At the beginning of 1997, when Bill Clinton had just defeated Bob Dole, and his pursuer Kenneth Starr was visibly failing to pierce the Arkansas omertà – two of the Clintons’ companions in sordid deals sat silently in prison rather than testify – the annual State of the Union speech offered the perfect opportunity to reassert the full authority of a twice-elected President.
In the 1994 Congressional elections, the Republicans had won a majority in both Houses for the first time in decades. In 1996, however, the electors, fearful of a further shift to the right under an all-Republican Government, rejected Bob Dole, giving Clinton a second opportunity to invest his Presidency with meaning. That is exactly what previous Presidents had done in their own post-election State of the Union speeches – take Johnson’s ‘War on Poverty’ or Reagan’s promise to ‘abolish nuclear weapons’. Not Clinton. Surprising everyone, he offered no grand project, did not claim a mandate for even medium-sized reforms, made no attempt to restart the healthcare debate and failed to preach on any subject at all, even race relations. Instead, he read out a long list of specific programmes, each calculated to appeal to a specific segment of the electorate: taxpaying families with young children, bankable students in higher education, taxpaying handicapped persons, old people with significant capital and long-term care costs. Clinton’s implicit message was that his moral authority, his personal character, did not matter: do not judge me, judge my programmes, they are good for you, no matter what hanky-panky I may be up to. The 1997 speech contained his brief for the defence long before Monica Lewinsky was in the news.
The majority of the members of the US Congress are not easily shocked, but some Democrats and many Republicans depend for their re-election on Christian fundamentalists, a minority in most constituencies but highly organised and very active at election time. They are the ones who compel the Republican majority to oppose abortion, and who disagree with the (diminishing) majority of Americans who still support Clinton because they like his ‘policies’, in particular the happy state of the American economy.
For a time, there seemed to be a way out for Republican leaders in Congress eager to keep a politically paralysed Clinton in the White House without antagonising their most active supporters: fundamentalists believe in redemption through public confession and ‘finding Jesus’. That is why, before the disastrous speech of 17 August, Republicans begged Clinton to apologise with as much visible remorse as he could muster, preferably bursting into tears. It might have been embarrassing, but it would have made it much easier for them to go on studying the Starr report until the last day of the Clinton Presidency.
It was not to be. Having consulted both his political advisers and his lawyers, Clinton evidently decided to listen to neither. Instead, Clinton the President chose to follow the advice of Clinton the lawyer who has never practised, rather than Clinton the superbly talented politician – and everyone knows that a man who acts as his own lawyer has a fool for a client. Only the most subtle legal trickery can be passed off in a nation of lawyers: Clinton’s was downright primitive, and each one of his evasions was exposed in the next day’s editorials and television commentary. Far from being remorseful, moreover, Clinton was visibly angry that he had to defend himself at all, compounding the effect by devoting almost half his talk to a sustained attack on Starr – the one thing that both his lawyers and most of his White House intimates had insisted he must not do (it has been reported that the dissenter among the intimates was Hillary Clinton, always pugnacious, not always wise). The overall result, aside from the harshest possible media reactions – the New York Times editorialists virtually demanded Clinton’s resignation – was to ensure that the scandal would continue after the briefest possible interruption for the Cruise missile extravaganza.
The attacks on the Afghan camps and the Khartoum factory were certainly Monica-related but it is worth pinning down the extent of that relation. Even if Lewinsky was the motivating factor, she affected only the timing of the attacks: both the weapons and the targets were ready long before the bombs exploded in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam. By now everyone knows that US Intelligence cannot identify and locate individuals such as Osama Bin Ladin – or, for that matter, the far more visible Saddam Hussein. But while the CIA’s espionage capability is persistently disappointing, the global satellite coverage of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) continues to improve. Anyone who has a scanner attached to his personal computer knows why: each refinement in image-processing software allows more data to be extracted from the same overhead photographs. To identify a camp where weapons and explosives are being used in training, or a suspected chemical plant in Khartoum, is easy for the NRO’s analysts. To connect them with Osama Bin Ladin requires more specific Intelligence that only humans can provide – defectors, prisoners, agents or other people’s spies. Interested foreign governments were obviously helpful. It is no secret that Pakistan has special access to neighbouring Afghanistan, as Egypt has to Sudan. Already some years ago there were indications that Iraq had sent both chemical-warfare equipment and technicians to Sudan, to evade UN inspectors.
