Public Nuisances

Posted: Apr 18, 2002 12:00 AM
One of the great fascinations for me in observing national events is to witness how today's Conventional Wisdom on a particular matter is totally forgotten tomorrow. Put another way, what was the Conventional Wisdom of yesterday is an antique, totally forgotten today. Thus when Washington's political giants and journalistic celebs, make their ex cathedra statements of what "everyone knows," you can be sure that in a matter of months "no one will remember" or even give a damn. Consider two Conventional Wisdoms from the recent past that "everyone" knew but then forgot. In 1974 and 1975, said Official Washington, "everyone knows" that former President Richard Nixon's great mistake during the recent Watergate unpleasantness was "to lie to the American people." Readers with a sense of history will remember the variation on this Conventional Wisdom: "The lie was worse than the cover-up." Another variation was "the president does not lie to the American people." Are you getting my drift? So consider another Conventional Wisdom of the recent past that has somehow slipped from mind today. In the early 1960s, when "the best and the brightest" were at work with John and Bobby in the White House, journalists, academics and prominent Washington politicians spoke solemnly of "the awesome power of the presidency." The "awesome power of the presidency" weighed upon one man, the lonely figure seated in the oval office. It enhaloed him. It set him apart. Equally important, the "power of the presidency" suffused American society, affecting tastes (no more hats on men) and knocking over opposition (the steel executives). "The awesome power of the presidency" could do much good, but it could -- in the hands of the wrong person -- pose a threat to American liberties. Well, whatever happened to those two radiant truths of Conventional Wisdom? What happened to "a president does not lie to the American people" when Bill Clinton was president and Monica Lewinsky had her coming-out party? What happened to Washington's apprehensions about "the awesome power of the presidency" when the most fun-loving president in American history was smearing prosecutors, harassing them with frivolous legal claims and charges of misconduct? To this day, the only authoritative voice in Washington to speak out against Clinton's abuse of "the awesome power of the presidency" has been that of Independent Counsel Robert Ray. In his final report, he illumined "the awesome power" of the Clinton presidency, citing "delays by the White House and others, involving both the failure to produce relevant evidence, the refusal of witnesses to testify and the filing of meritless legal claims that ultimately were rejected by the courts." Aides to the Hon. James A. Traficant Jr., Democrat of Ohio, might have cautioned him not to adopt the defense tactics of former President Clinton. A president can blame the press, make a burlesque of the legal system, smear prosecutors and lie to a judge. But a lowly congressman (who, by the way, is obviously guilty as charged) had better not try such coarse defense tactics. For that matter, aides to the Hon. Gary Condit should have cautioned him not to adopt tactics from his role model's game plan. Denying all charges and simply refusing to talk about rumored sexual dalliances saved a president, but they would not save a mere congressman. The reason that Traficant and Condit are goners is that A) they are creeps and B) there obviously is something to that forgotten Conventional Wisdom about "The awesome power of the president." A president can intimidate. He can deauthorize legitimate agencies of the government. He can wriggle and squirm in the most unseemly ways to maintain office. What is more, he can, at least temporarily, affect the tastes of the nation. Clinton did not affect American tastes as widely as John Kennedy did, but then Clinton was an obvious slob and Kennedy was a gentleman. Clinton did encourage every ethically shaky politician in the country that higher office was within his grasp -- say, becoming junior senator for New York. What remains to be answered is whether there was ever any validity to the other aforementioned Conventional Wisdom, namely "a president does not lie to the American people." Clinton lied to everyone. He was even caught instructing others to lie. My guess is that a certain kind of president can lie to the American people and survive. That is because our first Conventional Wisdom, "the awesome power of the presidency," overwhelms our second, "one does not lie." What is this "certain kind of president" who can lie and survive? It is the gifted demagogue who, if he does not please the mob, at least pleases Washington's elites. Clinton lied to everyone, but Washington's elites had a weakness for him.