The Saturday Essay: The moral trust between the people and their President

This was no discreet affair - a small army of staffers was enlisted by the President to facilitate these assignations
Click to follow
To many Europeans, the crisis of the Clinton presidency speaks to quintessential American peculiarities, first and foremost among these is our "puritanism". How different Americans are from more sophisticated sorts who would never work themselves up into a constitutional lather over the occasional lapse of judgement involving a sexual transgression of one sort or another! But this is a serious misreading of the American situation - for several reasons.

First, the Clinton presidency is not faltering because the President exercised deplorable judgement in his "private" life. Second, the vagaries of American public opinion at present suggest that a bare majority of our citizenry (54 per cent in the most recent polls, conducted before the Starr Report went to Congress) is working very hard to try to separate out the President's conduct as a human being from his conduct as a leader of the most powerful country in the world - hardly the sort of thing one would expect from citizens in the throes of an overwhelming moralistic frenzy. Indeed, if anything, conceptual schizophrenia lodged, in part, in a determination not to appear "judgmental" about a person's sex life - "judgmental" now being a dirty word among us - prevails. Let's takes these up in turn.

Consider the claim that the President's actions in the Lewinsky matter are enveloped within a private cordon sanitaire. Those who hold to this view, one that is harder and harder to maintain in light of ever mounting evidence, insist that anything to do with sexuality (unless it involves an actual crime) is, by conceptual fiat, in a protected "zone of privacy". Why shouldn't this pertain in the President's case? For a number of reasons.

One of the things we have learned from three decades of feminism, and should have understood on grounds of simple morality and decency all along, is that a good many offences can be papered-over with the claim that what went on is "nobody's business" but that of the participants involved. Sometimes, indeed, this is the case. It follows that those radical feminists who insist no woman can ever truly give "consent" to a sexual relationship with a man, especially a powerful man, because men are always and everywhere powerful and women powerless, perpetuate a dangerous stereotype of woman as hapless victim. That and more: the ideology of radical feminism, if implemented, would invite a society of hyper-scrutiny in which nothing was ever hidden from public view and judgement.

So let's assume, as I think we must, that Lewinsky, a 21-year-old intern on the White House staff, and Clinton, our 50-something President, both "consented" to the relationship. One might want to cavil just a bit. There does seem something radically disproportionate here: the most powerful man in the world and a young woman, a few years older than his college- age daughter, engaged in a putatively equitable exchange. It strains credulity.

Still, they consented. Is that the end of the argument? There are those who claim so. Consent becomes a magic wand. With one wave of the hand, all nagging questions and problems are effaced. Still, nagging questions remain, or ought to. Was this wise? Was it decent? Was it reckless? Was it damaging to all involved, consent or no consent? Now take matters one step further. The relationship, or exchange of what appears to have been distinctly non-mutual sexual services, involved employer and employee and took place in his - the employer's - place of work, which also happens to be one of America's civically "sacred" sites - the Oval Office of the White House.

One could hardly imagine a more public place to carry on intimate transactions. This was no discreet affair with the two principals doing their utmost to keep a low profile and to try to protect the sensitivities of all involved. Hardly. A small army of staffers was enlisted by the President of the United States to facilitate these assignations, and an even larger number to cover it up once things turned sour. Surely one has crossed the boundary into the public domain on every possible scale here - ethical, legal, and political.

Furthermore, there are deeper ethical questions involved that are cheapened by being dismissed as "puritanical" ravings. Here, I have in mind the ill use of various persons - secretary, friends, loyal supporters - all brought into an orbit of deceit, lies, cover-up, perhaps even criminal wrong-doing - such as securing cushy jobs for "the woman in question" in exchange for her silence in a law-suit.

How can this possibly be construed as merely private, as the President claimed in his ill-tempered and ill-fated address to the nation on August 17? Bill Clinton made it public, and did so from the very first moment Monica Lewinsky carried out her sexual duties in the President's place of work, and the symbolic home of the entire American people.

How, then, are the American people responding? Many appear to want the whole thing to go away, or so they say. But everybody is talking about it everywhere one goes - whether at professional conferences of political scientists or in taxi-cabs to airports. For it is our business.

The President of the United States is more than a head of a party. And the CEO model some of the president's defenders have been pressing on us will not work, not unless one believes that our civic life comes down to what the stock market is doing. The complex, and to many foreign observers, utterly bewildering American system, presumes a kind of affective bond between a president and the American people. Once a president is elected, he is our president. We may not have voted for him but, if he occupies the White House, then he is ours. We are called upon to respond to his appeals, especially when he commits American blood and treasure in times of war and crisis. But even those who do not agree with his policies must assume a level of integrity and decency on a president's part. He is literally part of our lives for at least four years. Presidents pronounce on everything from the Russian rouble to school safety, from balancing budgets to how to get more balanced meals for poor children. If everything a president says is subject to ridicule and reinterpretation because he has become untrustworthy, he simply can no longer govern.