Vol. 20 No. 20 · 15 October 1998
At first it seemed to me, as an American in Britain, that English people apologised all the time. ‘Sorry, how stupid of me.’ Were these the people who almost owned the earth and were first-rate pirates in the 16th century? Yet none of the people saying sorry or that they had been stupid either appeared sorry by American standards or stupid by any other. Could it be, I began to wonder, that people apologised in order to continue doing what they wanted to do? That they did not have to put on a mask of rectitude about everything all the time, but knew they were not perfect – and neither was anyone else.
What I like about this country is that inside each Englishman a Roundhead and a Cavalier are living side by side, if sometimes acrimoniously. Law is taken very seriously, yet so is enjoyment, and no one thinks anything is wrong with that. In the States, alas, we had no Restoration. (It is true that some Puritans found the religious tone of Massachusetts under John Winthrop too much: his son, John Winthrop Jr, founded Connecticut to get away.) The members of the early communities had to be right all the time because they had to pretend that they had been saved by God. They could not even vote in town elections unless they were members of their church; and to be members of their church they had to swear in church that they had been saved. This notion of being right because you are saved still informs American life. We had never lost a war until Vietnam and that caused a national nervous breakdown. We never said we were sorry to the Vietnamese but have become paralysed in foreign policy because we are afraid we may be wrong again. No sane German, Englishman or Japanese would ever say that their country had always been right. But it is just as unlikely for an American to say that their country had been wrong as for them to say they themselves had been wrong. It would be close to admitting that they were, well, almost damned.
American Presidents are caught up in this myth. So here is poor Clinton, caught doing something rather silly, but he never thought simply to say: ‘Oh, that was stupid. I lost my head – I was a foolish middle-aged man. Sorry. Now let’s deal with the global economy.’ No, he had to deny that he had done anything that wasn’t right. When it was discovered that he had lied, he had to get his lawyers to say that, given certain legal definitions of the term ‘sex’, he had not lied. And when he had finally to admit to having lied, who did he confess to? A gathering of religious leaders. Might it not be better if Americans were to learn the English meaning of the word ‘sorry’?
Centre for Intellectual History, London NW1
Vol. 20 No. 21 · 29 October 1998
The hostility shown towards President Clinton in the British media, not to mention the American, has been so savage that one can almost believe Hillary Clinton’s suggestion of a right-wing conspiracy. Edward Luttwak (LRB, 1 October) provides another striking example of this biased commentary. He condemns Clinton’s inaugural address because it proposed specific programmes to help the poor and under privileged rather than some grand, windy project, and goes on to suggest that this amounted to a ‘brief for the defence long before Monica Lewinsky was in the news’ – a curious interpretation of a perfectly rational political decision. Clinton is blamed for using legal arguments to defend himself against a legal cross-examination by the Starr tribunal. He is blamed for following the advice of his military Chiefs of Staff and using Cruise missiles against targets in Sudan and Afghanistan, rather than embarking on a hazardous commando exercise. He is even called to account for the fact that the Republican majority in Congress voted down his tobacco legislation.
Luttwak claims that the Starr investigations into ‘Filegate’, ‘Travelgate’ and Whitewater contain material far more damaging to Clinton than the Lewinsky affair, but says that Starr was under immense pressure to publish the Lewinsky findings first. Pressure from whom? And should an independent judge succumb to ‘pressure’? Starr is ‘inexorable’ in his search for truth, though having failed to turn up one iota of damaging evidence against Clinton, he was about to throw in the towel when the Lewinsky story surfaced. The Republicans, in their desire to bring down a President who has routed them twice at the polls and who has at least tried to bring in some legislation to improve the lot of the underprivileged, now claim that a casual affair is a high crime justifying impeachment.
Burnham Overy Staithe, Norfolk
Vol. 20 No. 23 · 26 November 1998
Constance Blackwell’s attempt to treat Bill Clinton’s weaselling prevarications as emblematic of an American inability ‘to learn the English meaning of the word “sorry”’ (Letters, 15 October) is no more convincing than the assertion that Jonathan Aitken’s handling of the truth is a key to the English character.
University of Pennsylvania
Vol. 21 No. 1 · 7 January 1999
Constance Blackwell (Letters, 15 October 1998) says: ‘It is just as unlikely for an American to say that their country had been wrong as for them to say that they themselves had been wrong.’ In no field is this truer than that of miscarriages of criminal justice. In this country we do attempt to rectify miscarriages, though often twenty years too late, and to this end have established the Criminal Cases Review Commission, which as a court of last resort has already had some stunning successes. In America no such corrective institution exists. Recently two American professors, Hugo Bedau (who teaches philosophy at Tufts) and Michael Radelet (sociology at Florida), published a horrifying book called In Spite of Innocence in which they list four hundred cases since 1900 of executed Americans who they claim were wrongly convicted; apart from Sacco and Vanzetti, for whose convictions Governor Dukakis of Massachusetts granted partial amends, no court has disturbed any of those guilty verdicts.
