The impeachment proceedings were the subject of an extraordinary suggestion made by Pat Caddell, a former pollster for the Democratic Party, at the “Dark Ages” retreat for members of the “conservative movement” over New Years’ weekend. Caddell told the gathering that the problem with the Republican Party was that they couldn’t seem to pick the right issues. Republicans were foolishly hammering the President over his sexual escapades instead of lambasting the Clinton administration for the “far more serious offenses of accepting foreign campaign money and transferring sensitive missile technology to China.” According to the New York Times, Caddell received “a smashing round of self-flagellating applause and . . . a standing ovation.”

As one of the 19 invited scholars who journeyed to Washington to tell the House Judiciary Subcommittee what impeachable offenses were, I thought impeaching the President and seeking to remove him from office for perjury in a civil case, perjury before a grand jury, felonious tampering with witnesses, and generally corrosive obstruction of justice made some sense. I wonder if the “Dark Ages” conservatives remember what they are supposed to be conserving. I think the Republican Party, or at least the House members who voted to impeach the President, were doing precisely the right thing. Mr. Caddell thinks like a pollster, and of course the polls tell us that each time the President’s wrongdoing is more clearly revealed, he becomes more popular. Simply on the basis of the polls, it would be understandable if the Dark Agers believed that the House Republicans were wasting the nation’s time, much less the President’s, with the effort to remove him from office. Why, then, the zeal of a Henry Hyde, a Bob Barr, or a Lindsey Graham, or even of me and a very few (probably no more than a couple hundred) academics?

Those who think that the impeachment proceedings against President Clinton may be the last—and perhaps the most important—proceeding in the culture wars which began in the 60’s, are, it turns out, exactly right. Those of us who argued for impeachment were trying to preserve what used to be best about America, what we believe Washington, Hamilton, Madison, and perhaps even Jefferson hoped to accomplish with the new federal government. Readers of the Federalist and students of the 18th century know that the federal government was designed to counter tendencies toward corruption in state governments, just as the Revolutionary War was fought because of allegations of corruption in Great Britain. In the 1950’s, in a simpler America, readers of Superman comics and viewers of the television program shivered when they heard him boast that he fought for “truth, justice, and the American way.” Truth, justice, and the American way—or, if you like, virtue, integrity, honesty, and character—are still what motivates those seeking the impeachment and removal of this President.

The American way, beginning in the 17th century and continuing down to our own time, was synonymous with truth and justice itself. We were supposed to be an exceptional country, a “City on a Hill,” a beacon to the nations, to show that a people could be self-governed on the basis of biblical principles in general and the Ten Commandments in particular. Not bearing false witness was an important commandment, and, when all the partisan chaff is blown away, that and the impartial administration of justice are still the issues in the impeachment of President Clinton.

On the other side, of course, are principles of a sort. The defenders of the President have a cynical (one is tempted to say “postmodern”) view of the law and of the motives of litigants. They see the Paula Jones proceeding, the accusation of sexual harassment and infliction of emotional distress which began the most visible of the President’s troubles, as prompted by the President’s enemies— the “hard right” or the “Christian right” or the “right-wing conspiracy” —who never accepted William Jefferson Clinton or his election as legitimate. But the important question for the President’s critics is not who sponsored Ms. Jones or her court proceedings, but whether she had a right to seek justice free from perjurious and felonious behavior on the part of the defendant. The President’s defenders claim that this case simply involves “lying about sex,” and implicitly invoke the principle of privacy and the belief of the 60’s generation that whatever one does in the privacy of one’s bedroom (or, in this case, the purported non-privacy of the Oval Office) is nobody else’s business. Or perhaps they are simply fighting for the adolescent principle that “blow jobs don’t count,” so that presumably even a Chief Executive who has a constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed can lie about oral sex in federal court proceedings and grand jury investigations, tamper with witnesses, and otherwise obstruct justice.

So powerful are the claims of privacy and the allure of sexual libertinism that the President’s defenders cannot conceive that the motive of his impeachers is anything but unalloyed evil. It is not evil, however, but the timeless attraction of a more pristine morality, a simplistic and even noble aspiration toward equal justice, and a romantic faith (as Paul Carrington, former dean of the Duke Law School, calls it) in the rule of law that is behind the effort to remove President Clinton from George Washington’s hallowed position. The conventional wisdom, as this is written, is that the votes are not there to remove this President. Perhaps this will turn out to be true, but if it does, it will mean that at least a third of the United States Senate has forgotten what this country was supposed to be all about.