The Case for Community Service

Politics and policy.
Sept. 26 1998 3:30 AM

The Case for Community Service

For Clinton.

President Clinton has spent the last six years lecturing Americans about the glories of community service. AmeriCorps is his pet project, and his administration has encouraged service as an alternative to jail time. Well, now is the chance for the president to put his ideas to work for himself. Clinton and his allies are desperately seeking a dignified way out of Flytrap: How about community service? We should let the president serve out his term, but let's make him really serve.

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The basic conundrum for those who want Flytrap to end is this: Any remedy lenient enough for Clinton diehards will enrage the right half of the country, and any remedy punitive enough for conservatives will enrage the left half. A solution must simultaneously 1) minimize carnage to the presidency and the country; 2) be vindictive enough to sate the GOP; 3) be soft enough to pass the Democrats; and 4) allow us to put the scandal aside (or mostly aside) for the remainder of his term.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

None of the proposed remedies suffices. House Republicans, especially those on the judiciary committee, are set on eviscerating Clinton and won't settle for anything as gentle as censure (even if Clinton does agree to take his licks standing in the well of the House). A censure plus a fine also dissatisfies conservatives, because it suggests Clinton can buy pardon. On the other hand, impeachment would be bloody, endless, and intolerable to most voters. And resignation would set the horrific precedent that the media and the opposition can drum a president out of office if they shout enough.

But community service, plus censure, might succeed. Every week until the end of his term, Clinton would spend a few hours on some direct, necessary community service. Congress would decide--after negotiation with the president--the total number of hours and the kind of work (more on the specifics of this later). The service would be an everyday obligation for Clinton, with no presidential photo ops and no special treatment.

What would be the benefits of this regimen? For starters, Clinton would make tangible reparations for the damage he has inflicted to society. Many Americans are infuriated by Clinton's notion that apology is action. His prolific, ever savvier apologies are selfish: They are designed to make him look better. He has announced that he has accepted responsibility, but what exactly has he done about it? Redemption, in most religious and ethical traditions, requires deeds. In service, Clinton could not allow words to substitute for actions. He would have to act.

Service would meet another requirement of Flytrap punishment: It would humble him. Clinton has suggested that he can best make amends by being an excellent president. But we require more visible evidence of his regret. Being president is no suffering for him. In fact, being president reinforces his worst instincts. His chief Flytrap sin is believing that normal rules and moral codes don't apply to him, that everyone else exists to do his bidding. His punishment must remind him that he is merely a man, and so he must be chopped down to man-size. In service, he could not use his power to bully others. In service, he would, for the first time in 20 years, take orders instead of give them, cater to others instead of being catered to. That might begin to cure, or at least temper, his wicked and dangerous sense of entitlement.

The humbling of Clinton would also serve a political function: It would placate conservatives, especially if service were combined with a haymaker congressional censure. The image of Clinton scraping graffiti off some high school might persuade enough Republicans to sign on.

Service, too, might be cathartic enough to liberate us from our Flytrap obsession. We would no longer need to debate dada legal technicalities and gasp over sordid details. Clinton's critics won't be able to gripe that he escaped scot-free: He will be paying the price, quietly, every week.

Service might even benefit the president in the way he cares most about. It must devastate Clinton--a president obsessed with his legacy--that his place in history is now secure: He's the reckless lech who ruined his presidency for a 22-year-old intern. Whether he resigns, is impeached, or is censured, that will be his epitaph. If Clinton does community service, he will still be remembered as the reckless lech, but he may also be remembered as the reckless lech who had the grace to make amends for his sins.

Illustration by Peter Kuper

There are obstacles to Clinton's community service, but they are surmountable. Would he have time? We can't expect him to skip G-7 summits so that he can collect roadside trash. But he managed to squeeze Monica Lewinsky (or rather, she squeezed him) into his schedule--not to mention dawn-to-dusk fund raising--so surely he can squeeze in a few hours of good works on Saturdays.