Hypocrisy, the Duc de La Rochefoucauld told us, is the tribute which vice pays to virtue. Tributes of this kind have been flowing lately from the members of the United States Senate and the mainstream press who clamored for some sort of censure of President William Jefferson Clinton, or who scrambled, for a while, to produce a “finding of fact” which would have declared what bad things the President had done. All of this was in the sure knowledge that a two-thirds majority of the Senate didn’t have the courage to reach the obvious (if politically incorrect) conclusion of the House managers and a majority of the House of Representatives that the President had committed impeachable offenses.

By the end of the Senate “trial,” no one denied that the President had failed to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth regarding his relationship with “that woman,” Ms. Lewinsky, or regarding what he said to potential witnesses in grand jury proceedings, and no one denied that Mr. Clinton had attempted to mislead investigators, nor that he was instrumental in getting others to furnish false testimony or conceal evidence. The House managers argued cogently that this conduct constituted the serial commission of felonies, and that such felonies were clearly the sort of “high crimes and misdemeanors” that the Framers believed ought to result in impeachment and removal.

But so popular was William Jefferson Clinton, and so successful was the White House in presenting the President’s prosecution as merely being about private erotic pleasures, that removing a felon from the highest office in the land was all but unthinkable. A scant few days after the failed removal of Mr. Clinton, a credible allegation from the woman known as “Jane Doe #5” that he had assaulted and raped her when he was attorney general of Arkansas appeared to cause little public stir even though it was published in a long article on the Wall Street Journal editorial page, followed by a front-page story in the Washington Post, and then a prime-time half-hour on NBC.

The miracle is that the impeachment proceedings got as far as they did. For a few weeks, inspired by the House managers and their extraordinarily courageous leader, Henry Hyde, there was some serious consideration of the intentions of the Framers and—mirabile dicta—a consensus among both scholars and politicians that the original understanding of the Constitution ought to guide House and Senate proceedings. In this age of postmodern legal thought that produced a William Jefferson Clinton—where one can struggle over what the meaning of the word “is” is—this was at least small comfort for the friends of the ride of law and the friends of common sense.

If there are no final victories in history, or if lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for, or if political development is best regarded as an ongoing conversation that never stops, then those of us who wanted this President cashiered did not struggle completely in vain. We failed in our short-term goal, of course, but those who persisted in their plan to keep the First Felon in office were forced to acknowledge how little virtue meant to them and, perhaps, that the American presidency was not as important as the champions of big government have thought, if such a man could be left in such a position.

President Clinton’s defenders will likely continue piously to pronounce that he was wrong to do what he did, but by their actions in permitting him to remain President, they have severely weakened the office, with effects both foreign and domestic, by establishing that honesty, virtue, character, probity, and judgment are not requisite for the occupant of the Oval Office. They have also killed the prospects for renewal of the independent counsel statute, and probably succeeded in gutting the laws against sexual harassment. Some of this is all to the good, of course, because the presidency has recently often threatened to overwhelm the other engines of state and federal government, and the laws circumscribing what could and could not be done in the workplace have often worked in ways antithetical even to what their drafters desired, as has the Independent Counsel Act. Indeed, if this sorry episode did anything, perhaps it led us further to question whether government is the answer to most societal problems, or whether we should be more worried about preserving liberty than we are about promoting regulation.

Conservatives who fear the nanny state may take small comfort in a weakened Clinton presidency. But those who believe in the Constitution, like the House managers, can hardly feel good about the fact that senators did not permit the managers to call even a single witness before the Senate. The Constitution gives the Senate the sole power to try impeachments, but this was, apparently, the first impeachment in our 210 years since 1789 where an impeachment (of a president or a judge) was “tried” without live witnesses. Whatever tribute the senators paid the managers, it did not include actually allowing them to try their case.

Following the failure of two-thirds of the Senate to convict Samuel Chase in the only impeachment trial of a United States Supreme Court Justice, the great Democratic orator Robert Rantoul dismissed impeachment as a “bugbear” that had “lost its terrors.” Impeachment, though, has been a tool that Congress, particularly in the 20th century, has used to remove corrupt federal judges. The Framers wanted a republic, with virtuous statesmen at the helm. They were horrified at the notion of government by plebiscite, and they knew what Athenian raw democracy did to Socrates. Perhaps their worst nightmare was that we might elevate to high office demagogues skilled in manipulating public opinion to serve their partisan or personal purposes. Sadly, it now seems that we are living that very nightmare, and, at least when he stands high in the polls, impeachment cannot be used to remove a corrupt and venal President. The whirring noise you hear is Washington, Hamilton, Madison, and Jefferson spinning in their graves.