TOPICS > Politics

Opposing Views

December 15, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: And with me now we have: Deborah Tannen, Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University. She’s best known as the author of “You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation.” Her latest book is “The Argument Culture.” And Shelby Steele, senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution. His 1990 book – “The Content of our Character” – won the National Book Critics Circle Award. His latest book is “A Dream Deferred: The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America.”

MARGARET WARNER: Deborah Tannen, does a president – do you think a president accused of what this president is accused of deserves to be impeached?

DEBORAH TANNEN, Linguist/Author: Personally, I don’t, but I believe the question for us is: How did we get to this point to hear all of this discussion about did he or didn’t he and the details – the kinds of details we’ve been hearing on the air? It is to me astonishingly blinkered, as if we have forgotten everything that led up to it. To me, the issue is what I call the argument culture. This is the culmination of a relentless, ceaseless attack and it’s a combination of fascinating and troubling tragic combination of political opponents using legal proceedings and pumped up by the press, all of these three institutions coming together and all of them coming out of a culture where attack is valued far more than any kind of compromise or seeking solutions. So to me this is the point. The argument culture has brought us to this. How do we feel about that?

MARGARET WARNER: Shelby Steele, how do you feel about that? Do you think that’s what this current situation we find ourselves in this week represents?

SHELBY STEELE, Author: I think some of that probably makes a good deal of sense. I think, on the other hand, the behavior of the president tripped all of these institutions that Ms. Tannen is talking about, the law, the press, the constitutional process of impeachment. And once those institutions are tripped and brought into the situation, then they have to become preoccupied with their own integrity. And that – that relies almost entirely on being impersonal in the way that they march forward through all of these rather tawdry details. But I think these institutions are appointing themselves very well for the most part, and I agree that we probably never had this degree of explicitness in our public conversation before, but I think the other side of that is that we see our institutions can bear it, and that that’s a healthy sign for American society.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think it’s healthy?

DEBORAH TANNEN: I don’t think it’s healthy, and I actually don’t think that the president’s behavior really tripped it. This is not like Watergate where guards happened to find evidence of a break-in. This was behavior that was – would not have been – it’s the kind of private behavior that people have been engaging in and we may discuss forever whether we approve of this kind of behavior, but it has gone on for a very long time. But it has not – it has not come to the fore in this way just by chance. It came to the fore because of – and I could go through the series of events that has – that has brought it to the fore. But I think we should talk really about the more – the really more important issue, I think, for the country.

MARGARET WARNER: You wanted to jump in here. You said it wasn’t behavior.

SHELBY STEELE: I wanted to jump in and just make the point that I think all of these institutions became involved at the moment when there was perjury in the Paula Jones deposition, where an actual law was very likely broken, and so I would agree that under normal circumstances no one wants to go through the sexual details and the private affairs of other people. But once the law is tripped, what we were in a – Clinton put himself in a contest with the law. So we either have to sort of betray the law in order to save him, or we have to – you know, go the other way and be very rigid about applying the law. But the law has to – it now has to win. It has to be – it has to make its point, and it has to be applied impersonally.

MARGARET WARNER: Is the significance – the law as opposed to private morality –

DEBORAH TANNEN: I don’t believe it is. You know, in the argument culture I talk about how hostility, aggression, and attack has become ratcheted up in all three of our great institutions. And what we saw in this Paula Jones deposition is what we see in many other fields of the law, and I write about it -even though I wrote the book way before any of this happened – where lawyers will use this discovery process. They have the right to depose potential witnesses. They will use this process to damage their opponent, the other side, and ask questions that are really not relevant to the case. It really goes beyond the fact-finding purpose of discovery. And they do it because – and there are a lot of different reasons. But I think what we saw in this case was an attempt to embarrass and damage the opponent, not in this case Clinton, who was not the apparent opponent.

SHELBY STEELE: Isn’t that fair play?

DEBORAH TANNEN: But I really would love for us to get the –

MARGARET WARNER: Let me go back –

SHELBY STEELE: Isn’t that fair play, though, before we – isn’t that the way the law is supposed to work? I mean, it is embarrassing. We are all embarrassed by it. But don’t lawyers have the right to do precisely that? If you say you didn’t have sex with that girl or that woman and they have evidence and they use discovery to find out that you did, and isn’t that fair?

DEBORAH TANNEN: You’re making up that point, but, no, I don’t think it’s fair. They’re within their rights. They can use discovery any way they want. But it’s not fair because in that case a consensual sexual relationship was really not relevant to sexual harassment –

SHELBY STEELE: He lied about it.

DEBORAH TANNEN: — which is about –

SHELBY STEELE: What about the lie?

