The United States has always drawn strength from the principle that an informed public is the best hedge against abuses and tyranny. At times, this leads the government to err on the side of openness, as it did Monday in allowing the four-hour spectacle of President Clinton's grand jury testimony to air on national television.
As a result, Americans got to see their president in a different, more candid light, one in which he looked alternately uncomfortable, angry, remorseful and resentful. They got to see him without the makeup and lighting that normally accompanies his televised appearances, and they got to see him lead prosecutors on a verbal goose chase, avoiding direct answers to direct and extremely relevant questions.They did not, however, necessarily become more informed. That requires a bit more work.
Congress released 3,183 pages of evidence Monday. The videotape was only one piece. All this, of course, was added to the bulk of the Starr report itself, which has been widely available now for more than a week and which most Americans have not read. While all the evidence is now available (the Deseret News Web edition provides an easy link to it), few people are expected to study it.
An informed public is an asset, but a public with only little information is not reassuring, indeed.
That may explain, in part, why opinion polls showed Clinton's approval ratings rose slightly after the Monday morning broadcasts. People were reacting to their general impressions of seeing a president undergo intense questioning. The natural human response is to show sympathy for someone under attack. But it's a reaction completely out of context with the overall investigation.
President Clinton's future should not be reduced to a popularity contest. He can't campaign to remain in office by making promises, by turning on the charm or by citing his record of accomplishments. Only the facts matter. Congress is empowered with deciding the president's fate, and it must do so free from unrelated pressures, and that includes popular opinion.
The general public clearly has a right to be informed. It does not, however, have a constitutional role to sit as a jury in this matter.
Were he honest about his ability to lead and about the way in which he has abused his office, Clinton would resign. But that isn't likely to happen. Instead, Congress needs to begin impeachment hearings as soon as possible and bring this sordid episode to a quick conclusion.