Clinton's exposure gives tomorrow's leaders cold feet
Sunday 11 October 1998
Taking a break from courses that range from "Exercising Leadership" to "Mobilising for Political Action", students huddled in cafes debating the presidential crisis. And a number of them acknowledged that the graphic exposure of President Bill Clinton's private life was giving them cold feet.
"The scandal is making me think twice about running for office," said Mandee Heller, 25. "Because of the wrath of the media, it is no longer a personal decision, but one that affects my entire family." Another student agreed that he would not just think twice, but "three or four times" before putting himself forward as a political candidate.
"The whole series of recent scandals has put me off entering public office," admitted Joiwind Williams, 25, a graduate student. "I don't want to be under that kind of scrutiny. Everyone has aspects of their lives they don't want to show the public."
From social parties to student officialdom, a new aura of caution is pervading university life, together with a growing awareness that things politicians do years before taking office may come back to haunt them.
With high-profile careers at stake, students are careful to avoid any appearance of impropriety. Parties where drugs may be passed around are avoided at all costs, and would-be politicians are cautious even about making statements during classes videotaped for academic purposes. Others avoid summer jobs lobbying for industrial groups, in case it compromises them in future.
Emily Loriso, 23, who did summer work experience for the Federal Government remarked: "It was a bad time to be an intern in Washington!"
Harvard candidates for the student council run highly organised campaigns, complete with professional brochures. It is clear that some still aim for a place in the cabinet of the next century, but in the meantime, they will be looking over their shoulders. "People here who have aspirations for public office do tread warily. They are careful who they are seen with," noted Poopom Banerjee, 22.
Professor Phil Sharp, a former member of Congress, teaches a class entitled "To be a Politician". When members of the Boston media visited his class last week to talk about the relationship between the press and politicians, concerned students grilled the journalists about how far they would probe into a politician's private life. It is unlikely that their concern was purely academic.
In Ivy League colleges, scandal is even making it on to the curriculum. At Harvard Law School, Professor Alan Dershowitz, who has represented the likes of OJ Simpson, Mike Tyson, Claus von Bulow and Mia Farrow, is teaching a new course called "The Presidential Investigation", which explores how to deal with a client who wants to testify before a grand jury but "doesn't want to be completely frank and candid". Another Harvard class, on the American presidency, has recently been modified to include segments on the impeachment process.
"The idealism of the rising generation is as strong as it has been in many decades," said Professor Roger Porter, who teaches the course and has acted as a senior aide to three Republican presidents. He has also known Mr Clinton since they were Rhodes scholars at Oxford. "They do recognise the intense nature of public scrutiny that is part of life in government now... But for the majority of those in public life, it is still a satisfying endeavour."
In the aftermath of the Lewinsky affair, however, those with skeletons rattling in their closets may look for professional fulfilment outside politics. There is already an increasing trend for the cream of American youth to seek a career in non-governmental organisations or the lucrative private sector. The Clinton scandal may push an even greater number towards these professions.
The prospect of life in a bubble is off-putting to all but the most determined or squeaky-clean. With less competition for public office, feels Prof Sharp, the mediocre but untarnished will stand a much higher chance.
For Mr Banerjee, this would be a tragedy. "If the presidential crisis has turned off good people from serving the public, it has done more damage than any sexual act the President could have committed."
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