A good example of this reluctance to admit and then apologise for past mistakes is the case of Richard Hauptmann, electrocuted in 1936 for the kidnapping and murder of the infant son of Charles Lindbergh, the transatlantic flyer. Although he was found to be in possession of marked Lindbergh ransom bills, there was not a scrap of evidence against Hauptmann for kidnapping and murder that was not false or faked. All America had been shocked by the crime, for Lindbergh was their number one hero, with the result that politicians, lawyers, police and the general public were only too ready to discount the lies that passed as evidence in order to find a scapegoat.
My book on the case, The Airman and the Carpenter, was published in the US and Britain in 1985, and the majority of reviews granted that I had made a convincing case for Hauptmann’s innocence. ‘Gripping and horrifying’, the New York Times called it, and Bedau and Radelet included Hauptmann’s name in their survey of the four hundred innocent.
The film rights were bought by Barbara Broccoli (daughter of the producer of the James Bond films), who commissioned William Nicholson (author of the brilliant Shadowlands and the television play Life Story about the discovery of DNA) to write a screenplay based on the book. It was offered to and turned down by every major company in Hollywood, not for lack of merits, which were considerable, but because none of them wished to be associated with the widespread corruption of the case and the reluctance of the American legal system to correct it. It was, however, snapped up by the independent American network production company Home Box Office and screened, with the Irish actor Stephen Rea as Hauptmann and Isabella Rossellini as Mrs Hauptmann, under the title Crime of the Century, which was the name given to it by the press at the time. Once more the majority of critics found that the Governor and legislature of New Jersey had a case to answer; and once again they did nothing.
The latest development in this long-running epic is a book called Lindbergh by A. Scott Berg, a comprehensive account of the airman’s life. Berg tells us that though he would have liked to show Hauptmann’s innocence, he found what he called the weight of evidence against him; in other words, he accepted uncritically the received wisdom that found Hauptmann guilty at the trial and still finds him so today. When I reviewed the book, I posed several questions that Berg had failed to address and which cast doubt on Hauptmann’s guilt. One was the ludicrous prosecution evidence that one rail from the kidnap ladder had come from Hauptmann’s attic: this meant that Hauptmann, never short of lumber in his garage, climbed up the cleats of his linen cupboard (the only way to reach the attic) with chisel and saw, then prised up and stole a plank from his landlord’s flooring, before spending hours planing it down to make it fit. Another was Berg’s failure to comment on photographs which show that the ticks against Hauptmann’s name on the time sheet of a Manhattan apartment block, which prove him to have been working full time on the day of the kidnapping, had been blotted out by the New York City police. Nor does he have any answer to the question why, if Hauptmann was guilty, he found himself unable to accept an offer by the New Jersey Governor and Attorney-General to spare his life in return for a full confession of the part he had played in the crime, however small; and an offer from the New York Evening Journal for his wife, who would otherwise be left destitute, to receive $90,000 after his execution in return for a similar confession.
Berg’s English publishers have stated that the film director Steven Spielberg has bought the film rights of Lindbergh; and I guess that what will concern him most is the principal evidence that led to Hauptmann’s conviction: that of Colonel Lindbergh who, having been assured by the head of the New Jersey state police that there was no doubt that Hauptmann was the right man, swore on oath that two words he had heard Hauptmann utter in the New York District-Attorney’s office – ‘Hey, Doc’ or ‘Hey, Doctor’ – were the same words uttered by the same voice which he had heard in a Bronx cemetery in the dark at a distance of some eighty to a hundred yards, two and a half years before, a claim the New York Times pronounced impossible. And as if that were not enough, when asked by prosecuting counsel if he believed that Hauptmann was guilty of the kidnapping (a question which would never have been allowed in a British court of law) he replied firmly: ‘I do.’ Later the journalist Adela Rogers St John canvassed the trial jury, who told her that Lindbergh’s evidence had been a determining factor in reaching their verdict.
I have written to Mr Spielberg to ask whether, in the scenes that concern Lindbergh’s evidence at Hauptmann’s trial, he intends to follow the received wisdom or, having seen Crime of the Century and read The Airman and the Carpenter, he may prefer the version of events given by those of us who have studied the case in depth and conclude that even on the balance of probabilities the case for Hauptmann’s innocence is overwhelming. In short, will Mr Spielberg, like the feeble Mr Berg, be yet another American who cannot bring himself to admit error or, contrariwise, prove to be the shining exception to the rule?