DEBORAH TANNEN: But the case was about a case in which someone was claiming that there was a sexual advance made within the workplace. But, again, these issues that we’re talking about –

SHELBY STEELE: But you’ve got a president here who in lying in that deposition denied Paula Jones her right to a fair trial.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me jump in here with both of you and take it in a different direction, and, Mr. Steele, go to something that you’ve written about. The Reverend Philip Rogeman, who is the president’s pastor, today spoke at the National Press Club, and he made a number of points, but one of them was he said he didn’t feel that a man’s – and he called them private sins – he felt that should be outweighed for us as a society by the fact that he said this man had been in his public life – I think he said-morally sensitive and committed, and you’ve written about this, about between the public and private virtue, but do you think he has a point? Is there – we as a society looking at this situation, is there a balance here, balancing that should take place?

SHELBY STEELE: I think he has absolutely a point. I think – you know – we keep missing this. Nobody wants to pry into somebody – who I know – wants to pry into somebody else’s sexual life and I – it’s not something that we need to be involved in. But when you lie before – in a deposition – or you commit perjury before a grand jury – now you have violated the law – and we keep coming back to this, and it seems to me – I mean, I agree that, you know, it’s ugly and embarrassing and tawdry. But when you break the law, you break the law. And there has to be – the law has to have its day in court. It has to – the integrity of the law has to be reinforced.

MARGARET WARNER: And you’re saying that in this situation – at this point it’s no longer just about private virtue or lack of it.

SHELBY STEELE: No. The breaking of the law made it a public domain issue that we all then have to become involved in, in order to preserve the institution of the law, which I think is now what is important. What – people are now saying we want Clinton to admit that he committed perjury. What people are saying is that we want people to come under the law.

DEBORAH TANNEN: I really could not disagree more. The law is not going to come out strengthened by what’s going on now. People know in their private lives there are different degrees of lying. To say every lie is equal goes against people’s everyday experience and their sense of morality. So, if the law is insisting that any lie is equal to any other lie, that people lose –

SHELBY STEELE: — the deposition or a grand jury –

DEBORAH TANNEN: Please let me finish.

MARGARET WARNER: Do let her finish.

DEBORAH TANNEN: They end up losing respect for the law, and this is really what is tragic about all of these events, that people – it is aggravating what to me is the most dangerous problem facing our country today, and that is cynicism, lack of belief in our great institutions of the law, of politics, and of the press.


DEBORAH TANNEN: And this is reinforcing people’s feeling. And as far as the actual – to simply the law we have heard from so many lawyers saying no, this is not perjury, because perjury must be material to the case, which that wasn’t.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. But let me get back to your original –

DEBORAH TANNEN: It doesn’t even stand on that point.

MARGARET WARNER: — point with Mr. Steele. Does Ms. Tannen have a point here, that people in the everyday lives do make distinctions among types of lies and, therefore, that might help explain why, for instance, the public still doesn’t seem to support impeachment?

SHELBY STEELE: That’s right. And, again, I think this is why it is very healthy for our democracy to go through this kind of thing, because I think people in the next few days are going to understand that if Bill Clinton comes up to me as a friend and tells me a lie about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, I’m certainly going to look the other way. But when he tells exactly the same lie in a legal deposition or before a grand jury, and, thereby, corrupts the legal process, that is an entirely different matter, and that’s what we’re stuck with, and he has, in a sense, given his enemies the law to sort of hide behind, and so we keep coming back to this point – what would Ms. Tannen have us do – throw out the law at this point?

DEBORAH TANNEN: We have heard – we have heard from lawyers on both sides – and many prominent Republican lawyers – that this – that we have not even seen perjury because in perjury the lie must be material to the case. And the entire deposition – the entire Paula Jones case was thrown out of court. To say that it is not damaging to the democracy is very troubling to me. I see it as highly –

MARGARET WARNER: I’m sorry. Mr. Steele, let me just let her finish.

DEBORAH TANNEN: I see it as highly damaging to our country and to our democracy. To grant the country through an impeachment and not only the country but the world, the – one of the – the most powerful government in the world – being destabilized over something like this, to which it is shocking to me that we now accept as normal, seeing our president out in the world representing us to the world with heads of state of the leading countries of the world being pelted with questions about his sex life. This is not healthy to the democracy.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Steele, go ahead.

SHELBY STEELE: Well, I think, you know, you may be right. But don’t we need the impeachment process to go through and have this matter adjudicated so we can decide whether or not these violations of the law really do meet the bar of impeachment and make him so he has to leave office. I mean, these processes are in place and I think they’re very healthy; they show us to be an extremely open society that we can – we have the institutions in which to address issues this embarrassing and this tawdry and to survive. That’s a great democracy. What would – what would you put in its place – a repressive society, so that we would say that we would short-circuit all these processes just to avoid the embarrassment?

MARGARET WARNER: I’m going to have to leave that question on the table. Mr. Steele, and Ms. Tannen, thank you both very much.