John R. Vile, Professor and Chair, Department of Political Science, Middle Tennessee State University. The author extends special thanks to two colleagues, Robb McDaniel and Walter Renn, for commenting on an earlier version of this article.
The last twenty-five years have witnessed major scandals involving Presidents Nixon and Clinton. Although scholars frequently look for guidance to political theorists and founding fathers, public perceptions may often be more clearly shaped by Biblical stories. Two Biblical stories, both involving scandals in the lives of two kings of Israel are generally understood to be among the most profound among the histories of these rulers. The first involved Israel's second and greatest King, David, who was then ruling over a united kingdom of Israel and Judah. The other involved one of its most wicked—albeit it far from ineffective—Kings, Ahab, who was then ruling only over the northern kingdom of Israel.
The story of David is the better known story. During the Lewinsky controversy, there have been televised discussions about this story among Jesse Jackson, Chuck Colson, Pat Robertson, and Jerry Falwell. Other references have included one by Clinton's pastor in Washington, D.C., an article by Franklin Graham (son of evangelist Billy Graham) in the August 27 issue of the Wall Street Journal, and a speech by Bernice King (daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr.) at the White House on September 22 affirming that, Clinton should not be removed from office because, even after being caught in adultery, "David remained king."
In addition to the movie David and Bathsheba, which has now apparently played at least twice on television since Clinton admitted his affair with Monica Lewinsky (and which refers to a drought not mentioned in the Bible in connection with David but with King Ahab and his confrontations with Elijah), the movies The Man in the Iron Mask and Blue Skies have both reflected similar story lines. In the first, the king sends a fiancee into battle where he is killed so that the king can woo his betrothed, and, in the second, a military commander sends a husband to a remote post so that he can seduce his all too willing wife. Similarly, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's account of "The Crooked Man," which has been made into a television movie, features a Sherlock Holmes mystery in which a Colonel dies of apoplexy after being confronted with a comrade whom he had betrayed to the enemy thirty years previously in order that he might win the affection and marry the daughter of a former colour-sergeant of their corps; a key clue turns out to be pejorative references to David in the conversation between the Colonel and his wife. More recently, the write-up of an exhibition at the Library of Congress (James H. Hutson's, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, 1998) featured a cover picture of a needlework creation, done shortly after the Boston Massacre, which used the story of David and Absolum (later also used in Faulkner's Absolum, Absolum!) to symbolize the relation between England and its colonies.
Fewer people seem to know about, or perceive the relevance of the story of Ahab and Naboth than know about the story of David and Bathsheba, although Melville's decision to name the obsessive-compulsive Captain Ahab in Moby Dick would indicate that there may be some residual national collective memory of this character. Still, it too can help illumine contemporary discussion about Nixon and Clinton and provide a model of an executive ultimately held accountable to law and subject to rebuke. Given America's reputation as a religious nation, many Americans may ultimately make their judgments of Clinton on the basis of Biblical sources. Such texts have shaped American opinion at least as far back as the Puritans. Such divergent works as Jacques Ellul's The Politics of God & the Politics of Man and Eric Voegelin's Israel and Revelation have demonstrated the political profundity of these texts.
The first two sections of this article will center on a retelling of these events. The story of David and Bathsheba is recorded chiefly in 2 Samuel, Chapters 11 and 12; the rest of that book also outlines a number of adverse consequences, and Psalm 51 is thought to reflect David's feelings during this time. The story of Ahab and Naboth is found chiefly in 1 Kings, Chapter 21, although the consequences play themselves out in the following chapter and in parts of 2 Kings.
In the 1960s when love—and the lust that often passed for it—was popular and war was not, a popular slogan called for individuals to "make love, not war." Conversely, 2 Samuel 11:1 begins with the story of a king who absented himself from war (perhaps like candidate Clinton, he did not perceive foreign policy to be as important as the economy). In the spring, when kings of the day were expected to "go off to war, " (NIV) David remained at his palace in Jerusalem while his chief commander, the bloody Joab, fought the Ammorites in Rubbah. As David strolled his rooftop in the evening, he spied Bathsheba bathing and was attracted to her beauty. He inquired and found that she was Bathsheba "the daughter of Eliam." (2 Sam. 11:3) Since there was then "no controlling legal authority" prohibiting a king from having multiple wives, this information presented no immediate problem. However, Bathsheba was also the "wife of Uriah the Hittite," (2 Sam. 11:3) a member of David's elite guard, which was then at the front line. Undeterred, David summoned Bathsheba to the palace, slept with her, and sent her home. King David appeared to be in firm control in Jerusalem and, arguably, no real harm had been done. Yes, he had committed adultery, but, however asymmetrical those with a nose for sexual harassment might have found the power relationship between David and Bathsheba to have been, their act did not appear to be specifically job-related. Furthermore; it took place in private between two consenting adults, and no-one, other than perhaps David or Bathsheba, was the wiser.
Walter Brueggeman describes in David's Truth (Fortress Press, 1985) how the narrative of David and Bathsheba begins with strong action words that portray King David as though he were in complete control of the situation. (pp. 55-65) But, however much David might summon his subjects, he could not control God, or nature, and Bathsheba soon sent a message that must have shaken his feeling of control. In English, her message is expressed in three words," I am pregnant." (2 Sam. 11:5) David now followed his initial sin—the rough equivalent of the break-in of Democratic headquarters by Nixon's plumbers or of Clinton's Oval Office trysts with Monica Lewinsky—with a cover up.
David seemingly began with as much confidence as when he first summoned Bathsheba, only now he sent word to Joab summoning Uriah, Bathsheba's husband. The plan was relatively simple and, assuming David had not passed along a social disease to Bathsheba, not terribly hurtful. When Uriah arrived, David asked about the army and its success and suggested that Uriah go to his house where he apparently expected Bathsheba to keep her mouth shut and anticipated that sexual attraction between a long absent husband and his wife would take its natural course. When a child arrived seven or eight months later, Uriah would think the child was his, and the secret relationship between Bathsheba and David would never be revealed.
Uriah either smelled a rat or demonstrated the kind of nobility that is more frequently associated with David the shepherd boy, the man after God's own heart (I Sam. 13:14). Not once, but twice (the second time after David had plied him with alcohol), Uriah rejected such indulgence, saying that it would be improper for him to enjoy his wife's consortium while his colleagues were sleeping in tents on the battlefield. Perhaps David should have let Uriah spend the night on his roof and hoped that he caught a glimpse of his wife bathing!
Instead, compounding his earlier sin, David resorted to a back up plan that was far more sinister than either his original sin or his original plans for a cover up. The movie Wag the Dog and questions raised by President Clinton's recent orders to bomb facilities in Sudan and Afghanistan in retaliation for the bombings of two American embassies in Africa, have reminded us that domestic and foreign policy may sometimes overlap. So too, David's new plan would rely on his power as commander in chief of the armed forces. Mendaciously sending a sealed message by the intended victim of his scheme, David instructed Joab to put Uriah on the front line of battle and withdraw so that he would be killed. Joab complied and Uriah was killed.
Anticipating possible criticism for approaching so close to the city, Joab instructed the messenger to mention Uriah's death. David told the messenger not to be upset—such things happened in love (he might have thought, but did not dare say) and war. Bathsheba mourned Uriah; David took Bathsheba as a wife; and she bore him a son. David and Joab were seemingly the only men in the know, and Joab was as loyal as Webster Hubball, Susan McDougal, John Erhlichman or Bob Haldeman. David's secret was safe with Joab and Bathsheba (although, in light of contemporary experience with Linda Tripp, one cannot help but wonder about the palace gossips), and, with no telephones, recorders, gifts, or stained dresses, David probably felt secure.
Chapter 11 ends, however, by indicating that, whatever accountability might be missing to the people, the king of Israel was subject to a higher power. The writer says that, what David did, "displeased the LORD," (2 Sam. 11:27, NIV) who had seen more and kept more accurate records than any marvel of modern technology. God had seen David when he first lusted after Bathsheba on the rooftop, when he bedded her down in the palace, when he tried to trick Uriah into going home, when he sent the message that resulted in Uriah's death, and when he brought Bathsheba into the palace as his wife. David had broken at least four of the six commandments that relate to other people—he had committed adultery, murder, theft, and envy. Perhaps he had also violated the first part of the commandments, committing idolatry by setting Bathsheba and sexual pleasure in place of God Himself, but this seems a stretch by comparison to the more evident sins against individuals.
According to 1 Samuel 8, God never intended for the Israelites to have a king (Also see 1 Sam. 12). In part, God objected because he knew that their desire stemmed from peer pressure and pagan envy, the desire to be like surrounding nations. Then, too, God foresaw that kings would take more than their fair share of the nation's sons and daughters to serve them and impose heavy taxation. In announcing God's displeasure with the people's desire for a king, Samuel did not go on to say, as Madison would later assert in Federalist, No. 47, that the concentration of all governmental powers in a single person's hands was the very essence of tyranny, but the story of David and Bathsheba suggests that even the best of kings, a king "after God's own heart," could commit terrible wrongdoing and that some check on such abuse of power was needed.
