October 7, 1998
Part III in a series of conversations on the issues raised by the investigation on President Clinton. Elizabeth Farnsworth is joined by William F. Buckley.
JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, another of our conversations about issues raised by the conduct and the investigation of President Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky matter. Last week, we spoke with Law Professor Stephen Carter and sociologist Orlando Patterson. Elizabeth Farnsworth has tonight's conversation.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And joining me now is William F. Buckley, editor-at-large of National Review. Welcome, Mr. Buckley.
WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY, Editor-at-Large, National Review: Thank you. Nice to be here.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You were quoted in the New York Times last month saying of the president his lapse wasn't an aberration; it was a systematic deliberated violation during 18 months of elementary codes of professional and personal honor. Expand on that for us, please.
WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY: Well, I think it's plain that the fact that he did what he is alleged to have done is on the record. I was delighted to hear Congressman Gene Taylor just a few moments ago saying there oughtn't be any doubt about this. In fact, he did it. He has confessed to doing it. To the extent that he pleaded in some kind of an out, it was really a technicality, which has brought a lot of discredit, I think, to him personally. I think that the whole country needs to ask itself whether we are engaged now in a bout of epistemological nihilism, i.e., you can't learn anything. There are, as you know, people who go around the country saying that the Holocaust isn't actually proved, and so we now sort of tell 'em to go away, not bother us with that kind of misstatement. But there are people going around saying that Mr. Clinton didn't engage in acts which manifestly he engaged in. So the question is: To what extent is a gravity involved in what he did and to what extent do we simply rely on a mechanical congressional process to take it to the other end of the question of impeachment.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: To what extent do you think there's gravity involved in what he did?
WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY: Well, the whole nation is convulsed on the question. Much of Europe says that they can't - they can't follow lines of argument without wondering whether or not the president's policy might in some way be affected in terms of his domestic considerations. People compare it to offenses of other people. But we have to be guided here by the reality, which is the bigger they come, the harder they fall. And the consequences have to be attuned to the notion of having disgraced his office. Mr. Clinton has disgraced his office. He has brought dishonor and shame to it. And the way to cope with that problem is to turn a new leaf, which the impeachment process permits us. If something of equal gravity had happened in other countries of the world, it certainly would have been from his resignation in Great Britain. In some countries, as in Japan, there would have been a suicide. We don't engage in that culture, but it is important, I think, for us to recognize that if we fail to deal with a sense of a moral equilibrium with a charge of this kind. We are, in effect, saying that we don't take gravely an offense of that dimension. That would be pretty unhealthy, I think.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How do you answer the criticism made by people who say, well, in France or in Britain this wouldn't be? I know you said in Britain the prime minister might have had to resign, but you once told a story I think in a speech last spring about Allen Clark, a British politician. Tell us that story and tell why it's so different from here.
WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY: I think a lot depends on the context. It is true that the kings of France had mistresses and their children were named counts. And it is true that a certain residue of that lingers, but that is not a part of the American tradition to the extent that people say, well, Mr. Kennedy engaged in that kind of thing and so did LBJ.
What became critical there was their judgment in keeping whatever it was they did out of the public forum. But it was done here by Mr. Clinton in a sense that requires us to pass our own opinion on his judgment. You can't say about Mr. Clinton that he suffered simply from a case of prior - he couldn't say no. He had 27 visits, and 17 of those he managed to get through without doing it. So the fact that he could exercise a judgment seems to be to undermine any potential defense. What are they going to come up with in defending what he did? And the notion that he hasn't had a chance to speak for himself is really laughable. He has a whole engine of people speaking for him. The front part of the New Yorker, this magazine, was a screed on the pro-Clinton side. Mr. Doctoro - William Styron - talking about the archetypal zealots like Kenneth Starr want to dismantle the presidency. That point of view has been I think to the extent that it can be. If there are any facts hidden there, we should certainly be acquainted with them and invite Mr. Clinton to come up with them. Did Monica have a secret perfume, an aphrodisiac effect that simply immobilized him? You get really to the sort of O.J. Simpson defense type of extremity when you try to fashion a case that simply erases the tons and tons of testimony we've heard.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I was struck by something else you said in the New York Times. You said the reclaiming of the presidency by Mr. Clinton could be viewed only as the triumph of formalism and of the non-judgmental ethos of the 60's generation. Do you blame the 60's generation for this?
WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY: Yes, I do, because I think that if we have just gone through in the last six months had -- so much has been suggested ten, fifteen, twenty years ago - he would have been simply out of office. He would have resigned. He said tonight that it was up to the American people. It is in a sense that, but it's also up to him. He says it's up to people to decide his future. I think he - having done what he did - should have the dignity to resign - even Guy Wills writing in the New York Times made the same point, how sympathetic he is to Clinton. The fact of the matter is that the gravity of the situation is something we can't walk away from. This is what people talk about. I was in Havana when the Pope was there in January. Three quarters of the press left Havana when the Lewinsky business came out -- such importance they attached to it. And this was before there was a record of what Mr. Clinton did by way of obstructing justice, failing to cooperate and perjuring himself. So to attempt to - to attempt to view the situation was trivial runs into an interesting episode.
Years ago Professor Jode - leaving his lecture at Oxford - went to take the train to go back to London, but it wasn't there. So he waited, and all of a sudden the next train, which was the express train, unaccountably stopped. So he opened the door, went in, sat down, the train took off. A few minutes later, the conductor approached him and said, sir, this train doesn't stop here. He said, I know, and I'm not in it. That paradox wonderfully catches the situation of people saying this is just a trivial offense, this is just a gawky and fumbling sexual dalliance, to quote Mr. Styron. Well, if so, what are you and I doing here, giving it that kind of attention? It is a major moral and constitutional dislocation, and has to be treated as such.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And that is the metaphor that you would use to explain it?
WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY: Yes, it is.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Finally, you said also in a column in the New York Post "We have ahead of us not so much an inquiry into the facts of the matter, but what does a congress do when a president behaves as this one has behaved? We haven't much time, but what's your answer to that?
WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY: The answer is we ought to rely on the fact that there is a vice president with credentials. The laws of succession ordain what he does when somebody else is disqualified. We should think of ourselves as resilient and strong enough to go ahead and avail ourselves of the constitutional alternative.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Buckley, thank you very much for being with us.
WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY: Thank you.
JIM LEHRER: In coming days we'll hear from linguistics professor and author Deborah Tannen and writer Calvin Trillin, among others.