There is one redeeming feature of the Clinton sex scandal: the American public is steadfast in its reluctance to think like lawyersby Jonathan Rauch / November 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
Having promised to make his government “look like America,” President Clinton promptly produced a cabinet whose 18 members included 14 lawyers. Our president, vice-president and first lady are lawyers; lawyers make up 40 per cent of Congress; and Washington’s elite is dominated by lawyers. If you wonder who Clinton thinks he is kidding when he insists that receiving oral sex is not sex, think about that first cabinet of his. In lawyer-land, Clinton is doing the smart thing.
Ritual disclaimer: some of my best friends are lawyers. Lawyers do many good things. Well, they do some good things. But, inspecting the wreckage made by Clinton’s mendacious legalisms and Kenneth Starr’s obsessive legalism and Congress’s unbalanced laws (independent counsel laws and sexual harassment laws), it is hard not to feel that lawyers might be part of the problem. Clinton has disgraced himself, Starr has discredited his office, and the law has behaved rashly and boorishly from the day the Supreme Court allowed Paula Jones to proceed with her sexual harassment suit.
But there is one revelation worth celebrating. From this scandal we have learned a lot about how lawyers think, which is the bad news. The good news is that we have also learned that the American public does not think like lawyers. Lawyerthink is not peoplethink.
Lawyers say: Lying under oath to impede the law is a felony, therefore it cannot be tolerated.
To which the public replies: It depends on what you lie about. Perjury is bad, yes, but perjury about consensual sex is not the same as perjury about criminal or harmful behaviour. It should not be condoned, but often it should be ignored. Covering up an affair is a universal impulse, and if the lie turns out to be basically harmless, then the proper response is disapproval, not prosecution.
But letting Clinton lie with impunity invites everybody else to engage in the same evasive mendacious conduct. This is “impunity?” Clinton has been flogged through the streets and speared by every newspaper in the country. His sexual habits are public knowledge, his lies are exposed, his reputation ruined. Disgrace, ridicule, humiliation-these things are punishments. Enough.
Besides, a nation that views its citizens as conniving law-breakers is a legal despotism. If you really believe that defending the law means punishing arrant flouters, then you had better go and arrest the few million open homosexuals who violate the laws…