In 1990, navy admiral John Stufflebeem, as part of an eight month ongoing extra-marital affair, had sex in the White House with a federal employee. When questioned by navy investigators about the impropriety, Stufflebeem’s response was “I did not have sex with this woman”. When the report was submitted to Pentagon officials in March, Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem was demoted and fired from his post as director of the Navy staff. On April 18, he was convicted of making false statements to investigators and allowed to retire from the navy.
Does the above story seem vaguely familiar? Did we not have a president in the same decade that had an extra-marital affair with a government intern in the White House and then lie about it (“I did not have sex with that woman, Ms. Lewinski”)? The difference between the two stories is that the president harmed someone legally by perjuring himself under oath (denying extra-marital sex with Lewinski refuted Paula Jones’ contention that Clinton had a track record of womanizing thus hurting her civil suit against the President). The other difference of course is that while Stufflebeem lost his position and was eventually dismissed from the navy, the President didn’t lose his job or face any criminal prosecution for lying under oath.
Presidential immunity from prosecution was certainly not birthed by Bill Clinton. For that conception we go back to that beacon of presidential morality and paranoia, Richard Nixon. Nixon’s crime was obstruction of justice in the Watergate Affair. If he hadn’t resigned, he most certainly would have been impeached and probably removed from office. However, unlike others in his administration, he didn’t face criminal prosecution for his part in the scandal because Gerald Ford issued him a presidential pardon.
At the time of the pardon, Ford reasoned that the country had suffered enough from Watergate, thus distracting it from pressing issues, and a long criminal trial for Nixon would make that suffering linger, thereby further damaging the country. Historians debate the merits of this thinking. Some argue that the ultimate effect of the pardon was to give future presidents confidence that they too would be immune from prosecution for wrongdoing, based on Ford’s reasoning.
Perhaps it was this confidence that motivated our current president to make 259 false statements about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein having links to al-Qaeda. The false statements were made in speeches and interviews in the two years leading up to the war with Iraq. According to the Center for Public Integrity, the President’s mistruths “were part of an orchestrated campaign that effectively galvanized public opinion and, in the process, led the nation to war under decidedly false pretenses”. Lying to persuade the country to go to war would have to fall under the impeachable offenses of “high crimes and misdemeanors”. But, because the Congress and media either don’t care, or do not want to hurt the war effort and therefore the country, Bush will get away with his deceit.
As John Stufflebeem’s saga proves, there are consequences to bad actions – that is, at least for Americans who aren’t president. Those who sit in that chair seem shielded from the consequences of their actions because it would hurt the country as well. The problem is that succeeding presidents seem to keep outdoing those that come before them in the size of their crime. Nixon covered up a second rate burglary of a hotel room. Clinton denied a woman her day in court by lying under oath. Bush’s lies have led to the loss of nearly four thousand American lives and over one million Iraqi lives. God help us if this upward trend continues.Powered by Sidelines