If the period of the judges sometimes mirrored a biblical equivalent of a Hobbesian state of nature where "everyone did as he saw fit," (Judges 21:25), the period of kings showed the dangers of the Hobbesian solution of creating a virtually absolute power. Moreover, although it is not altogether clear what rules were involved, Samuel appears to have drawn up a set of rules for kings when he annointed Saul to this office (I Sam. 10: 25), and, whatever its content, such a written code would clearly have been designed to indicate that the king was subject to legal authority.
The check on David's governing authority, like that presented in the later story of Ahab, is not, however, routinely available to secular regimes. Instead of grand juries, special prosecutors, and impeachment hearings, God depended on the solitary prophet, Nathan. Curiously, God waited to send him until after David and Bathsheba's son was born and after both probably thought they had escaped the punishment for their sins.
A close reading of 2 Samuel suggests that Nathan was part of what we might call the executive branch or the justice department; alternatively, he might be regarded as an executive chaplain, the modern day equivalent of a Billy Graham, a Gordon McDonald, or a Tony Compolo. Long after the incident here, Nathan remained a court counselor (his advice ultimately led to the succession of Solomon, another of David and Bathsheba's sons, as king. See 1 Kings 1). Moreover, he seems to have had no problem obtaining an audience with David.
Like the judges who had preceded them and who sometimes had provided what little law there sometimes was (Judges 21:25) prior to the monarchy, the Israelite prophets and kings were often called upon to resolve disputes that we today send to the judicial branch. As though he were calling upon David to deliver such a judgment in a pending case, perhaps on appeal from Nathan's court, Nathan proceeded to relate a story of two neighbors, one rich and one poor (2 Sam. 12:1-4). David was incensed to learn that the rich man, with many sheep and cattle of his own, had taken his neighbor's only lamb (described as being "like a daughter to him") to prepare a meal for a guest. Burning with indignation, David first declared that the rich man deserved to die, but then qualified his judgment by ordering four-fold restitution (2 Sam. 12:4-6).
Nathan pointed the finger of blame in David's face. "You are the man!" he said, as he revealed God's knowledge of David's adultery and murder. He also delivered God's judgment on David's household including the impending death of the son that David had fathered by Bathsheba.
In contrast to both Nixon and Clinton, and to the father of all human kind who first pointed his finger at his wife, who in turn pointed to the serpent in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:12-13), David did not temporize with sin. It was the true measure of his greatness that he did not try to justify what he had done by citing the practice of surrounding pagan kings. He did not blame Nathan (Cox or Starr) for delivering judgment, pin the blame on Uriah's (Hillary's) absence from his household, dispute God's definition of sexual relations (Clinton), blame God for making Bathsheba (Monica) so beautiful or Bathsheba for bathing outside (or serving as an intern), or Joab (Kendall) for carrying out his orders. Instead, David frankly acknowledged, "I have sinned against the LORD." (2 Sam. 12:13)
It may be that, as deep as was his contrition, David still underestimated the harm he had done to others. Thus, not only here but in Psalm 51: 4, David proclaimed, "Against you, you only, have I sinned," somewhat conveniently omitting Uriah and Bathsheba from the picture (again, we recall that the most obvious sins that David committed involved the second part of the Decalogue and its catalog of trespasses against others rather than the first part that focused on offenses against God). If this sounds like Clinton omitting in his first televised speech to the nation to apologize to Monica Lewinsky and saying the matter was only between his family and his God, however, Nathan did not interpret the confession in that way. Hence, Nathan extended God's forgiveness, albeit without mitigating David's punishment. As the remainder of 2 Samuel reveals, David and Bathsheba's son soon died, one of David's sons raped one of his daughters and was in turn murdered by her brothers, and David's son, Absolum, led a revolt and indulged himself with David's own concubines on his father's rooftop (2 Sam. 16:22). But David himself was be saved, and his own remorse (although displayed, in the case of his son, in such a manner as to indicate that he was hoping that God would relent from his punishment—2 Sam. 12:15-23) convinced most onlookers of his contrition. It is too bad there were no CNN commentators to suggest that he go in for marital counseling.
The story of a generally praiseworthy King David who committed a grievous sin and covered it up, contrasts with the story of King Ahab, an habitual sinner reputed to have been one of the most wicked kings of the northern kingdom of Israel. Just as partisans who favor or disfavor President Clinton seem to hold almost as much esteem or contempt for his wife, so too, King Ahab's subjects got "two for the price of one." Although the Bible rarely refers to David and Bathsheba together except in the context of their adultery, Ahab and Jezebel almost always appear as a pair, and the writer of 1 Kings seems to blame her for Ahab's evil even more than the king. Like the earlier wives of King Solomon (who were not there simply to adorn the royal harem but appear to have served genuine foreign policy objectives), Jezebel was a foreigner from Sidon (definitely not a native Arkansan) whom Ahab may well have married in order to cement a friendship or treaty between his agricultural country and that trading land.
