Confession, Contrition and Penance
Jude Wanniski
September 14, 1998


Memo To: Rep. David Bonior, House Minority Whip
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Determining the President’s penance

My tendency is to agree with you that the President must be “rebuked” by Congress on behalf of the American people, but that at this point the rebuke should stop short of removal from office. A week ago, before the Starr report was issued, I  talked to one of the President’s closest advisors -- like you and I a Catholic. I told him I did not believe the Republicans were playing politics on this matter, in the sense of trying to make gains for the GOP at the expense of the office of the presidency. We all know we have a Constitution and a constitutional process to protect that is far more important than how many seats will be won or lost in this year’s elections. As a Republican who used to be a Democrat, I suggested to the President’s counselor that he should consider a parallel process that the Catholic Church had developed over many centuries -- one that provides those of its members who have sinned to be redeemed by confession, contrition and penance.

First the President confessed, now he has expressed contrition, but he has not yet been given his penance. “You mean, like ten Our Fathers and Ten Hail Marys,” the President’s counselor asked. “Exactly,” I said, adding that in this case the American people constituted the confessor, and would in due time render judgment on the nature of the penance through their representatives in Congress. “What will the penance be?” he asked. “I don’t know,” I told him, but I do know that it will not help Bill Clinton if he says he will only say the Our Fathers but will not say the Hail Marys. “There is of course serious doubt that he is genuinely contrite,” I said. “If he starts making noises in the confessional box that he will do anything it takes to avoid a Senate vote to remove him from office, he will be removed from office. The more he is willing to stand in manly fashion and accept whatever penance the people decide, the lighter will be the penance.”

On "Meet the Press" Sunday, your counterpart in the House, Majority Whip Tom DeLay, indicated he will be satisfied by nothing less than the President’s removal from office via impeachment -- which is why he argues the President should resign now and spare the Congress the necessity of diverting the nation for the time it may take to bring this process to that end. My advice to the President’s counselor last week was that Senator Lieberman of Connecticut had put it well in his Senate floor speech by saying the President had won the forgiveness of his family, but he had to settle accounts with the national family. Just as each individual family has to provide a venue by which its members -- husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, sons and daughters -- can be redeemed, so the Constitution provides a process by which an errant President can be redeemed. In the case of President Nixon, the penance was removal from office, and once removed, President Nixon conducted himself in a way that won for him a redemption during his own lifetime.

In that light, there is probably no way the House could avoid voting articles of impeachment. If I were the President, I would plead guilty to those counts which he has clearly confessed guilt already, and ask the House to vote impeachment without hearings. There really is no way the House Judiciary Committee can avoid voting impeachment. The President makes it easiest on his own supporters in the House by throwing himself on the mercy of the Senate and public opinion. A Senate vote of censure would be the equivalent of imprisonment throughout history with the possibility of parole for good behavior. Removal from office would be avoided, I think, but the President should take that risk if he is going to demonstrate that his contrition is genuine. Note that Tom DeLay on "Meet the Press" already questioned the President’s contrition by pointing out the White House intends to fight every point on technical legalisms.  Senator Moynihan -- another Catholic, by the way -- points in the right direction by saying there is no need to drag this out for two years. If the President were to welcome a House vote of impeachment and a Senate decision on an appropriate penance, the national family interest would be well served. And it could all be finished up before the 106th Congress meets in January.