It is very disappointing that many Democrats, government officials, and members of the legal profession were not outraged by President Clinton’s clear perjury in the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit.

Apparently, they either fail to understand or else don’t care that his contemptible example can cause severe damage to the justice system and society at large.

The problem of perjury is already very serious in the legal field. Former prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, who prosecuted the Charles Manson case, says perjury in criminal trials is so common as to be routine. He also states that experienced prosecutors are not surprised by perjury and expect to encounter it.

In their book No Contest: Corporate Lawyers and the Perversion of Justice in America, Ralph Nader and Wesley J. Smith report that a similar problem exists in civil litigation. They show that many corporate clients want their attorneys to employ win-at-all-costs tactics, including lying and concealing evidence.  And they say many lawyers oblige by viewing their duty to zealously represent clients as meaning to “obstruct, lie, obfuscate, and abuse.”

In the Jones lawsuit, Clinton’s perjury occurred during discovery – an area where perjury is often a problem. Legal commentator Stuart Taylor Jr. writes: “I fear [that] the discovery process has been clogged by a culture of evasion and deceit that accounts for much of its grotesque wastefulness, and the adversary system has been perverted from an engine of truth into a license for lawyerly lies.”

These problems may get worse in the coming years. A 1996 study by the Josephson Institute of Ethics found that the 15- to 30-year-old generation is more likely to engage in dishonest and irresponsible behavior than previous generations. The same organization reported in 1998 that huge numbers of young people admit to lying to their parents, cheating on tests, and stealing from stores.

Blatant perjury and obstruction of justice by the president, and a dismissive attitude toward those crimes by many government officials, will only exacerbate the ethical deficiencies in the legal system and among young people. As great leaders and philosophers have recognized for millennia, the acts of government officials set a moral tone for the rest of society.

For example, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote: “Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or ill, it teaches the whole people by its example. Crime is contagious. If the government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy.”

By ignoring or minimizing the potential effect of Clinton’s criminal example, public officials and the legal profession turned a blind eye not only to society’s need for proper role models but to the tremendous harm perjury causes.

The great nineteenth-century lawyer and orator Robert Ingersoll eloquently described that harm: “If there is an infamous crime in the world it is the crime of perjury. All the sneaking instincts; all the groveling, crawling instincts unite and blend in this one crime called perjury. It clothes itself . . . in the shining vestments of an oath in order that it may tell a lie.

“Perjury poisons the wells of truth, the sources of justice. Perjury leaps from the hedges of circumstance, from the walls of fact, to assassinate justice and innocence. . . . Perjury can change the common air that we breathe into the axe of an executioner. Perjury out of this air can forge manacles for free hands.”

Clinton’s perjury constituted an outrageous attempt to prevent justice from being upheld in the Jones case and in the federal grand jury’s investigation. His example sends a terrible message to young people and the rest of society. It increases the probability that others will commit the same crime, and thus may cause more innocent victims to be harmed by perjury.

Furthermore, a reason the law prohibits convicted perjurers from holding public office is that they have shown, in attempting to undermine justice by lying under oath, that they cannot be trusted to uphold their oath of office and administer justice as a public official. If the Senate had applied this principle during impeachment, Clinton would not have been left in a position to again subvert justice, such as by pardoning the billionaire fugitive Marc Rich and other lawbreakers.

Rich was on the U.S. Justice Department’s list of “most wanted” international fugitives. Officials in the department were stunned to learn that he had been granted a full and unconditional pardon. Even members of Clinton’s inner circle and his strongest supporters in Congress viewed this act, and a number of other pardons issued during his last days in office, as terrible miscarriages of justice.

Because perjury is such a serious crime – particularly when committed by a high government official – Clinton should have resigned from office or Congress should have removed him.