He may limp along in office but he will be much more than a lame duck; he will be, in our parlance, a dead duck, of little use to anyone. At that moment, his own party will try to "encourage" him to leave, because he threatens to take the party down with him. That is precisely where many Democrats find themselves now, with the Congressional elections just two months away.

What has stayed the hand of the President's supporters and opponents alike, up to this moment, is his "high standing" in the polls. But these polls present a puzzling and none-too-clear picture. We don't know whether what is being approved of is this president's over-all performance in office or the tremendous residual respect Americans have for anyone who holds the office. Or could it be the fear that resignation and impeachment are not just constitutionally sanctioned ways to ease or to force a president out of office before his term expires, but civic upheavals of the highest magnitude, in part because such events are so rare in our history?

The latest indication of voter perceptions of Clinton bears out an almost desperate need to hold on to the President, but to condemn him at the same time. As of the end of August, the number of people who approve of President Clinton "as a person" had dropped almost 20 percentage points from what it was a year ago. Further erosion in support for the President is manifest in rankings of the relative importance of a whole range of issues. "Moral concerns" have sky-rocketed in intense importance in the last few months. When they are asked, voters indicate that they aren't so much worried about sex, but they are very worried about lying, especially lying under oath.

This is an inherently unstable situation. Sooner or later, voters will try to find some way to make their evaluations of the President as human being, and the President as a president, cohere. When that happens it will not be good news for the man who currently occupies 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

And he has no one to blame but himself. What strikes so many of us is the sheer recklessness of it all. How could President Clinton actually believe that he could conduct a sustained 18-month affair (although a friend of mine complains that what was going on between Bill and Monica is the sort of thing that gives "real affairs" a bad name) in the White House, an affair implicating other persons also on his staff, as well as members of the secret service and others on the public payroll, and keep it secret?

There is in President Clinton a little voice that tells him that the rules that apply to most of us somehow do not apply to him. It is that flaw that will finally bring him down. Americans are very much in a "live and let live" mood and mode about sexuality. But they cavil at the notion that there is no price to be paid - ever - for one's own conduct or misconduct. The spectacle in the past few days of the President's staff booking him into one appearance after another before audiences of school teachers, parents, and children is tawdry and bathetic. The President muses ramblingly about sticking to one's tasks, accepting responsibility, not complaining and blaming others, being forthright - and one senses the pain and discomfort all around.

The notion that it is only elites and Washington insiders who care about what is going on, and that the vast majority of hard-working Americans want the President to be left alone, just doesn't wash. If this were the case, the firestorm that erupted following his failed non-contrite "apology" (in which he claimed, to the bitter end as it turns out, that he "misled" people, although his answers to questions in the Paula Jones deposition were "legally accurate") would not have taken hold. It is the job of elites to lead, after all, and to help to shape and to form opinion. But people are not inert pieces of clay to be molded at will. Ignore the pervasive and growing sense of unease about this whole tawdry business, the shocked editorials calling for the President's resignation, the open letters from supporters calling on him to step down, and none of this would matter. But it does matter. For it means that the public's own view of Clinton - as a rather low sort, weak-willed, a habitual fabricator, a man prepared to betray family and friends - will, one day soon, put such pressure on their view of him as doing a "good job" as president that the job ratings are bound to fall.

The President's 11th hour appeal for a reprieve - I've seen the light; I now know I really did a bad thing; these are hard days for me; but, after all, this may be a growth experience for my family and perhaps all families - yes, he actually did say something more or less along these lines - is too little too late. Politics isn't a support group. National life should not be conducted as an encounter session.

If anything, Americans have proven throughout this whole sorry business that they are extremely loathe to form critical judgements of a president and that they will hold onto any shred of hope that he might actually vindicate himself in their eyes. That moment has passed.

The impeachment process now takes over. Those of us who remember vividly the over-heated atmosphere of our young adulthood, as we stayed glued to television and radio as Watergate unfolded, now find ourselves witness again to an impending impeachment of a president of the United States. In one sense a sorry, sad spectacle, yes. But, in another, an indication that the office does not belong to any individual and that we are, finally, a nation under law.

What goes on in the Oval Office is the public's business, whether presidents like it or not.

The writer is the Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago.