Notebook - January 27, 1999

Mr. Wilentz goes to Washington

History professor tiffs with House Republicans during impeachment proceedings

It had been a long day for history professor Sean Wilentz. On December 8 in Washington, D.C., he was one of the scholars who argued before the House Judiciary Committee that President Clinton's behavior did not meet the constitutional standard for impeachment. After he read a short statement, Wilentz faced questioning from many of the 35 committee members.

The 30th or so was Congressman William L. Jenkins, a Republican from Tennessee, who, in the day's fiercest exchange, took direct aim at Wilentz. "You do not refute one fact about the allegations of perjury that are before us, about the allegations of obstruction of justice that are before us, or about the allegation of the abuse of power," he said, in a thick southern drawl.

"We need to remember," Jenkins continued, "at least here this morning, that what we're dealing in and what you came armed with, is just a bunch of opinions. Now, like they say back in Tennessee, everybody's got those. But you will agree with all of those statements, will you not?"

"Except for the last one," Wilentz answered. "There's a difference between opinion and scholarship. Anybody can have an opinion. What I reported here has to do with scholarship."

Jenkins didn't let up. "If there are learned opinions to the contrary, then, they would balance one another out, as far as this committee's concerned. Is that correct?" he asked.

"Oh, I should hope not," Wilentz responded, getting a little more animated. "I don't think they balance each other out at all. I think that the opinions expressed here by a far larger number of historians, for example, than any that have come up to stand up for the opposite view, is absolutely clear. There's not an equal division among historians about whether these charges raise to an impeachable offense."

"Well, at any rate, you've voiced your opinions here this morning," Jenkins said dismissively.

Wilentz claimed in an interview later that despite the testy exchange, he and Jenkins winked to each other off camera. "We had sparred, and there were no hard feelings," he said. Wilentz also said he was struck by the fact that Jenkins, a conservative Republican, was actually making the kind of argument one often hears from academics on the left -- one that Wilentz argues against. "He was saying we all have our opinions -- there is no way to come close to the truth," Wilentz said. "There are many scholars in the guise of post-modernism who make the same point. It's a very left, avant-garde argument."

Wilentz, the Dayton-Stockton Professor of History and director of the Program in American Studies, helped draft and circulate a statement of nearly 500 historians opposing the impeachment effort. During his prepared statement before the Judiciary Committee, Wilentz argued that case forcefully.

"It is a greater threat to the rule of law to actually go ahead with this proceeding than not to go ahead with this proceeding," he testified. "I fear that these proceedings are on the brink of becoming irretrievably politicized, more so than even the notorious drive to remove Andrew Johnson from office 130 years ago."

Members who vote to impeach Clinton, he warned, risk "going down in history with the zealots and the fanatics." And as for those who don't really believe Clinton's offenses justify impeachment but vote for it anyway, Wilentz prophesied: "History will track you down and condemn you for your cravenness."

Later that week, The Washington Post's "Reliable Source" column gave Wilentz the "Most Likely to Have His Taxes Audited" award for his testimony.

In a piece that later appeared in The New Yorker magazine, Wilentz humorously mentioned some of the other press he got: "Gratuitously patronizing," "tone deaf," and "condescending," said The New York Times, while "David Broder of The Washington Post blasts me for my 'arrogance.'"

Wilentz claimed he wasn't distracted by all the attention that day. "It was very calm," he recalled. "When you're in the midst of a media circus -- in the eye of the storm -- it's really not unsettling." In many ways, he added, it's scarier to give a lecture to a class of undergraduates: "Day-in, day-out teaching is a different kind of challenge. I was there for a specific point. Intellectually, there wasn't as much to go over. Presenting a lecture requires going through a great deal of material in a short period of time."

Wilentz says that he is a liberal Democrat, but claims that had nothing to do with why he spoke against impeachment. "My entire participation has been to defend the Constitution, not to defend Bill Clinton," he said. When the White House called and asked him to testify, "I said I cannot defend the president, and they said that's O.K."

Wilentz said that he was concerned Clinton's impeachment will do lasting damage to the political process, making future impeachments more likely as a political weapon.

"I hope that presidents don't look over their shoulders every time they make a bold decision," Wilentz said. He points out that President Andrew Johnson's impeachment, in 1868, was followed by 30 years of weak presidents -- a trend that wasn't reversed until Teddy Roosevelt entered the White House. "I do think that the attack on Clinton was primarily because of his politics. Bob Barr was calling for the president's impeachment long before anyone had heard of Monica Lewinsky."

