Sexual Probity and Presidential Character.


In 1998, members of the Clinton administration found themselves playing roles in a drama that the president had created, but they were not sure whether they were involved in a farce or a tragedy. In truth, the sexual imbroglio the president had created contained elements of both farce and tragedy.

The farcical elements resembled an eighteenth-century situation comedy in which the main character is caught in a sexual affair with a woman not his wife and is greatly embarrassed by the discovery. Clinton's affair also had some of the far-fetched coincidences reminiscent of musical comedy. The president is brought to court by a woman (Paula Jones) who felt that her honor had been impugned by the president's lawyer and who charged that Governor Clinton's rejected sexual proposition to her and its aftermath constituted sexual harassment.

Another woman (Linda Tripp), scorned by the president's lawyer, taped the maunderings of a young woman (Monica Lewinsky) who was love struck and felt neglected by the president. With tapes of the claimed affair in hand, Jones's lawyers laid a trap for Clinton by asking him in front of the grand jury if he had had an affair with Lewinsky. Caught unaware, the president answered in the negative. The judge later ruled that the Lewinsky affair was not relevant to the case and also threw the sexual harassment case out of court. But the damage was done, the press was in a feeding frenzy, and Independent Counsel Kenneth Start was hot on the trail of Clinton for perjury.

The farcical aspects of the situation were evident because it seemed so petty. That the president would risk his whole administration and legacy for a little sexual gratification was incredible. If the situation were presented in a work of fiction, the motivation and plot would not have been credible.

But important issues were also at stake. Compounding the legal but morally dubious affair, the president was accused of perjury and obstruction of justice. His refusal to come forth with evidence and explanations raised the question of whether the president was above the law and could resist legal inquiry. In a series of legal showdowns, courts decided that neither executive privilege nor lawyer-client privilege could protect the president's aides from giving their testimony. Even Secret Service agents were forced to testify about the president's actions. Questions about the president's personal integrity were raised, and it became apparent that he had lied to the public, his closest aides, and members of his cabinet, as well as the grand jury.

Thus, President Clinton also found himself in a tragic situation in the classical sense that his potential for greatness was squandered because of a character flaw. Bill Clinton was one of the most intelligent presidents and one of the most gifted politicians of the twentieth century. While he might not have ranked among the great presidents in U.S. history, he had the potential to accomplish much during his two terms in office. But he risked all of this, not to mention his personal reputation and his family, for a few moments of pleasure.

For some, the private sexual behavior of presidents should not be a public issue, since it does not have to do with the performance of official duties or public policy. From this perspective, there should be a zone of privacy that journalists ought to respect unless there is a clear connection with the official duties of the president. Regardless of the personal morality of the behavior, this view holds, it is not the public's business to be concerned with the sexual conduct of presidents. This general norm was largely respected by the press into the 1970s.

On the other hand, the argument that sexual behavior is relevant to presidential performance argues that character is seamless. Sexual infidelity is seen as a breach of trust, and trust is seen as one of the most important dimensions of the relation of citizens to their government. If a president cannot be trusted to be faithful to his spouse, how can we have confidence that he will tell the truth to the American people? One criticism of Bill Clinton in the 1992 campaign was, "You can't be one kind of man and another kind of President."(1) This line of argument leads to the conclusion that inappropriate sexual behavior is an important element of presidential character, that its uncovering is a legitimate focus of...

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