The forty-second president of the United States began to define his legacy hours after his 1993 inauguration, when he signed a series of executive orders deepening the federal government’s involvement with abortion-on-demand. That these would be the first acts of the new Clinton administration ought to have alerted the country to what was just around the corner.
With the Clinton presidency, the sexual revolution came to the White House with gale force: not simply as a matter of one undisciplined man’s fouling the Oval Office, but as a matter of grave public consequence. For the sexual revolution carries with it a concept of freedom that is antithetical to the Founders’ understanding of our liberties and, ultimately, corrosive of democracy itself—the idea of freedom as personal willfulness.
The freedom to which the Founders pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor was the right to do what we ought to do, the right to act responsibly. It was a means to goodness. Freedom, the Founders thought, should be an ennobling thing. Will anyone contend that the United States has been ennobled by a presidency whose theme song might well be that mindless Sinatra antiphon, “I did it my way”?
Why did proponents of the sexual revolution, including prominent feminists, stick by President Clinton to the bitter end? He had betrayed the liberal cause on health care, NAFTA, WTO, welfare reform. He was a self-evident abuser of women. Yet they stuck by him, ferociously. Why? Because Clinton was determined to protect the abortion license—and the concept of freedom as willfulness it embodies.
In a presidency notable for the elasticity of its principles and policies, this was the one thing set in stone: that the “right” to commit lethal violence against the unborn must be defended at all costs. Even if that defense leads, as a corrupt goal inevitably does, to the widespread corruption of the institutions of government.
We cannot know, yet, what lasting damage the Clinton Administration has done to the American constitutional order. We know that it has damaged the integrity of the Department of Justice. We know that it has impaired the moral faculties of one of our two great political parties, the Democratic Party, not one of whose members in the Senate dared deal with the impeachment of the president in 1998-1999 as an issue of the rule of law. We know that our public life has been coarsened and that the political atmosphere has become toxic. We have just witnessed, in the five weeks after Election Day, an attempted coup d’etat by means of the imperial judiciary. And to what end? Personal ambition? Certainly. Partisan advantage? Without a doubt. But above all, the preservation of the notion of freedom as willfulness and license, with all that implies.
By combining in the presidency the functions of both chief and state and head of government, the Framers of the Constitution created a unique office. The president is not merely an executive officer. He is the embodiment of the national government and, in a very real sense, the national political community. He speaks with unique authority because he speaks from a unique platform, which is, in some respects, a pulpit. Throughout his presidency, William Jefferson Clinton has used that authority and that platform to defend a concept of freedom that is, in the long run, incompatible with democracy.
President Clinton leaves behind a legacy of incivility, not simply because he is, as one of his Democratic colleagues said, a “particularly good liar,” but because his prevarications have been in service to a debased and demeaning concept of freedom.
The forty-second president of the United States was, by conventional account, a man of formidable political skills. But if democracy is more than a matter of electoral mathematics, then the Clinton legacy is not a happy one. This man of high intelligence and personal charm could have been a great president. Instead, he leaves behind an office to which his successor must restore honesty and honor. It is a very high price to pay for one man’s lack of self-command, and for his defenders’ insistence that freedom is, at bottom, doing it my way.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.