-- Frederic J. Frommer


On the debate about Peter Singer's appointment

A professor of politics asks both sides to stick to the truth

by Robert P. George

I have not publicly stated my views regarding Peter Singer's appointment as DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values. Nor shall I do so here. I communicated my thoughts about Singer and other possible appointees privately to Professor George Kateb while the DeCamp appointment committee was deliberating. My purpose here is first, to explain to supporters of Singer's appointment why many people are outraged by it, and second, to exhort critics of the appointment to behave in a fair and responsible manner.

An argument for infanticide, at least in certain circumstances, can be made on the basis of pro-choice premises, particularly where those premises are, as in Singer's case, utilitarian. Singer makes that argument in his published writings. It is a challenge to those of us who are pro-life, and, equally, to those on the pro-choice side who are struggling to find a successful argument for abortion that does not also justify at least some forms of infanticide.

What fundamentally concerns critics of Singer's hiring, I believe, is that the appointment to a professorial chair in ethics at a prestigious university of someone willing to argue for the killing of handicapped babies gives legitimacy to the practice of infanticide. Relatedly, it can only contribute to the weakening of the public's regard for the basic human rights of severely handicapped people generally. These concerns ought to be recognized as legitimate even by those who do not believe that they warrant the conclusion that the appointment ought not to have been made.

Candor demands that I raise another issue. Those of us who dissent from prevailing liberal opinion on abortion and other moral issues know that we are a distinct minority in the contemporary academy, and that people holding our views are frequently subject to discrimination in hiring and promotion. We know that it is highly unlikely, to say the least, that someone as far to the "right" on moral questions as Singer is to the "left" would ever win the kind of appointment Singer has been given. Is it imaginable, for example, that a pro-life philosopher, however brilliant, would be appointed to a chair in ethics at Princeton or one of her peer institutions if he publicly argued that the use of lethal force to prevent abortions is justified? (Of course, the vast majority of people who oppose abortion reject violence against abortionists, just as most supporters of "abortion rights" still resist Singer's argument for infanticide.) So those who defend Singer's appointment in the name of academic freedom, the need to have a diversity of viewpoints represented, and so forth should understand why their defense rings hollow in the ears of many of its critics.

At the same time, it appears that though most of those who oppose Singer's appointment have made the effort to present his views accurately, some have resorted to unfair tactics. Singer's writings have sometimes been distorted to make them appear more extreme than they are, and he has on occasion been misquoted, or quoted out of context. (Of course, it is also true that some of Singer's defenders have depicted his views as less extreme than they are.) This is unjustifiable. Precisely because those of us who defend the sanctity of human life and other traditional moral standards reject utilitarianism, we cannot consider lying and deceit to be morally justified even in the cause of opposing grave injustices such as abortion and infanticide. The end does not justify the means. However repugnant Professor Singer's opinions may be, it is wrong to misrepresent them in making the case against him. Let us criticize and condemn his advocacy of policies predicated on denying that the unborn, or partially born, or babies afflicted with spina bifida, Down's syndrome, and other handicaps have no right not to be killed; but let us not deprive him of his right not to have his views falsified.

Recall our own indignation at the lies that were told about Robert Bork in the successful effort to derail his Supreme Court nomination. Remember, too, our disgust at misrepresentations made by Martha Nussbaum, a professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, in what she apparently believed to be a good cause in the Colorado Amendment Two "gay rights" litigation. And consider our criticisms of those responsible for the falsehoods in the Brief of 281 American Historians supporting abortion in the 1989 case of Webster v. Reproductive Health Services. (In this case, of course, not all of the signatories knew about these falsehoods; many, no doubt, relied in good faith on the representations of those who drafted the brief.) On both Nussbaum and the Historians' Brief, see John Finnis, "'Shamelss Acts' in Colorado: Abuse of Scholarship in Constitutional Cases," Academic Questions (Fall 1994).

Neither liberals nor conservatives are justified in lying in what they take to be a good cause. Even if one believes that the adage about fighting fire with fire applies in the "culture wars" -- which I most definitely do not -- it is important to note that Professor Singer himself does not advance the causes in which he believes by dishonest means. He does not, for example, resort to euphemistic language to obscure the literally homicidal nature of some of these causes. In analogizing the intrinsic moral worth of day-old infants to that of snails, or in arguing that the effect of the death of a disabled child on parents who regret the child's birth counts as "a reason for, rather than against, killing it," Singer has been forthright in drawing out the implications of his utilitarian, pro-choice premises.

