The Hollow Proceedings; concerning the Current Political Hearings, There Is No Moral or Ethical 'There' There

By Greenfield, Meg | Newsweek, October 6, 1997 | Go to article overview

The Hollow Proceedings; concerning the Current Political Hearings, There Is No Moral or Ethical 'There' There


Greenfield, Meg, Newsweek


Concerning the current political hearings, there is no moral or ethical 'there' there

YOU LOOK AROUND AT THE INCOHERENT AND UTTERLY unsatisfactory picture of scandal-ridden Washington at the moment, and you realize that we may finally have reaped the reward for what we have done worst over the years in our prosecutorial, reformist mood: everything is illegal; but nothing is wrong.

In fact, there is no wrong. To great numbers of people the very concept appears to sound antiquated, simplistic, even repressive. There is only being indictable or subject to fines or penalties under law, raps you can beat as distinct from the kind with moral force that you cannot beat no matter what the jury says about the relevance of some obscure section of the law or Congress's probable legislative intent in 1883. This is a monumental distinction. It is what has rendered, and will continue to render, all our costly, embarrassing, politically tainted hearings and inquiries the ludicrous floor shows they are. All sides will be able to claim harassment, vindication and acquittal of some sort, based on some protracted legalish-looking hassle, and then go right back to their fancy barbers and book and TV agents. Order will have been restored.

The silence from all of our leaders on this subject--the moral rights and wrongs of what has been going on--has been total and chilling. They seem able only to whine that they wish they hadn't had to do it, but they did because of the system or their naughty partisan siblings dr something and, gosh, they certainly didn't mean to break the law. Bight? Wrong? What's that?

We are copycats in this city, only pretty unimaginative ones, since we keep copying ourselves. And surely the descent into irrelevant criminal proceedings to address every political and ethical breach in contemporary limes follows slavishly from the Nixon Watergate proceedings. They quickly became the model to which all other inquiry into official wrongdoing, or even judgment on it, was made to conform. Special prosecutors or independent counsel proliferated like mushrooms. Failure to name one became in itself an issue of cover-up or weak will. This was a real change. For until that time, a president or other public figure was not implicitly judged clean, never mind virtuous, by reason of not having committed an indictable offense. It was assumed he had not; that was the starting point, not the justification and/or pride of his conduct in office. Now it took a crime. The implicit corollary was that absent a prosecutable crime, the guy had a clean bill of health, ethically speaking.

A lot of people over the years, especially those who were investigated in this manner and incurred large legal expenses, have rightly complained of the attempt to criminalize unpopular political behavior or lapses in ethical judgment that fell far short of misdemeanors and felonies. I wish I had been more sympathetic to some of their complaints. It is kind of shocking when you go back over the episodes we turned into court-ish things down through the decades. It took me aback the other day to read in a letter to the editor a rehash of a legal case over the heist of the Carter debate guidebook.

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The Hollow Proceedings; concerning the Current Political Hearings, There Is No Moral or Ethical 'There' There
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