By Ashley Doherty '71
But I don’t need a crib sheet to follow the strands of another legal spider web: Watergate. Completely engrossed in the breaking scandal, I devour the New York Times over breakfast. At lunchtime, I switch on the radio or search for a Washington Post. Riding the subway, I tear through the evening tabloids. When I get home, I call my mother to find out what happened during the day’s televised congressional hearings.
Flash forward to the winter of 1998-99: The House of Representatives votes to impeach President Clinton. The Senate will soon decide, for the first time in 113 years, whether to remove a President from office. Do the newspapers, television, and radio transfix me? Not this time.
Why not? Are the two scandals—a “third-rate burglary” and a third-rate sex scandal—so different? I don’t think so. But I do think I’m a different person now.
For starters, I’m twice as old: 49 now, versus 24 then. That’s old enough to be somewhat blasé about untruthful politicians and middle-aged philanderers. Having been through this once before, I’m less inclined to take an apocalyptic view. However the Clinton scandal turns out, this resilient republic seems unlikely to crumble. Either we’ll have an orderly transition to the Vice President, or we’ll have two more years of a lame duck President. Either way, we’ll cope.
This time, however, I find myself remembering Britain’s Profumo Affair. In that case, a married cabinet minister was forced from office. In part, that was because he had been carrying on with a call girl. But it was also because he was found to have lied to the members of his party and the cabinet. In other words, he had violated the “code of honor.” For that, in a scene right out of one of Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances, he had to be expelled from his “club.”
As my dictionary notes, the code of honor is a “code of chiefly male dignity, integrity, and pride”—in other words, a “guy thing.” (When Groucho Marx said, “I’m fighting for that woman’s honor, which is more than she’s ever done,” he didn’t mean that she’d cheated at cards.) So am I lackadaisical about the current proceedings because I’m not in the Congressional “almost-all-boys club”? That can’t be the only reason, or I wouldn’t have been absorbed in Watergate. But the main reasons for my change in attitude do seem to reflect the various “clubs” of which I now consider myself a member—or not.
For example: I’m one of the half-million U.S. citizens who don’t have a Congressman or a Senator because we live in the District of Columbia. There’s no one for me to write, telephone, or e-mail. D.C. residents are reduced to the position of children, or convicted felons: we can express neither our approval nor disapproval of whatever action that Congress eventually takes, because we can’t vote for or against anyone. Impeachment is a political event, and for this event we’re not part of the “polis.”
Nor am I a member of the “club” of married people. This time, that probably makes a difference. Those of us who aren’t married get accustomed to being stereotyped as pathetic, perverse or predatory—just like Monica Lewinsky. As an outsider to the institution of marriage, I’m somewhat less likely than an insider to be outraged by goings-on in the Oval Office—and not above a touch of Schadenfreude.
And there are other group memberships that push me towards apathy. As someone who came of age in the ’60s, I may be less uncomfortable than earlier (arguably less coarse and better-mannered) generations with public discussion of certain presidential proclivities. While my church takes a strong stand on sexual morality, that’s not its core doctrine—despite what “Sister Mary Ignatius” “explained” to many of us in the ‘50s. Although I’m not a member of the prosecutor’s “club,” I’m too familiar with the growth in prosecutorial power to be shocked by body wires, intimidating interrogation techniques, or grand juries that summon mothers. (After all, Ma Barker was someone’s mother.)
However, that’s only part of the story. Like many people “inside the Beltway,” I’m probably paying more attention to the Clinton scandal than are most people elsewhere. Politics is our local industry. Although not directly affected by the Clinton scandal ourselves, we know—from school, church, the neighborhood, the supermarket—people who are. We’re indirectly affected, as New Yorkers would be if the stock market crashed or Californians if the movie and television industry collapsed.
Like most of the players in the Clinton scandal, I’m a federal employee. My colleagues and I have sat though hours of training on ethics rules (sometimes referred to as “lunch law,” from the arcane limits on free meals). We’ve spent hours filling out financial disclosure reports. We’ve endured many a nasty joke about our work ethos, competence and sartorial standards. Naturally, we’re absorbed by the ethical travails of the nation’s chief federal employee—especially when he wears for his grand jury appearance a $150 Ermenegildo Zegna gift tie that we couldn’t give to our superiors, accept from our subordinates, or afford to buy for ourselves.
Along with most of my fellow members of the lawyer’s “club,” I’m fascinated by the process and the players. At the White House, in the Special Prosecutor’s Office, in the legal newspapers and law reviews: major stars are involved in this legal World Series. It’s like seeing a Rotisserie League “dream team” actually take the baseball field.
It has been a surprise, though, to realize that, whatever our views on impeachment and removal of a President, so many lawyers I know are distressed by Clinton’s conduct as a lawyer. Unlike him, we are legal foot soldiers, grunts who slog through the day-to-day litigation grind. Sure, we say things like, “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” (It does, which is why this is a great profession for English, philosophy and mathematics majors.) But we also know that our ethics codes impose a duty of “candor toward the tribunal.” We know that the judicial process could not work if lawyers were, as the President’s own lawyer has characterized him, “evasive, misleading, and incomplete.” By and large, when we’re involved in a lawsuit, we take oaths seriously: we tell the truth and make our clients do the same.
At the Department of Justice, portraits of illustrious former attorneys general hang on the ceremonial third floor. If you visit, you’ll see pictures of DOJ’s heroes, including Robert Jackson, who presided over the Nuremberg Trials, and Elliot Richardson, whose principled resignation precipitated Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre.” Up on the attic-like seventh floor is (or was in the late ’80s, when I worked there) another interesting group of portraits: John Mitchell (of Watergate notoriety), Richard Kleindienst (of the ITT scandal) and Harry Daugherty (of Teapot Dome).
Mitchell and Kleindienst were both prosecuted and disbarred. Although never convicted, Daugherty was prosecuted twice. Nixon was spared prosecution by a pardon, but was disbarred. Every month, my local bar journal publishes the names of lawyers who are suspended or disbarred. We like to think that we police our own.
Last fall, the Arkansas district judge who handled the Paula Jones case announced that President Clinton might be cited for contempt of court. On leaving office, he may be prosecuted. Petitions for his disbarment are pending in Arkansas. As someone who’s interested in the issue of who’s allowed to remain in this “learned profession,” I expect to follow these further proceedings with great interest. Whatever “clubs” they belong to, whatever their take on the President’s conduct, I suspect that most lawyers will also—except maybe the equipment lease financiers. Those folks are in another world.
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