true leftists were not excited about Clinton prior to the Lewinsky scandal, neither were true conservatives enraged. True enough, there were a small number of true “Clinton haters” kicking around in conservative intellectual circles almost right from the start of his Presidential candidacy.
So how did society go from that to the frenzied and irrational “debate” that followed? Posner’s answer to this question is compelling and fascinating — and it holds a great deal of relevance to our current political situation; more than that, it is a helpful introduction to human (and political) conflict generally. The chapter mainly devoted to this analysis is entitled The Kulturekampf.
Given Posner’s analysis of the complex moral and legal issues at work in the Clinton Presidential impeachment, he is not surprised that the Clinton impeachment led to passionate debate among Americans and especially among the intellectual element of our society. What does surprise him is the emotional nature of the disagreement, and
…the tone in which the issue has been debated, and the recklessness with which many intelligent people, including many academics, took sides passionately and dogmatically before it was possible to know what the facts were, their refusal to face the facts when they became known, their unwillingness to concede any merit to any points made by opponents, their proneness to exaggeration, distortion, and oversimplification, and the sheer unreason demonstrated by so many of the people who became caught up in the public debate…
At some point as the Independent Counsel’s investigation moved forward and uncovered more and more evidence of wrongdoing, the left united behind Clinton completely and the right united against him. This Posner attributes to the “pluralistic sexual morality found in the United States,” and the fact that Clinton’s behavior “forced these attitudes into articulate competition.” He continues: “if the Right had been content to criticize Clinton’s conduct, even his sexual conduct, the Left would not have reacted so fiercely. The Right wished instead to label and condemn him as a representative of a style of life that is common to many liberal academics, urban sophisticates, and unregenerate members of the generation of the 1960’s.”
When we add to the mix what Posner describes as the “radical feminists, Hollywood bohemians,” and “libertines” that quickly joined the Clinton ranks, we begin to understand how the Clinton coalition appeared to many average Americans as an ungodly “Axis of Evil” that more or less replaced the Kremlin as the new American enemy. As the “mess” (and that is indeed what Posner repeatedly calls it) got bigger, both sides quickly became “frenzied and irrational.”
THE FINAL TWO CHAPTERS
In a book full of important insights into human nature, some of the most important are in the final two chapters.
Posner points out that, psychologically, people have a hard time liking and disliking the same person (or group, or movement) at the same time. We want people to be all one thing or all the other; as any observer of individual people will tell you in any given circumstance, that is not realistic. (I myself learned this during my clerkship in the Circuit Court for St. Mary’s County Maryland during numerous criminal sentencings, when convicted criminals are allowed to introduce testimony and evidence of their redeeming qualities. As an inexperienced young lawyer, I found it amazing that every single criminal had done at least something that was undeniably good and selfless in their lives).
But human beings want to see everyone as all one thing or all the other – and since we couldn’t agree with each other on which one of these Clinton was, we found ourselves in mutually uncomprehending, warring camps.
The remainder of the book is also fascinating for its parallels between war and intense political disagreement — but I will forgo that here. (Just as in Part One, I had to forgot much of the fascinating discussion of the legal standards for Presidential Impeachment).
On top of all this, the book is a compelling read — you will find it hard to put this book down.