Podium: Clinton has lost his moral authority
From the speech to the US Senate that signalled Bill Clinton's loss of support in his own party
Friday 11 September 1998
I have come to this floor many times in the past to speak with my colleagues about the concerns which are so widely shared in this chamber, and throughout the nation, that our society's standards are sinking, that our common moral code is deteriorating, and that our public life is coarsening. In doing so, I have specifically criticised leaders of the entertainment industry for the way they have used the enormous influence they wield to weaken our common values.
And now, because the President commands at least as much attention, and exerts at least as much influence on our collective consciousness as any Hollywood celebrity or television show, it is hard to ignore the impact of the misconduct the President has admitted to on our culture, on our character and on our children.
To begin with, I must respectfully disagree with the President's contention that his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, and the way in which he misled us about it, is nobody's business but his family's, and that "even presidents have private lives". Whether he, or we, think it fair or not, the reality in 1998 is that a president's private life is public. News media standards will have it no other way.
But there is more to this than modern media intrusiveness. The President is not just the elected leader of our country. He is, as the presidential scholar Clinton Rossetter observed, "the one-man distillation of the American people", and, as President Taft said at another time, "the personal embodiment and representative of their dignity and majesty".
So when his personal conduct is embarrassing, it is sadly so not just for him and his family. It is embarrassing for all of us as Americans.
The President is a role model who, because of his prominence and the moral authority that emanates from his office, sets standards of behaviour for the people he serves. His duty, as the Reverend Nathan Baxter of the National Cathedral here in Washington said in a recent sermon, is nothing less than the stewardship of our values.
So, no matter how much the President or others may wish to compartmentalise the different spheres of his life, the inescapable truth is that the President's private conduct can, and often does, have profound public consequences.
In this case, the President apparently had extramarital relations with an employee half his age, and did so in the workplace, in the vicinity of the Oval Office. Such behaviour is not just inappropriate. It is immoral. And it is harmful, for it sends a message of what is acceptable behaviour to the larger American family, particularly to our children, which is as influential as the negative messages communicated by the entertainment culture.
President Clinton, in fact, has shown during the course of his presidency that he understands this, and the broader concern in the public about the threat to the family. He has used the bully pulpit of his presidency to eloquently and effectively call for the renewal of our common values, particularly the principles of personal responsibility and our common commitment to the family. And he has spoken out admirably against sexual promiscuity among teenagers, in clear terms of right and wrong, emphasising the consequences involved.
Now, all of that makes the President's misconduct so confusing and so damaging. The President's relationship with Ms Lewinsky not only contradicted the values he has publicly embraced over the last six years. It has, I fear, compromised his moral authority at a time when Americans of every political persuasion agree that the decline of the family is one of the most pressing problems we are facing.
As any mother and father knows, kids have a singular ability to detect double standards. So we can safely assume that it will be that much more difficult to convince our sons and daughters of the importance of telling the truth when the most powerful man in the nation evades it. Many parents I have spoken with in Connecticut confirm this unfortunate consequence. The President's intentional and consistent statements, more deeply, may also undercut the trust that the American people have in his word.
I know from the Bible that only God can judge people. The most we can do is to comment without condemning individuals. And in this case, I have tried to comment on the consequences of the President's conduct on our country.
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