Back in the days of the Clinton administration, America was treated to a daily lecture by the GOP and the right wing about how important it was to be a person of high moral character and that there was no worse crime than to be someone who treated the laws and the people who work for you as the tools for your nefarious goals. “Character Counts” billboards dotted the landscape, and a lot of jowly finger-waggers like William Bennett and Pat Buchanan made a pile of money writing pious tomes about virtue and how much better they were than all those hillbillies that had taken over the West Wing. We endured lecture after lecture from Jerry Falwell and the evangelicals about the evils of tolerance, singling out gays and lesbians as the scourge of the world. Of course we later found out that Mr. Bennett used his income from his writings to gamble in Atlantic City and one of leaders of the evangelical movement had a well-built boy on the side, but of all the moral standards that these modern-day Elmer Gantrys preached about, the dangers of hypocrisy was not one of them.
The worst crime, however, was lying. Nothing was more an affront to the dignity and the honor of the country than knowingly committing perjury, and anybody who did it or allowed it to happen had no right to hold a position of trust in the public service. Rep. Ileana Ros Lehtinen (R-FL) summed it up:
Lying under oath is an ancient crime of great weight because it shields other offenses, because it blocks the light of truth in human affairs. It is a dagger in the heart of our legal system, and indeed in our democracy. It cannot, it should not, it must not be tolerated.
Those were the words she used to justify the impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998 for lying about sex.
So it makes you wonder where have all the moralists gone? We now have the conviction of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby before us, convicted on four counts of perjury and obstruction of justice, and the jury said that it didn’t stop there. Where’s Rove, they asked. Why weren’t the people who instigated this incident on trial? What about Vice President Cheney, the man who ordered Mr. Libby to do his dirty work? Why did Mr. Libby have to face fine and imprisonment for being the fall guy?
Those are all good questions, but what really bothers me is that why did Mr. Libby allow himself to be caught up in this in the first place? According to the men and women who promised to restore honor and dignity to the Oval Office, Mr. Libby was a dedicated and talented public servant who sacrificed much in the service of his country. Apparently he also sacrificed his sense of morality as well, because when Vice President Cheney told him to go out and leak the name of Valerie Plame to reporters in revenge for her husband’s embarrassing the president about the uranium from Niger, he did it. He didn’t have the courage or the moral fiber to say, “No, sir, that’s wrong, and I’m not going to do it.”
He probably would have lost his job and Mr. Cheney would have doubtless found someone else to do it — Mary Matalin comes to mind — but it would have spared Mr. Libby the last two years of public humiliation and the inevitable first line of his obituary, not to mention the endless jokes about his nickname. But he would have done exactly what those sanctimonious morality-mongers were telling us was the most important thing in the world: having the courage to Just Say No. Hey, it was supposed to work with drugs, so why not for sex and lying under oath?
There will be those, I’m sure, who will find some way to wiggle out of this: Mr. Libby was railroaded and the justice system was perverted in order to get him and embarrass the Bush administration. But the stark reality is that those who preached and screeched the loudest about morality and virtue are the ones who need to learn their own lessons.