Friday, May 9, 2008

How’s That ‘Rule of Law’ Work Now?

Published: May 9, 2008

Join us on a journey in the time machine. We’re not going back terribly far, only to December 1998, when the House of Representatives impeached President Bill Clinton for having lied about sex with “that woman.”

It wasn’t the sex that got the lawmakers’ knickers in a twist, or so said those who voted for impeachment. It was the lie that the president told under oath and the justice that he obstructed in a civil case and before a federal grand jury.

That, at any rate, was what upset Representative Vito J. Fossella, a yearling in Congress whose district is made up of Staten Island and a slice of Brooklyn. That’s what he said. The “rule of law” had to be preserved, Mr. Fossella said then. It is what “so many Americans have been willing to die for,” he said as the House began its impeachment inquiry.

But for many Americans — including, perhaps, the United States senators who chose not to convict the popular Mr. Clinton — that White House scandal was always about sex. As Jerry Seinfeld observed at the time, “Everybody lies about sex.” In fact, Mr. Seinfeld said, “people lie during sex. If it weren’t for lies, there’d be no sex.”

Now, we have Mr. Fossella snared in his own sex scandal and his own rule-of-law problem. He did not lie about sex under oath. But was he, nonetheless, less than truthful about having had an extramarital affair with a woman, Laura Fay, who gave birth to their baby girl? That he most definitely was, until Thursday anyway, when he belatedly acknowledged rumors that had been percolating for days.

As for the rule of law, New Yorkers in Mr. Fossella’s district might reasonably ask themselves which is the worse violation: lying about sex with a young but adult White House intern, or being so drunk behind the wheel that you can’t even keep the letters of the alphabet straight and, far worse, you run a red light? That, the police in a Virginia suburb of Washington charge, is the crime that Mr. Fossella committed late one night while driving to Ms. Fay’s house.

He made “a mistake,” the congressman said of his driving while hammered with a blood-alcohol level that the police said was more than twice the legal limit. How many times have you read about drunken drivers running red lights and killing innocent people? Some “mistake.”

The tip-off that a sex scandal was about to unfold came with the description of Ms. Fay, who went to Mr. Fossella’s side after his arrest and rescued him from police custody. Who, reporters asked, was this woman? A “good friend,” said a political consultant hired by the congressman to help with damage control.

Those were the magic words: a good friend. You may recall that when Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani’s marriage was unraveling in 2000 while he swanned about town with Judith Nathan, he called her “a good friend, a very good friend.” In less discreet circles, “good friend” would be translated as “mistress.” In any event, Ms. Nathan is now Mrs. Giuliani No. 3.

We’ve long been used to sex scandals. Indeed, if Mr. Fossella wants to take heart about his political future, he can bear in mind that fathering a child in an extramarital affair didn’t do Grover Cleveland any harm in the 1884 presidential race. His opponents taunted Cleveland with cries of “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” After he won the election, his supporters shot back with “Gone to the White House. Ha! Ha! Ha!”

But tolerant though they fancy themselves, New Yorkers may be nearing the limit of their capacity for putting up with politicians’ sexual wanderings. In just a couple of months, they have had to absorb the resignation of one governor in a prostitution scandal and the confession of the new governor that he’d had affairs during a rocky patch in his marriage. Now we have Mr. Fossella staggering into our consciousness.

We’re no good at predicting the political future. But permit us, if you will, a few tips for politicians, in case they haven’t already figured things out for themselves:

If you drink, don’t drive.

If you drink and drive, don’t run a red light.

If you drink and drive and run a red light, don’t do it on the way to your girlfriend’s house.

And if you drink and drive and run a red light and head to your girlfriend’s house, don’t be surprised what happens next.


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