Justice Should Come Before Closure
By Walter Kirn
(TIME, August 31) -- The struggle between the President and Kenneth Starr, framed until now as a legal-political showdown, seemed to boil down this week to a subtler but perhaps more basic dispute: the conflict between the Clintonites' desire for something known as "closure" (a New Age buzz word drawn from the vocabulary of family therapy) and the cry from other quarters for what used to be called justice (a term one associates more with the Old Testament). Indeed, if an alien were to view the tapes of Clinton's recent TV defenders, he, she or it might be inclined to think that "closure" was a kind of magic spell whose mere invocation could bring redemption and peace.
Consider: when David Kendall, the President's lawyer, appeared on the White House lawn on Monday following his client's grand jury appearance, it wasn't justice he called for in the matter, as defense attorneys normally do, but that other, warmer, fuzzier outcome. The subtext of his word choice was unmistakable: strict, old-fashioned justice for the President might prove harsher, colder and more damaging than simply putting the whole matter behind us, in the manner of a bad romance or a quarrel with noisy neighbors. A senior Administration official quoted in the New York Times sounded a similar note. "The American people," the official said, "are not pounding on the door for details; they're pounding on the door for closure."
Meaning Americans want what, exactly?
Permission to forget? Move on? "Let go?"
Judging by its current usage, closure appears to be to justice something like what NutraSweet is to sugar: a modern substitute with all the taste but none of the troubling calories. A term from psychology, not law, closure refers to a general sense of emotional completion about a matter, not to the formal righting of a moral or ethical imbalance.
When death-penalty supporters call for closure for murder victims' families and champion their right to see the bad guy fry, it's an appeal to feelings, not principles. When a married couple in counseling finally splits, grievances aired, tears shed and hugs hugged, the closure reached, however final, does not guarantee an equable divorce.
Do closure and justice overlap? Not necessarily. Should the President's approval ratings reach 100% next week, it would certainly represent closure to the Lewinsky case, but it wouldn't also mean justice had been done--particularly if Starr's report to Congress were to contain persuasive evidence of crimes. When Richard Nixon resigned over Watergate, that was closure too, it can be argued--but his pardon by Gerald Ford was viewed by many, even to this day, as an unsatisfactory moral ending.
For certain tolerant religious types, justice is the Lord's, of course, not man's, and closure may be the best we can get on this earth. And in his Monday evening speech, Clinton seemed to take this view himself. Call off the prosecutors, he said; this is between my family and "our God." The suggestion was that Jehovah would show more mercy than Starr, or Starr's jury, or Congress.
The proponents of justice will have none of it, naturally. Mormon lay minister Orrin Hatch, steeped in a tradition of morality as chill and austere as a Utah mountaintop, is not, on the evidence of his haircut, a closure person. Nor is the show-me Missourian Rush Limbaugh, who has already called for Clinton's resignation, to the applause of justice-minded listeners. The puritans may have logic on their side here. If a businessman cheats on his taxes, does he have a right to ask for closure before he's coughed up his receipts? If Michael Milken had been granted closure before he paid his fines and did his time, would America have been a happier place?
When the cosmos is at its most orderly, justice and closure come simultaneously. The trials surrounding the Oklahoma City bombing provided both sorts of endings for the nation. It doesn't always happen so neatly, though. Pete Rose got justice, not closure, when he was barred from baseball for gambling on sporting events. But the closure of entering the Hall of Fame is not yet his (though the day will come). On the other hand, when closure precedes justice, it doesn't always last. Six years ago, Clinton got closure galore in the Gennifer Flowers affair by speaking of pain in his marriage, but then the mess erupted all over again late last year with one question from Paula Jones' attorneys. This suggests a lesson. Closure remains possible once justice has been done. But closure in place of justice can be hollow. If Clinton's closure argument wins the day before Starr's investigation is complete--if present feelings cancel out future facts, however disturbing those facts may prove to be--will it constitute a new level of public sophistication? Or a whole new kind of communal cover-up, a spiritual, not material, deception? Is there a difference between hiding evidence and seeing it but choosing to ignore it?
The wheels of justice turn excruciatingly slowly. But the training wheels of closure just spin and spin.
Walter Kirn is a TIME contributor who lives near Livingston, Mont. He is currently at work on Thumbsucker, a new novel