Editor’s note: This William F. Buckley Jr. column appeared in “On the Right” in the November 23, 1998, issue of National Review.
Andrew Sullivan, writing for the Sunday New York Times Magazine, makes a splashy case against some modern conservatives not here our concern. But he does touch on a point that burrs in the conscience. “I can’t remember now at which point during the Starr report I stopped reading. Maybe it was the sudden prim reminder that ‘the President’s wife’ was out of the country during one of President Clinton’s hallway trysts. . . . Or the inclusion of the date for one of the President’s liaisons: Easter Sunday. Or any one of the points when it simply became obvious that the narrative, compelling and lucid as it was, seemed to be building a case not so much for the President’s public, legal impropriety but for a private, moral iniquity.”
The affront had got to me too, though in the other direction, i.e., Clinton the Christian as provocateur. Clinton the ostentatious Christian. Clinton the telegenic Christian. A few weeks after the August 17th ordeal, when Clinton gave his grand-jury testimony in the White House and later his four-minute hate-Starr bite, he was seen by a watching world on television not only leaving church, but leaving it arm entwined in his wife’s, prayer book in hand.
It was especially hard for those who believe in Christian sacramental institutions, prominent among them penitence, to criticize Christian displaymanship. Is it uncharitable, in such a situation, to ask oneself: Did Dick Morris, or James Carville, or maybe even David Kendall, say to him: “Be sure to go to church this coming Sunday because, well-”
“Because the semen on the dress was yours, stupid.”?
“Awright, Hillary. We don’t have to go over that again.” The President nods at his scheduler. “Eleven o’clock service, Foundry United Methodist Church.”
That is one view of it but proffered with trepidation. It is after all entirely possible that Bill Clinton has truly repented and Scripture tells us that Christ will forgive the sinner seventy times seven.
Moreover, in attempting to reason persuasively whether contrition is genuine, one takes the surrounding facts into account. If a thief is caught with hot goods in hand, his repentance is at least convincingly genuine at one level: He is sorry he was caught. But it is also possible that his being caught made him genuinely sorry that he had taken up stealing as a profession, and now his contrition before the judge is genuine. Like the drunkard whose car runs over a child and now genuinely deplores his habit. It is not unreasonable that Bill Clinton rues the surfeit of testosterone in his system, and his capacity, only episodic, to control himself.
All of which meant that when he walked out of the church that morning, in his heart he was truly contrite. But we reflect then on the words of Christ, according to St. Matthew. “But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth. That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret Himself shall reward thee openly.”
Those are searing words that drive home the point. It is the basic moral architecture of philanthropy: Do what you can for others without ostentation. Yes, sometimes the gift must be public, to register your compliance with a civic resolution, or to challenge others to fill a quota.
But even as contrition is an entirely private affair, shared only with your priest or minister or rabbi, benefactions-alms-are best done in private. But this whole protective tent cannot easily shelter a President of the United States whose attendance at a church service becomes a public event.
Does the prosecutor properly point out the piquancies? That it was after a church service on Easter Sunday that Bill Clinton had sex with Monica Lewinsky? Was the jury made aware, in Florida, that the night Senator Teddy Kennedy led his nephew out to disport at the bar, from which he went to the beach to seduce/rape his date, was Good Friday?
Andrew Sullivan has a point of order, and it would be interesting to hear Kenneth Starr comment on the matter: Why, Mr. Starr, did you find it relevant to remind the reader that the day of that particular tryst was Easter Sunday and that the President had attended church before going on to sex with his intern? If you were merely tracing his movements on that day, could you not have left it that the President went from the White House, to church, to the couch with Monica? Is that rendering too Apollonian for your palette? Did you have to stick in “Easter” especially to antagonize the congregation?
Andrew Sullivan scores here.