It's Not The Adultery Or The Lies That Matter
My syndicated column, January 26, 1998
Why everyone was confused about Clinton's real sin
mack in the middle of the most depressing presidential meltdown in history lurks a gargantuan national confusion. Turn on the tube and a parade of newsmen, G-men, lawmen and wise men seem to agree: the "real issue" isn't the president's alleged affair with a twenty-something intern (distasteful as that is), but that Clinton may have lied (and urged Monica to lie) about the relationship. Early polls suggest the public feels the same. The message is that we may not ultimately care if a president screws around on his wife, or does so with a girl in his employ who's young enough to be his daughterbut if he's gonna lie about it afterwards, well, let's impeach the bastard.
I know it sounds strange, but isn't that asking a bit much from our leaders? Put aside every damning conclusion about Clinton's character, judgment and psyche these charges justify if proved. The fact remains that it is morally and legally ridiculous to contend that adultery is tolerable in a president but that lying about adultery is not. Worse, focusing on Clinton's understandable lies blinds us to the real reasons we have for being furious with him.
Think about it. Adultery, by its nature, is already a lie, a betrayal. It makes no sense to say that, in the end, we can accept a leader who lies to his wife, so long as he comes clean with the rest of us. What do we really expectthat Clinton will call a press conference to confess that he messed with Monica and he's sorry? A president's adultery is none of our business unless it affects his ability to do his job.
To judge by our national state of shock, you'd think we'd never been led by adulterous presidents who lied about their dalliances before. Well, it may not be in the civics books, but of course we have; for all we know, it's been the rule. Some of these lying adulterers (like FDR) are justly considered national heroes because they had other traits that mattered more.
Our crisis today comes largely from debased media standards colliding with the questionable tactics of independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr. As a result, Clinton has the sad distinction of being the first Oval Office adulterer to face the music while in office. This forces us to deal openly with a tradition of social hypocrisy that only works if we don't acknowledge it. Adults know its often best to wink at adulterythis way, some marriages get through rough spots, while injured spouses retain dignity. For good reason, however, this grown-up tolerance isn't something we want to advertise to our kids (or that we're even thrilled to admit to ourselves). As far as the public is concerned, then, Clinton's real "crime" is that he allowed the tacit rules governing adultery to be flouted: if you must do it, for goodness' sake, don't shove it in our faces.
The legal questions here are also less ominous than they sound. "Suborning perjury" and "obstructing justice" have a Nixonian ring, but in real life it means that Clinton and his pal Vernon Jordan were trying to keep word of an affair (if it did occur) from getting out. That's what every adulterous American doeswhy should our president be any different? And how can this impulse justify indictment or impeachment? The idea that we're even thinking about throwing a president out of office for concealing an affair should be enough to make us enact a formal exception to perjury when adultery is involved.
No, the real reason to be mad at Clinton is not his lying, which in this context is only human. Instead, its the casual regard Clinton's actions reveal for the millions of Americans who have a stake in his agenda. The presidency is a trusteeship; as candidates like to say, it truly is about "more than just me." Yes, it's ironic that the ultimate trusteeship tends to attract the ultimate narcissists, but that's another story.
A president has a duty not to squander his power for trivial or indulgent reasons. Oddly enough, Clinton had it right long ago. Someone in a position to lift the minimum wage for millions, or extend health coverage, or boost education, has a duty to maintain his "political viability." In today's carnival media atmosphere, which Clinton well understands, that requires a standard of behavior that he may have lacked.