Like modern advocates of multi-culturalism, Jezebel brought her gods with her to the northern capital of Samaria, perhaps not fully understanding that Jehovah was a jealous God Who was unwilling, like other gods, to live in peace with others' gods. One who doubts the attitude of Jehovah need only recall the first of the Ten Commandments, "You shall have no other gods before me." (Ex. 20: 3) To the biblical prophets, gods like those that Jezebel brought with her were not simply inferior gods; they were the mere work of men's hands and thus no gods at all. By contrast, to Jezebel, the worship of such gods was an essential prerequisite to fertility and prosperity, and so she set up her own places of worship on Israel's hills and provided financial support for the priests of Baal out of her own pocket.
Ahab is more difficult to comprehend. The author of 1 Kings describes him as doing "more evil in the eyes of the LORD than any of those before him." (16:30) However, one of the primary sins with which he was associated was that he "married Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him." (I Kings 16:31) Moreover, although he is said to have done "more to provoke the LORD, the God of Israel, to anger than did all the kings of Israel before him," (I Kings 16:33), he allowed for the slaying of the 450 false prophets of Baal after Elijah showed their inability to summon their god on Mt. Carmel. Moreover, when Elijah subsequently fled to Mt. Horeb, he fled, not from Ahab, but from the anger of his wife, Jezebel.
A reader might gather that Jezebel was the real power behind the throne just as some have speculated that, for Hillary Rodham to govern the country, she had to marry Bill Clinton; hence, bumper stickers proclaim, "Impeach The President, and Her Husband." Unlike President Clinton, Ahab was better known for his empathy with his own problems than for feeling the pain of his people, and he liked to sulk. By contrast, Jezebel was known for getting things done!
The last verse of the story prior to that of Nabath's vineyard shows Ahab being reprimanded by an unnamed prophet and withdrawing, "Sullen and angry" to his palace in Samaria. (I Kings 20:43) Perhaps as he sulked, Ahab looked out his window and saw a nearby vineyard belonging to Naboth of Jezreel. Ahab subsequently found Naboth and made him an offer that any good capitalist (such as those that he and Jezebel would have been familiar with in Sidon) would find difficult to refuse. Ahab offered either to give Naboth a better vineyard or pay him what it was worth.
Seemingly oblivious to monetary loss or gain, Naboth suddenly brought God into the equation. Naboth could not sell the land because it could not be priced. It was not a mere article of commerce, but an "inheritance" of Naboth's fathers. Naboth could not negotiate with Ahab because Naboth understood that sacred things were not the subject of commerce. Ahab probably did not understand Naboth, or, if he did, like modern would-be sophisticates, he probably either equated Naboth's belief with superstition or thought that Naboth was trying to deal sharply with him. Naboth, however, was not trying to ratchet up the price or get a better vineyard in exchange; God forbade transfer of an inheritance, and that was that. To rephrase a popular bumper-sticker, God said it, Nabboth believed it, and, for him, that settled it!
A constitutional scholar might at first ponder how, if at all, the Fifth Amendment provision for eminent domain—that is, the right of the government to take private property for public use upon the payment of just compensation—might have solved Ahab's problem and given Naboth a way out of his filial obligation. But whether Ahab had cited eminent domain or not, Naboth could no more have given up his land than must of us could give up our family name, repudiate our country, or our God, or remain impassive as our nation's flag was being burned. J. Robinson suggests in The First Book of Kings (Cambridge, University Press, 1972, p. 236) that the land Naboth had been asked to sell might have contained ancestral tombs, which would have compounded any sacrilege in its sale.
Ahab initially knew enough about Jehovah to know that, when Naboth gave his refusal and cited Jehovah's law, he was licked. Perhaps like too many grown men in the days before televised football and Bud Lite, Ahab returned "sullen and angry" to his palace, laid on his bed, turned his face (presumably to the wall where he could not longer look out his window onto Naboth's vineyard) and refused to eat.
However Jezebel might treat the prophets of Jehovah, she was ever solicitous of her husband. Ahab explained the situation, omitting only the reason that Naboth gave for refusing to sell his vineyard—although he may have been attempting to skewer his case against Naboth, it seems more likely that he just did not think she would understand such a religious position. Like future British queens, Jezebel was neither amused with Naboth nor her husband. Undoubtedly reflecting the principles of unlimited monarchy that typified the pagan nation in which she had been the daughter of a king, she rebuked Ahab, "Is this how you act as king over Israel?" (I Kings 21:7) More determined to get her way than was Ahab, she told him to cheer up and promised to get him the vineyard.
