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You’ll Never Know

May 30, 2000

Dick Morris, Bill Clinton’s former advisor, notes in his New York Post column that Jane Mayer was a guest at Hillary Clinton’s table at a recent state dinner in honor of the president of South Africa.

Who is Jane Mayer? Does the name ring a bell?

She is the former reporter for The New Yorker who received, and published, confidential information from Linda Tripp’s personal file at the Pentagon. Mrs. Tripp, it transpired, had been briefly arrested during her teens, a fact she failed to disclose when she applied for her Pentagon job.

Kenneth Bacon and Chris Bernath, the two Pentagon employees who gave her the data — illegally, of course — have now been very gently reprimanded by Secretary of Defense William Cohen. Cohen says that “there was no attempt to injure Mrs. Tripp’s credibility or her reputation.” Apparently the Pentagon routinely dispenses information illegally to curious reporters.

Morris doesn’t buy it. Speaking from long experience, he thinks the Clintons orchestrated the leak and have now paid off Miss Mayer for her role in publicizing it at a critical moment: “Seats at official state dinners at the White House are political plums which the president and the first lady use to reward their friends and punish their enemies.”

Such things do come to light every now and then, in spite of a lot of lying and concealment. But they should make us ask: How many other secrets are successfully hidden from the public? What else are the Clintons doing, hiding, and getting away with right this minute?

[Breaker quote: A lie is 
still a lie.]All rulers keep secrets; most lie to the public; many commit crimes. When we manage to penetrate some of their secrets, we are apt to assume that we know the full story, and we forget that they may still be withholding far more than we will ever discover. We know how much we know, but we never know how much we don’t know. Even a thoroughly investigated president like Richard Nixon, after some of his misdeeds are exposed, takes many secrets to his grave.

We can only try to guess what Bill Clinton may still be doing and hiding from what we have already learned about him. In a general way we know that he is corrupt and treacherous, that he habitually lies, that he is willing to bend and break the law. But unless he has a religious conversion and decides to confess everything, the full truth will remain inaccessible forever.

It usually does. We sometimes think of history as a full account of the past, the last word, complete with final judgments and neat lessons. “What does history say?” we ask, as if History rendered ultimate verdicts with a single voice. We want History to sound like Edward Gibbon, whose Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire seems to say, with magnificent finality, everything that needs saying about a millennium.

But writing history is an iffy business — one of the iffiest. Under the spell of Gibbon’s sonorous prose we may forget how little he actually knew. His account of Rome’s decline is a tremendous feat of digesting the records of the past, but those records are usually sketchy, partly because the Romans didn’t keep records the way we do, but also because people lied and concealed a lot in those days too.

C.S. Lewis once tried to express the ratio of what is known about the past to what is unknown by imagining a huge library that had burnt down, destroying all but one line in a single book. The known history of the world is like that single line; everything else in the library is lost to us.

It’s a delusion to think we can know the past — or the present — in more than a fragmentary way. “He who is unaware of his ignorance,” a wise man observed, “will be only misled by his knowledge.”

For all that, history is one of the most rewarding of studies. If nothing else, it can teach us about the abiding tendencies of men and rulers. If you know something of the Roman emperors, the Clintons won’t take you by surprise.

Joseph Sobran

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