I suppose it seems odd to be reading about auto insurance reform — three of last week’s columns — when the whole nation is on the brink of shooting itself in the foot.

I don’t think we will go over the brink, but we sure are coming close. (With brinks, can one ever not?)

I speak here, of course, of the possibility that the House, against the wishes of a majority of the people it represents, will impeach the president. It is very Alice-in-Wonderland-like if for no other reason than this: Everyone agrees the president will not be convicted and removed from office. (To be sure, some feel he should be, but no one thinks two-thirds of the Senate will so vote.)

So this is purely an exercise in theater. We would be choosing to tie up the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the entire Senate and no small portion of the executive branch (how can they not be consumed by this, even if not directly involved?) — for months — for the purpose of making a point. The point: that no one, least of all a president, should lie — in common sense terms if not in legal technicality — and especially not under oath.

It is an important point.

Much of the country and many of the Republicans in the House, given the choice, would opt for censure to make that point — and so would I. (In truth, it seems to me the point has already been made.) “Censure and move on” is the operative phrase.

Censure is no trivial thing. Clinton would be only the second president in history to be censured (and Andrew Jackson’s censure was later repealed). And maybe they’d dock him a full year’s pay. This is a very big deal. Point made!

But three or six more months of Monica Lewinsky?

Hello … we have Iraq and a global financial crisis and Russia and the Year 2000 problem to deal with. Not to mention education and Fast Track and Social Security and everything else.

If we absolutely had to do this, because the president were attempting to subvert our democracy by, say, setting the IRS upon his political enemies, as Nixon did, or by using the CIA to thwart an FBI investigation into illegal wiretaps of the opposition party, as Nixon also did, or by authorizing operations to break into a psychiatrist’s office to obtain patient files … then of course we would do so. (And it wouldn’t just be theater; the chances are, there would be a conviction.)

But the president was just trying to keep from admitting an embarrassing sex thing between himself and a consenting adult.

That really is different.

If the president were robbing us blind, we might put ourselves through this. (Nixon wasn’t robbing us blind, but he did commit serious income tax fraud — a terrible example to set to the American people. Yet neither the Democrats nor the Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee at the time felt that this rose to the level of Treason, Bribery, or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors. It was deemed a personal infraction.)

The president was not robbing us blind. No, the Whitewater prosecutor (who reported no presidential wrongdoing with Whitewater) found only that the president gave in to sexual temptation with a consenting adult and then did all he could to keep it from coming out.

The world should not be paralyzed over this. We shareholders do not deserve to see our portfolios plummet if the market loses confidence during an impeachment trial. People at the bottom of the economic ladder do not deserve to have their jobs jeopardized over this if a gloomy mood leads to recession here, or to prolonged agony in the already depressed economies overseas. We need our government’s attention focused on the real problems. Censure and move on.

I’m not predicting apocalypse if there were an impeachment trial. But don’t underestimate the possible impact, the power of psychology in markets and economics.

Remember when the world was in crisis just a few weeks ago and — bang — the crisis passed when the Fed lowered interest rates a quarter of a point between regularly scheduled meetings? Overnight, an amazing change in world confidence. It wasn’t the quarter point that mattered, it was the psychology of the thing. Psychology and confidence and moods matter in markets. I don’t know for sure what the impact would be of our being mired in months more of this mess, but I do know it couldn’t possibly be a plus. And that it could possibly be a big minus.

So why do this to ourselves? Are we that certain this is what Thomas Jefferson and the others had in mind when they wrote of Treason, Bribery and other High Crimes and Misdemeanors? If we’re not certain (and many of us, of course, are certain this in fact is not the case), then let’s give ourselves a break. Censure — for only the second time in the nation’s history! — and move on.

And that’s all I have to say.

(Except that through the miracle of hyperlinks, for those who do want to split a few hairs — irrelevant to the larger points made above — click here.)












The president and Monica knew their behavior was wrong, just as, presumably, a married 42-year-old Henry Hyde and the married woman he had a five-year affair with knew it was wrong and Thomas Jefferson and the slave with whom he had a long affair and a child knew it was wrong.

And so, like many in this situation, they tried to keep it secret. There’s more one could say about how inappropriate this was — an intern? the Oval Office? But he really didn’t have much option to go to a Motel 6. And this was hardly an unwilling child reluctantly seduced.

So the president gambled that he and Monica could get away with keeping their secret, thus sparing themselves and their families and his office and the nation the embarrassment. He lost.

Did he lie in the Paula Jones testimony? Well, the part about not recalling having been alone with Monica seems by any stretch to have been a lie. This is a guy who remembers everything. I think he remembered that. But on top of feeling an incredible invasion of his privacy (this never happened to Kennedy!), I wouldn’t be surprised if the president didn’t also feel this: He really did try to restrain himself. He really didn’t “go all the way,” as we used to say in high school. He really didn’t have a full-fledged affair of the type Henry Hyde or Thomas Jefferson had. And so (one can imagine his feeling, as he agonizes over this) doesn’t he get any credit for that? He obviously resisted some temptation, just not enough. And the first definition of “sexual relations” in my dictionary is “sexual intercourse.” (The problem is that, at least in my dictionary, the alternate is: “any sexual activity between individuals.”) To the two of them, what they were doing — stopping so far short of “the act,” so far short of ski-chalet weekend trysts — was, technically, not the real deal.

Of course, it’s just this kind of legal bobbing and weaving that got him in so much trouble, so I’m not making the case that backed into a corner by his political enemies, he didn’t screw up. He truly did. He agrees. He should be censured, maybe fined. We should move on.



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