Having set this plunder in motion without specifically authorizing it (one thinks of the way in which Nixon initially initiated the Watergate crisis), Ahab, like the later Nixon, was shrewd enough not to ask any bothersome questions that might make him a co-conspirator, or accessory, before the fact. For her part, knowing that there was no Supreme Court that could declare her actions to be unconstitutional, Jezebel showed utter contempt for judicial and legal processes. She Who Must Be Obeyed would use the very system of law that Naboth cited as a limitation on the king's request to destroy Naboth, and, if this required the corruption of the elders and nobles of the city in which Naboth lived, so be it. The Israelites would come to see how law is practiced in a land with real kings and real queens who did not fear the consequences of subornation of perjury, perversion of justice, and even outright murder. As instructed, the city's rulers provided a feast, set Naboth in a prominent place, shamelessly brought forth two false witnesses against him who accused him of atheism and sedition, and stoned him to death (1 Kings 21:8-14). As one who lived by Jehovah's law, Naboth would die by it, albeit as perverted by the heretical Jezebel.
Soon thereafter, Jezebel triumphantly announced to Ahab that Naboth had died. She further instructed Ahab to possess his vineyard, which Naboth had presumably forfeited to him under law because of the crimes of which he had been convicted. Daring not to ask for any details that might reveal that hard money and injustice were involved rather than soft money and irreproachable conduct, Naboth went to his vineyard.
At about the same time, "the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite," (1 Kings 21:17), who was no stranger to Ahab or Jezebel and who, in fact, had dogged them almost from the beginning of their reign. He was instructed to meet Ahab "in Naboth's vineyard" (God apparently did not concede that a legal transfer had taken place, and the author of the passage refers to the vineyard's as Naboth's just as the author of 2 Samuel continually refers to Bathsheba as Uriah's wife) and deliver God's judgment. Unlike Nathan, Elijah was no court favorite. As one who once predicted and sat out a three year famine after which he embarrassed and killed the prophets of Jezebel, Elijah was not a welcome sight to Ahab. Elijah's presence must have been about as welcome to Ahab as the presence of the current special prosecutor, whose work covers a similar time period and a similar variety of possible charges, must have been to President Clinton when he was deposed in the White House Map Room about the Lewinsky affair.
Even before Elijah could deliver judgments against him, Ahab referred to Elijah as "his enemy" (12:20. Similarly, compare I Kings 18:17 where Ahab greets Elijah with "Is this you, you troubler of Israel?"). But Elijah did not seem any more concerned about offending the king than Ken Starr generally seems to care about how his actions are received by the president or public opinion—although both pictures of being above the fray may be overdrawn since Elijah twice rather overly dramatically complained to God in another context that he alone among the Israelites had remained true to Him 1 Kings 19:10; 14, and, after some early mistakes, Starr has apparently hired his own media consultant. If Elijah was sometimes discouraged, there are other times when he appeared to relish his prophetic role. Indeed, whereas God had told Elijah that dogs would devour Ahab's body, Elijah seemingly elaborated still further and went on to predict that all Ahab's male heirs would be cut off and that dogs would devour the body of Jezebel (Compare 21:19 to 21:24). In justifying these harsh words, the writer of Kings noted that "There was never a man like Ahab, who sold himself to do evil in the eyes of the LORD, urged on by Jezebel his wife." (21:25)
At this point, however, the story takes a surprising turn. Ahab, who as an accomplice after the fact rather than an actual co-conspirator in Naboth's demise, may not have been as culpable as Jezebel, showed all the signs of grief and contrition. He tore his clothes, put on sack cloth, and "went around meekly." (verse 27) God, in turn, showed mercy by delaying some of the punishments forecast for Ahab to the lives of Ahab's sons. Ahab did, however, come to a violent end in a battle against the King of Aram. As predicted, the dogs licked up his blood (1 Kings 22:38) just as they would consume all of Jezebel except for her skull, her feet and the palms of her hands (2 Kings 9:35) The seventy sons of Ahab were, in turn, all slain (2 Kings 10:1-11).
This retelling of these two Biblical stories should show that there are plenty of parallels for those of us who are looking for them. Clearly, while neither event parallels the modern cases of Nixon and Clinton completely, both may offer lessons. It is perhaps trite to begin with the obvious, but Biblical stories show that executive wrong-doing is not new. What is more, these stories show that such wrong-doing may take place whether an executive is generally regarded as just or unjust, pious or impious. Perhaps both because of the absence of institutional restraints that American government possesses and as proof of God's own warnings about the institution of kingship, Israel's best and worse kings are both found guilty of heinous offenses. It is no wonder that the otherwise skeptical Thomas Paine saw fit, just prior to the American Revolution, to cite scripture in attacking the English monarchy in Common Sense. The Old Testament narratives appear to vindicate Lord Acton's observations about the corrupting effects of power. In American terms, the Biblical stories read almost as though Washington and Harding, Jefferson and Nixon, Lincoln and Grant had all ended their terms in disgrace.
