My favorite commandments are the easy ones. I don't covet anyone's spouse; I don't want to kill anybody. A day of rest? No problem. But I'm in a constant struggle with the commandment Republicans have chosen as the one needing the full force of government sanction: Thou shalt not lie. I know honesty is the best policy, but I've been known to try the second-best policy when I have to justify the fact that the Christmas tree isn't up or that I haven't watched every minute of the historic debate TIME magazine pays me to cover.
But that's me. Republicans apparently never, ever tell a lie. Moreover, they don't count the other sins as sins unless compounded with a lie. Mother Marita Joseph didn't see it that way. Who would have thought the family-values party would be saying, in the interest of distinguishing Clinton's behavior from its own, "It's not the adultery, stupid; it's the lying." When it seemed last Thursday that the world couldn't spin any further out of control--bombs falling in eerie green light, members of Congress starring in a morality play without the morality--here was Speaker-elect (although not for long) Bob Livingston announcing that because he wasn't "running for saint," his occasional affairs shouldn't be held against him. He called what he did "straying," said he had "sought spiritual counseling," and "received forgiveness" from his family. Sound familiar? Lest this remind anyone of you-know-who, he asserted, "These indiscretions were not with employees on my staff, and I have never been asked to testify under oath about them."
Not quite an instant classic in a league with "It depends on what your definition of is is," but it had promise as hairsplitting of a high order. For one thing, no one had charged that Monica Lewinsky was hit upon against her will, as Livingston implied. And the Livingston rationale ignored his good fortune in having Larry Flynt, not Ken Starr, with his subpoenas and a grand jury, pursuing him. Thus Livingston could cling to the claim that in a sting operation run by a desperate prosecutor, he was the kind of guy who would have come clean. But the ultimate parsing in Livingston's comments was contained in his description of who it is he had slept with. He hadn't strayed with an employee, he said, skipping over the issue of whether his indiscretions might have caused a different set of problems. That discussion might have required too much parsing even for this Republican. And so he quit.
In any case, this is the kind of legalism we hate Clinton for, and it misses what matters. The worst part of cheating on your spouse is what it does to your marriage, not what it does to your oath taking. To take such an important aspect of yourself and give it to someone else is to live the biggest lie imaginable, whether or not it's repeated in court. Lately there's been a terrible tendency to dismiss adultery lightly if no official lying is involved. Henry Hyde describes a long affair with a married mother of three as a youthful indiscretion (he was 41); Dan Burton says his affair with a state employee and the secret child it produced is O.K. because he pays child support; Helen Chenoweth excuses her affair with a married man who was a business associate because she wasn't married and it took place before she was elected. What message does that send the children?