My Dear Mr. President
By Mark Helprin
Wall Street Journal
My dear Mr. President:
Certainly it is now permissible to be as blunt with you as you were with the American people when you squared your jaw, pointed your finger and, in intimidating fashion as if you were our sergeant, headmaster, or jailer, commanded us to listen. Even had you not, by your own admission, lied thereafter, this was unforgivable. Presidents do not speak to Americans with such seething disrespect. And for you it wasn't the first time. In 1994, you accused the country of being unworthy of your wife, when you said, "If everybody in this country had a character half as strong as hers, we wouldn't have the problems we've got today."
It is she, after all, who stated to a (by necessity) wretched South American audience that "I'm grateful for the love of the people," and she who alleges vast right-wing conspiracies against you as well as general conspiracies against Arkansas, and she whose fingerprints were on the magically appearing billing records, and she who parlayed nothing into $100,000 allegedly by being attentive to the wisdom of this newspaper.
Be attentive, then, sir, to the following. You and she have an extraconstitutional bent: she in encouraging rather than discouraging the fools who believed that, by their vaporous wishing, they had created a co-presidency; and you in your predilection for vaulting over the strictures of the law by the manipulation of mass opinion. This has been and is the core of your defense, and every ounce of effort that you put into it is a strike against the constitutional precepts of a government of laws and a strike for the kind of government in which a strongman stays at the top by exploiting with great agility and false pretense the most electric and volatile currents of public sentiment. This is the stuff of dictators and bad kings, who pit against custom and procedure the rumbling siege engine of their own grievances and grandiosity.
Though you may believe that recent events mark the end of the beginning, they mark the beginning of the end. It does not take a Stonewall Jackson to see that your strategy is unsound. The reflexive lie cannot overcome stubborn scrutiny. Anyone can tell a lie or two and get away with it, and a president, because he is chief of a vast apparatus and has more assistants than Humpty Dumpty, can tell a hundred lies. Perhaps he can tell so many lies that he himself is no longer able to distinguish lies from truth. But he cannot tell an unending number of lies, a lie with every breath and thought. Not even a president can do that, not in a democracy with a free press.
The enemy against which you fight is the actuality of things and the way they fit together seamlessly to refute your version of events. The house against which you have staked your bets is the truth. Your approach has been to suppress, obfuscate, and obstruct the natural flow of this truth, but the natural flow of truth is a force of nature. You may spend all your energy in attempting to stanch it, but like water spilling over a levee once bravely tended it will attack from a hundred thousand places at once. You are not the first president to set yourself against this force of nature, but only the latest. And what great champions have you assigned to such a herculean task?
Trust me, even Sidney Blumenthal, Lanny Davis, and James Carville do not have the power to backtrack the natural tendencies of the universe. The only exception may be in Mr. Blumenthal's attempt to portray you as a kind of thinking man's Tawana Brawley, the victim of a rogue prosecutor, for you are indeed a kind of thinking man's Tawana Brawley in that, no matter how lurid the assertions, you are not the victim of a rogue prosecutor.
Your not-so-brilliant lawyers have interpreted the law as something miraculously brought into being long before your birth so it could be bent into a shield to protect you when you broke it. Their contortions and convolutions are unwittingly like the text of Swift or Lewis Carroll, and give the term lawyer a new meaning even more pregnant than the old. And then, of course, you are a lawyer, and an inventive one, responsible for notable legal doctrines such as "not guilty by reason of being Bill Clinton," "10,000 strikes and you're out," and "sexual relations are deemed to be sexual relations only when they result in the birth of an elephant."
When last week you struck at Osama bin Laden, the first impulse of your critics was to suspect an artificial diversion from your self-inflicted agony. Then, remembering that striking at terrorists is what they consistently recommend, they pulled back as if they had put their hands on a red-hot griddle. Sen. Arlen Specter, in particular, was very french-fried. They are politicians, whose freedom of expression is constricted by their ambition, so allow me.
Why have you stepped almost entirely out of character? For six years you assiduously avoided attacking terrorist bases, knowing no doubt that to do so would risk a protracted and painful war. During the Cold War you probably observed that a nation's involvement in such a struggle is mesmerizing and all-consuming. Now you say, "It's high time that those who traffic in terror learn they, too, are vulnerable," but why suddenly now?
For six years you shied away from this--despite the World Trade Center bombings, the CIA shootings, the Somalia massacre, Khobar Towers, etc.--and now, mirabile dictu, you have embraced it. Pray tell, what accounts for your change of heart? Pray tell, why did you do it as you did, sticking the stick into the hornets' nest just enough to stir them up but not enough to shock or discourage them into inaction? Had you mounted a real raid, taken out Mr. bin Laden and his entire apparatus, struck harder, more widely, and at supportive governments as well, committing troops, actually gutting infrastructure, your message would have been less like an effete slap with a soft glove. What options were presented to you by your military advisers? How many levels of more vigorous response did you reject?
In the language of war, Mr. President, you have sent an invitation. A war against terrorism would captivate the country and the world, and its timing would be coincident with your battle to remain in office. The essence of this decision deserves more than just a retraction from a french-fried senator.
Although in your campaign to retain your perquisites (long ago, you sold your politics for a mess of pottage) your strategies are ever-changing and ad hoc, they now rest on a single support, that your "inappropriate" relationship with Monica Lewinsky is both a minor and private matter, and that as this is the heart of the case against you, the case is insubstantial.
Just as liberals of a certain stripe find themselves, at cocktail parties, defending human sacrifice on the grounds of cultural relativism, your loyalists have been flummoxed (by you) into defending systematic perjury and obstruction of justice, because "the Paula Jones case was dismissed," or "it's just about sex." What all this comes down to is the blind, barbaric, totally unprincipled defense of one's own sort--my country right or wrong writ small. The sex dismissal tack is now common ground for your committed partisans, who know what they're doing, and the nation's morons, who don't. But the nation's morons will learn, and then they will be smarter than your supporters, or maybe they already are. What a spectacle: James Carville--he of the menacing fatwa, the charismatic love child of Danny DeVito and Mr. Clean--at the head of slow-witted legions who think that you have been disciplined enough to limit your malfeasance to sex.
Although your advisers already have hinted that they will sexually blackmail selected members of Congress (the 900 FBI files?) it's too late. For too long your defense has been that the charges against you are frivolous. What will you do, then, when the charges move beyond mere perjury, witness and evidence tampering, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice? What will you do when they expand to other instances of perjury, to fraud, conversion of government property, misuse of FBI files, influence peddling, illegal fund-raising, coverup and obstruction of justice, and, most importantly, the solicitation and reception of funds from agents of a foreign power in exchange for favorable consideration?
The heart of the matter, Mr. President, is your conduct in regard to China. It is not technically treason, for we are not at war with the Chinese, but it is an isotope of treason, a metaphor of treason, a semblance of treason, the spitting image of treason. For good reason your Justice Department suppresses the facts of this case more even than it suppresses the facts of the others. But what will you do if and when Congress awakens--as it must--merely to honor its most elementary obligations, and with the power entrusted to it by the Constitution breaks open the stiff shell of obstruction you and your surrogates have secreted?
What will you do when the data are made public, the hearings are held, the witnesses abandon the Fifth and come back from abroad? What will you do when your promise to the American people that nothing is amiss other than Miss Lewinsky is seen to be yet another lie? What will you do when the truth proves to have been indestructible? What will you do when you yourself begin to realize that you have betrayed your family, your party, and your country?
What will you do? I will tell you, sir, what you will do. You will resign.