Aaron Wildavsky has observed in The Nursing Father: Moses as a Political Leader (University of Alabama Press, 1984) that the Hebrew scriptures do not appear to sanction a particular form of government, but stories like those of the Egyptian Pharaoh and the Babylonian king clearly indicate that its authors disfavored any form that set up a ruler or rulers in place of God. The people of Israel had entered into a covenant relationship with God, and, although God might believe that certain forms of government like kingship were more likely to lead to certain problems than are others, He was willing to work within Israel's choices, as long as they were not absolutized. The Bible did not quite create a written constitution like that with which we in America are familiar, but it clearly indicated that king and commoner were subject to God's law, which had been revealed to Moses and committed to writing, and to the corresponding judgments that were intended to make citizens take it seriously.
Ironically, even a law breaker can affirm the nobility of the law, and, ultimately, the reason that David and Ahab were spared immediate death is that they acknowledged their own injustice. Contrariwise, Nixon, and Clinton—both in his initial speech to the nation and in subsequent hair-splitting by his lawyers—have failed largely because they do not fully appear to have accepted their own accountability under the law.
When this writer first began working on these stories, he thought that Nixon would seem more like Ahab and that Clinton would more closely resemble David, and he still thinks there are some such parallels. From his early years as a politician, cartoonists rarely parted Nixon from his jowls, his five o'clock shadow, and his reputation for being a good used car salesman any more than Biblical writers allow us to forget that Ahab was the most wicked king in all Israel. In James David Barber's well known, if antiseptic, typology, Nixon comes across as an "active negative" president.
By contrast (and despite recurring references to "Slick Willy"), the media have tended to portray Clinton more sympathetically—one thinks of his designation as "the comeback kid" and the picture of Clinton in his youth at the White House for Boy's Nation shaking hands with President Kennedy. Similarly, the Biblical stories of the early David are almost all positive, with the story of his triumph over Goliath bringing him even more acclaim than the existing king, Saul. David, like Clinton, appeared to have been the fair haired boy, an appropriate theme for a Michelangelo sculpture. More like Jezebel, Nixon seemed to have come up from the wrong side of the tracks, whereas Clinton, if not from a wealthy family, was nonetheless well connected. David's initial sins—like those of Clinton, which were commonly rumored (witness the allegations of Jennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, and the publication of Primary Colors) even before the Lewinsky scandal—began with an understandable attraction to beautiful women. By contrast, Ahab's and Nixon's apparent desire to increase respectively their property and the powers of their offices appear more prosaic. Had Uriah cooperated with David's original cover-up, David's initial sin might have been considered to be little more than a private personal matter, whereas Ahab's greed and his collusion with his wife seemed to result almost inevitably in murder.
Personality-wise, Clinton and David appear to have a similar flair for public drama, for wearing their emotions on their sleeves, and for expressing emotion—no-one can read the story of David and Absolum without feeling David's deep pain. Although he was slower than David in coming clean, when he finally began to confess, Clinton, most notably in his apology at the Washington prayer breakfast, showed—as had an earlier confession about causing "pain" in his marriage with the Jennifer Flowers affair—that he could show deep emotion in public. By contrast Nixon and Ahab appear shy and almost awkward in public and reserved even in private (it is almost laughable to imagine Nixon presenting a copy of Leaves of Grass to anyone, much less an intern, as Clinton reputedly did to Monica Lewinsky). Ahab sulked privately and revealed his inmost thoughts only to his wife, and Nixon reputedly wore a business suit even when he walked the beach.
No parallel seems perfect, however, and, if there is one aspect of the Clinton story that seems more to parallel that of Ahab than David, it is the close alliance in popular opinion between how individuals view him and his wife. Few, if any presidential wives have been more praised or slandered—and arguably on such slender grounds. Thus, a congressman speaking at the September, 1998 meeting of the Christian Coalition meeting, mustered great applause when he spoke of Washington D.C. as "Rodham and Gomorrah." Whether the ever increasing "right wing conspiracy" is correct in identifying Hillary as mendacious (and this author certainly is not convinced), as a well educated and articulate graduate of one of the nation's best law schools, and a lawyer who long earned far more money than her husband, she has always seemed determined and strong-willed, so much so that even the president's initial televised "apology" (if such it can be called) for cheating on her apparently bore her imprimatur. Moreover, although it certainly does not prove any legal guilt, Mrs. Clinton has the dubious distinction of being the only first lady ever to be called to a federal court house and questioned under oath in the "file-gate" and "travel-gate" matters by a prosecutor, thus expanding the special prosecutor's case against the president and arguably making it almost as personal as when Elijah singled out Jezebel for special punishment. Even James Carville seemingly tries to engender sympathy for the president by playing off the right-wing image of Hillary Clinton as a kind of Jezebel and telling us how she has, presumably on all our behalves, taken him to the woodshed.
