What are we going to do about Bill Clinton? The assumption was, that after January 20 he would slip off into the wings while the Washington press corp got busy manufacturing new things to fill the front pages of our newspapers. No, he’s still there, like a candy-wrapper stuck to the national shoe. We have a whole new raft of scandals — pardons, New York real estate, unreported gifts, looting the White House, Air Force One — all in the shop getting the suffix “–gate” bolted on to their back ends. (I await the first appearance in print of “Hasidicvillagegate.”) And with the loosening of tongues that is inevitable when an administration departs, or just from the passing of time, we shall undoubtedly learn more about old scandals, too.
On the answer to that opening question, two schools of thought have emerged, which can be conveniently tagged with the names of their chief proponents. The O’Reilly school — being vigorously promoted by the indispensable Mr Bill O’Reilly of Fox News Channel — argues that there has been a catastrophic breakdown of morality, responsibility and accountability at the highest levels of our government. Unless all the wrongdoing of the past few years is properly uncovered and punished (says this school of thought), the prospects for honest government in the United States will be poor. O’Reilly wants Congress and the Department of Justice to get on the case and clean out the Augean stables.
The Bush school takes a very different line. The country has business to do, it says, so let’s get on with it. To be endlessly investigating the Clintons and their capos will drain energy from the administration, which needs all the energy it has to push any kind of legislative program through a Congress with thin-to-none Republican majorities. Besides, it’s not popular. People are fed up with it all. Even a lot of citizens who understand what harm the Clintons did are saying: Enough, let them get away with their loot, let’s repair the damage and move on.
O’Reilly addict that I am, I have to go with the President on this one, though with some big qualifications.
First, I’d argue that the appalling corruption of this past eight years was, in a way, waiting to happen. Talking with a colleague the other day about what adjustments might be made to, for example, the pardon rules, so that Clinton-type abuse could not happen again, he said: “Why bother? The man is gone, and the problem is gone with him. There’s no point legislating for this kind of thing. It was a one-off.”
I don’t think this is right. If you leave a lot of food lying around on your kitchen floor, you’ll get a lot of roaches. Similarly, when the federal government is swilling in money to the degree it is now, it is to be expected that it will attract swarms of lawyers, lobbyists, dealers, operators and crooks. It is even inevitable, I believe, that it will attract a Clinton sooner or later — a Super Roach, a gifted political operator who knows how to game the system for the enrichment of himself and his friends. As I said, it was waiting to happen.
(Clinton has announced that the target for his “Clinton Library” project is $200 million. While there are some modest restraining rules here and there, this is essentially a personal ATM for Clinton. And it is only one of his fund-raising projects. It is probable that within a few years, Bill Clinton will have become the Republic’s first “public service” billionaire — the first American to hit the big ten digits from public sector employment. Ceaucescu, Mobutu, Marcos, eat your hearts out.)
The core problem is public money, which of course means money taken from you and me by the government — that, and the size and complexity of the federal government, which offers so many opportunities for the operators. These are both really the same problem: we are grossly, monstrously over-taxed and over-governed. The reason there are so many alligators in Washington D.C. (if you’ll excuse a temporary switch of metaphors) is that the place is a swamp. The reason it’s a swamp is that tax money — your money, my money — has been sluicing into it in ever-growing quantities this past thirty years. A one-time clean-up won’t fix the problem, so long as the sluice gates are still open.
The O’Reilly solution, therefore, though very satisfying if it could be pushed through, would just be sweeping water uphill. Other Clintons will come scurrying along, like roaches to spilled soup (I’m back with my original metaphor — you need to be well buckled in for my pieces), as long as all that money is there to feed on. The slow slide will continue, away from the old original public ideals of modesty, frugality and virtue, towards some new political order, some hideous bastard meld of all the worst of the world’s political traditions: South American gangster-politics, “Big Man” African kleptocracy, and suffocating oriental scholar-bureaucracy. We shall have the hope of honest government only when — if — the American public awakens from the illusion that a little graft in the capital is a fair price to pay for all the wonderful things government provides.
In honor of “Presidents’ Day,” I spent the weekend reading David McCullough’s Truman, which had been hovering on my reading list for much too long. Listen:
It was the common belief in America, Truman wrote, that anyone could become President, and then, when the time was up, go back to being ‘just anybody again’ … [On leaving office] Truman had neither wealth to sustain him nor any particular prospects at the moment, no plans for future employment. His only intention, as he said, was to do nothing — accept no position, lend his name to no organization or transaction — that would exploit or “commercialize” the prestige and dignity of the office of the President.
How far we have come in 48 years!
So are the bandits to just be allowed to walk away with their spoils? No, I don’t want that. I’d very much like to see Bill Clinton, for example, in orange fatigues doing weed-whacker duty along some Arkansas state highway. I just don’t see how we can expect our government to put him there. Congress? Forget it. The operators, the bureaucracy, the lobbyists have them totally buffaloed. It’s not that they are in on the rackets (though I’m sure some of them are). It’s just that they can’t cope. The machinery of our legislature was not designed to deal with corruption on the scale we have recently seen, and, if I am right, shall soon see again.
I raised the very worthy issue of term limits on this site a few days ago. Now, one of the arguments always made against term limits is that they would shift power from the elected representatives, who would not have time to master the system, to the bureaucracy, who make their living in it. To which I say: this has already happened. That’s what I mean by “they can’t cope.” They can, of course, just go along for the ride, for years and decades, and they do — often mastering the system and becoming operators themselves, and major obstacles to reform, in the process. My case for term limits is that one-term legislators would insist on smashing the power of the lobbyists and bureaucrats, knowing that they could get nothing at all done in their brief tenure otherwise.
However, though I don’t think any arm of the government is going to put Bill Clinton in among those roadside weeds, we ourselves can put him there. There are plenty of private initiatives to bring these felons to book. Last Friday I got a routine mailing from Judicial Watch, one of the best and most dogged of those private efforts. I’m sorry to say that I normally discard these things as junk mail. I have a family to support, and funds are tight. The little I can spare I give to my church, or to narrow causes I want to help, like the NRA. Thinking about what has been happening, though, I sent Judicial Watch a hundred bucks. I urge you to do the same, if you can. We depend too much on government to do everything, even to purge and reform itself. Well, guess what: it won’t. We’re going to have to do it ourselves.