In the classic courtroom dramas from which most Americans learn their law, there inevitably comes a final scene in which the hero attorney gets the bad guy on the stand and nails him cold. The villain is powerful and cunning, his alibi apparently airtight. But in the end, he, too, must obey the script's rigid moral logic. So under withering cross-examination about a surprise piece of evidence -- Mr. Malefactor, do you recognize this stained blue dress from the Gap? -- the scoundrel gratifies us emotionally by dissolving into blubber and confessing completely.
Real life does not work this way, of course. Real life is duller and more difficult. And that corner of real life occupied by our current president is completely devoid of pleasing, gotcha catharsis. He is guilty as sin. Anybody who's taken the time to dope it all out knows that full well. But Bill Clinton resolutely refuses to acknowledge that he knows he's guilty. And so the rest of the country appears befuddled, passively awaiting the cue -- from him, just like it happens on TV -- that it's okay to impeach him for violating his constitutional oath of office.
There will never be such a cue. There was no Perry Mason moment in Clinton's videotaped grand-jury testimony, an unsurprising fact that the White House, playing to the naivete of its national audience, claims should work in the president's favor. There will never be such a Perry Mason moment. There will probably not, for that matter, be any further devastating disclosure that finally seals Bill Clinton's fate. In every essential respect, what we are going to know, we know already.
It is enough. It should be enough.
The adult truth of the matter runs like this. Citizens of the United States elect representatives to Congress. Congress writes our laws. Violations of those laws are prosecuted and adjudicated in federal courts. Perjury in a federal court is a particularly serious crime, because it undermines American justice's basis in truth and threatens to turn the law into something arbitrary and ineffective.
And perjury in a federal court, committed by the president, is a catastrophe. It is the president's executive branch that enforces federal law. If the law is bent for him, it cannot fairly or legitimately be applied to anyone. Nor can be discourse of democratic politics, which sustains the law, be kept alive if the president is universally understood to be a liar. He, more than anyone else, must be believed.
Bill Clinton cannot be believed. It is not so much that such a man must be punished for his misdeed. It is rather that such a man cannot be president. The presidency must be kept clean of perjury. Clinton must be expelled from the Oval Office.
In the less developed political cultures of Europe and parts still farther east, they do not get the high philosophy and glory of American rules. They are amazed, in fact, that we would be the least bit upset over a president who twists the agencies of our government to conceal a crime of dishonesty. Our attention to the whole Lewinsky thing makes him want to "vomit," says Helmut Kohl of Germany, where the tradition of mute obedience to leadership apparently still runs deep. Kohl and his peers on the world stage openly mock us for our stubborn insistence on impartial and rigorous law and order, parading their ignorance of republican principle -- and calling it sophistication.
And our president, who would in any other circumstance be expected -- and obliged -- to rebuke such an assault on our national honor? No. The president, President Clinton, welcomes the insult as a convenient prop for his self-absorbed political defense. See him basking in supportive, implicitly anti-American applause at the United Nations. He actually dared smile about it. Disgraceful.
Yes, we know, majority public opinion does not yet endorse resignation or impeachment for this most shameless and cynical of history's presidents. These are fat and happy years -- rich and secure, at least on the surface. So Clinton's "job approval" numbers remain quite high.
Even so, most Americans reject him both as a man and an exemplar. In one recent poll, less than 30 percent say he shares their values. The survey data make it clear that, while the country might not now actively favor ending Clinton's presidency, neither would it miss him much if he were to go -- or rebel against members of Congress who did their duty and sent him away.
In any case, partisan considerations and attendant worries should count as nothing in the awesome decision to impeach a president. Some things are more important than winning. Bill Clinton doesn't think so. But our mothers taught us better. And we, as a people, will come to remember that elementary lesson only when more of our leaders, the men and women in positions of political responsibility, give it fresh voice -- and apply it to the task before them.
Kenneth Starr cannot do this; his work is largely done. Nor can Congress do the necessary job simply by devoting itself to the silent, mechanical process of reviewing and redacting Starr's boxloads of documents. American minds are not yet where they need to be on the question of William Jefferson Clinton. But they can be persuaded. Impeach him, explain it, and they will come.