Nixon's aides wanted us to believe that Watergate was just about "a third rate burglary," and Clinton's contemporary supporters, most notably James Carville, would have us believe that Kenneth Starr's allegations are "simply about sex," but the basis of Nixon's demise and the real legal concerns now facing Clinton center, as in the case of David, and to a lesser extent in Ahab's, are based on enlisting co-conspirators and the cover-up. For David the original sin was lust, the co-conspirator was Joab, and the cover-up was murder. For Ahab, the original sin was covetousness, the co-conspirator was Jezebel, and the result was murder.
There may be another parallel. When the American people heard tapes of Nixon in the Oval Office with their numerous "expletives deleted," and of Clinton's sexual trysts in or just off the Oval Office, many thought that they involved a kind of sacrilege, a failure, like Ahab's contempt for Naboth's vineyard, to recognize the sacredness of holy places. Although he may have exaggerated, former presidential aide Oliver North described on a television show how President Reagan had so much respect for the Oval Office that he refused to remove his jacket when he had meetings there. By contrast, like Ahab, Nixon's and Clinton's shortcomings appear compounded by their failure to recognize that they committed their offenses on holy ground. This explains some of the similar concern that surrounds Clinton's alleged selling of nights in the Lincoln Bedroom.
One area in which the Biblical stories outlined here may detract from, rather than clarify, contemporary events is that the Biblical stories both resulted in murders. Although both the Nixon and Clinton affairs have led to indictments and convictions, thus indicating that neither were "victimless" crimes, neither has had such personally dire consequences as the Biblical scandals. It is interesting to speculate as to whether right-wing attempts to transform Vince Foster's death from a suicide to a murder (like even sleazier, and equally false, allegations made on videotapes once hawked by Jerry Falwell about alleged drug-running murders connected to Clinton) have not fed off this false parallel. Especially in the Clinton case, it may be important to keep in mind that, whether Clinton's conduct was completely personal and private or not, there is, as yet, no corpus delicti.
In both Biblical examples, the bearer of God's message, his judgment, and— ultimately—at least some mercy, was a prophet. Modern America, as an example of a more bureaucratized state, described by Max Weber, with less faith in the constancy and efficacy of such charismatic authority, has substituted a whole bevy of legal and juridical institutions including grand juries, special prosecutors, courts and judges, and, even impeachment and trial. In addition, political parties give politicians a natural inclination to support or oppose the president, and the press has become a kind of fourth estate, discovering and keeping before the public eyes facts that would not otherwise be known. When presidents commit offenses, reporters try to corner them in news conferences; prosecutors and congressional investigators look for tapes, "smoking guns," e-mail messages, and DNA stained dresses; and members of Congress weigh the meaning of "high crimes and misdemeanors." Judgment is less quick and certain.
Several colleagues, many of whom might have granted a prophetic role to Archibald Cox, Leon Jaworski, and John Sirica, were flustered when this writer told them that he planned to paint Kenneth Starr, the hymn-singing, church college educated son of a Church of Christ preacher (who, however, went on from a church school to some of the nation's most elite institutions), as a prophet. "He's so moralistic," they said, to which this writer thought, "Exactly." Although Nathan showed, through the hypothetical that he posed to David, that he could deliver a message even of dire judgment in a winsome way, Elijah appears to be the more typical prophet. Like a special prosecutor or an over-wound energizer bunny, he pushed ahead through thick or thin, penury or prosperity (and Biblical scholars and archaeologists generally agree that, except for a three-year drought predicted by Elijah, Ahab would have been comfortable relying on "It's the economy, stupid"). He was commissioned to tell the truth, not to pander to public opinion or to gauge the Dow Jones Industrials. If Elijah did not, like the prophet Nathan, appear to pry overly into the king's sexual habits and shout them from the housetops (the Biblical equivalent of "posting on the net"), one assumes it was only because other issues were more important and not for any particular lack of delicacy on Elijah's part.