A very practical reason for critics of Singer's appointment to be scrupulously honest in making their case is that responsible criticism could prompt university officials and others to reflect anew on the issue of fairness in faculty appointments. Perhaps people who are not scandalized by Singer's views or his appointment could be persuaded at least to consider the likely fate of a candidate for an appointment in ethics who publicly advocated positions or policies that utterly outrage liberal moral sensibilities. Perhaps they could be made to confront the question whether academic freedom at Princeton means, as one of my colleagues put it, "the moral right to be as far to the moral left as you please."

At the same time, the controversy over Singer's appointment provides an occasion for its critics (and, indeed, everyone in the university community) to consider how we ought to conduct ourselves when we disagree about basic issues of justice and human rights. The question is itself a moral one. Norms of morality govern it, just as they govern the underlying issues on which we find ourselves in deep disagreement with our fellow citizens. I commend to anyone interested in exploring this question a valuable recent book, Democracy and Disagreement, by Amy Gutmann (of the Department of Politics) and Dennis Thompson (a former Princeton professor now at Harvard). In the May 1997 issue of the Harvard Law Review, I comment on some of the arguments advanced by Gutmann and Thompson, particularly in regard to the issue of abortion. One will not find in these writings all the answers to the questions that arise when some citizens consider a certain act to be a grave violation of human rights while others consider the choice to perform that very act to be itself a right. But they do offer some principles for thinking about these questions -- principles everyone would do well to bear in mind in debating Peter Singer's appointment at Princeton.


Robert P. George, an associate professor of politics, teaches philosophy of law and civil liberties. He recently completed a six-year term as a Presidential Appointee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights. For letters on the Singer debate, click here.

Rhodes, Marshall winners

After a rocky start to the scholarship season, two Princeton students received Rhodes and Marshall scholarships for two years of study in Great Britain. Sophie Dumont '99 will attend Oxford University on a Canadian Rhodes, and Richard Johnston '99 will study at the University of Sussex on a Marshall.

When the Rhodes Scholarship Trust released its list of the 32 American award winners for 1999, there were no Princeton students on the list for the first time since 1991. In fact, the entire Ivy League had a down year, as only students from Harvard and Yale were awarded scholarships. Harvard, MIT, and the University of Chicago were the only schools that had multiple winners, and five schools will be sending scholars for the first time. Two Princeton seniors and an alumnus won Rhodes scholarships last year.

Dumont received her award through the Canadian Rhodes committee, which selects 11 Canadian students per year. As a native of Quebec, Dumont's road to the scholarship was especially intense -- her interviews were conducted in both English and French. Dumont, who is majoring in physics, is writing her senior thesis in biophysics. Over the past two summers, she has researched how different kinds of behavior in bacteria respond to chemical stimuli. Dumont will continue her studies in physics at Oxford.

Johnston, who is an English major in the creative writing program, is writing a series of narrative poems for his thesis under the direction of Yusef Komunyakaa, the 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winner in poetry. Johnston's poems, which he describes as "very Southern," draw upon his family's experiences in his hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina. He hopes eventually to teach creative writing. Johnston plans to spend his first year at Sussex earning a master's degree in 20th-century literature, and his second year earning a master's in education.

Alumni to receive awards

John C. Bogle '51 and Ralph E. Gomory *54 P'79 will receive the university's highest awards for alumni on Alumni Day, February 20. Bogle will receive the Woodrow Wilson Award, given to an undergraduate alumnus or alumna who exemplifies "Princeton in the Nation's Service." Gomory will receive the Madison Medal, which recognizes an outstanding alumnus or alumna of the graduate school.

Bogle (top), who has been involved in finance since 1951, founded the mutual fund firm The Vanguard Group in 1974. Today the Vanguard Group is one of the two largest mutual fund organizations in the world. Bogle is also the author of Bogle on Mutual Funds: New Perspectives for the Intelligent Investor.

Gomory (bottom) served in the Navy and was a Higgins Lecturer in Mathematics at Princeton before joining IBM in 1959 as a research mathematician. He later became the director of several of IBM's labs. Upon his retirement from IBM in 1989, he became president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which awards grants for programs in science and technology.