Although special prosecutors, like prophets, are charged with upholding the law, their opponents often portray them as party leaders. As an insider, Nathan hardly fulfilled such a role, but Elijah was an outsider who was perpetually defending Jehovah and his loyalists against those who worshipped Baal. Thus, it was far more difficult for Ahab to accept his judgments than it was for David to heed Nathan's. Ahab and Elijah were engaged in a "cultural war" not unlike that which surrounds Clinton and Starr, and it is not surprising that each party demonizes the other. In the case of Bill and Hillary Clinton, their own liberal political principles seem so in conflict with their religious identities as a Southern Baptist and Methodist respectively, that their opponents probably regard them as heretics, who may accordingly be even less deserving than outsiders who do not know any better.
Unlike prophets, special prosecutors cannot act alone. The courts have ultimately proved to be key allies. Conservative and other critics of the U.S. Supreme Court might well reflect that neither Watergate nor the Lewinsky Scandal would have turned out the same without the justices' decisions in U.S. v. Nixon and Jones v. Clinton. Not only did the decisions in these two cases ultimately reaffirm that even presidents are under the law, but, in time, they also helped expose the facts to public view.
Modern pundits who apply the story of David and Bathsheba to Clinton almost invariably point either to the certainty of God's judgment on sin as a reason for Clinton to resign and/or be impeached or to God's mitigation of punishment as a reason that he should be allowed to stay. Some, though generally willing to wait for the more complete information, seem to be leaning toward impeachment and conviction of Clinton either as a necessary purgative that will allow the nation to move on and reestablish effective leadership (the need for "moral authority" now appears to have displaced "It's the economy, stupid") or as a rough equivalent to the justice that God meted out to David. Others seem content for the present to let nature, and Hillary, take their course. Still others think that Congress should content itself with passing a vote of censure, a move made to date against only one other president—Andrew Jackson—and that for a political difference rather than on a question of personal wrong-doing.
It would be helpful if one or both of the Biblical stories examined here gave us a conclusive answer, but, however "imperial" American presidents may sometimes act, the truth is that they are not kings, and we are not God. Unlike the Israelites, Americans live in a nation with a First Amendment that requires separation of church and state and where the lines between law and morality and between private and public conduct are necessarily more ambiguous.
Although both Biblical stories indicate that God's judgments on the unjust and their sins are sure and His mercy to those who seek his pardon is abundant beyond human understanding, there is no sure word from the Lord as to what our role in extending such punishment or mercy may be in the case of an elected president. Some heirs to kings, including Israel's first king, Saul, did lose their kingdoms (probably the nearest Biblical equivalent to impeachment and removal from office), whereas others like David and Ahab did not. However, Clinton would likely prefer being removed from office to the punishments that God meted out to either David or Ahab and their families. Moreover, when we look to our own Constitution and history, we find that although treason and bribery are fairly well-defined offenses, "high crimes and misdemeanors" are not. Without such certain knowledge, impeachment and/or conviction will always involve elements of personal judgment, and, particularly in election years like the one at hand, there is always the danger that decisions will be made merely on a partisan basis.
The judgment of American historians, reaffirmed in John Kennedy's popular retelling of the story in a chapter in Profiles in Courage, appears to be that the nation was fortunate that the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson, which were based largely on political differences, did not result in a conviction. Had this impeachment succeeded, it is believed that the American presidency would have been significantly, perhaps even fatally, weakened. These same historians generally agree that, because of his lying, acts of law-breaking, and his abuse of power, President Richard Nixon deserved to be legally removed from office had he not resigned. In his case, a nation's unwillingness to impeach and convict could have sent the message that he was not legally accountable for his activities; not surprisingly, there is continued disagreement about whether President Ford's pardon of Nixon was appropriate.
Contemporary American culture has no lack of shrill voices, but it appears short on prophets, and it will take a while for pundits and historians to reach a consensus. Still, in large part because of our long Biblical heritage with its emphasis on the rule of law and its fear of the abuse of power, this nation is blessed to have a very clear process in place to express and refine our considered judgments. The nation is further blessed to have a legally designated successor to a president, and even a vice-president, if one is needed.
If an impeachment trial takes place, there is no need for it to involve some kind of inevitable "crisis." An impeachment is likely to take considerable time, and, given the political influences that surround the U.S. Congress, an impeachment trial will not guarantee a just and prudent outcome. Still impeachment is an awesome legal process designed to stimulate thoughtful reflection. When historians look back on our time, this writer hopes that they judge that we did what was right for the man and for the country. He further hopes that the precedent the nation sets in Clinton's case is one, like Johnson's and Nixon's, that it can proudly cite the next time it is inevitably faced with human short-comings that will always plague the rulers of earthly nations, be they kingdoms or republics.
© Copyright 1998, John R. Vile. All rights reserved.