by Russell Gough, 2/1/98
True confession: For some time now, even prior to his latest sex scandal, it's been genuinely difficult for me to refer to Bill Clinton as "president," given the ways in which his personal, "private" character has so shamelessly and habitually sullied the highest office in our land. There. I finally got it off my chest, and in good conscience at that.
Those are the exact words that immediately came to mind after writing the opening line for this column. I guess you could say that it felt a bit, well, cathartic. And lest someone be quick to assume I've got a political ax to grind or an ideological agenda to push, allow me to share one other personal tidbit: I'm neither a card-carrying Republican nor a card-carrying Democrat. Never have been.
For someone whose life's calling is to regularly write, teach and speak about character matters, I've been biting my tongue for a surprisingly long time on the matter of Clinton's character—or lack thereof—and its relationship to the Oval Office he's occupied since 1992. Oh, I've weighed in obliquely every now and then—like during the 1996 presidential campaign, when I argued that issues of personal character and political leadership are in fact ultimately inseparable—but I've been consistently reluctant to make any pointed judgments about Clinton's personal character.
My reluctance can be explained primarily in terms of my desire to practice what I preach, to walk my talk. And in this particular regard, that means resisting the temptation to engage in the disgraceful, 20th-century pastime of blatant and premeditated character assassination. However, thanks to Clinton himself, there's no longer much reason to be so reluctant. His track record of personal conduct is now long enough, clear enough and public enough that the fine line that can exist between constructive criticism and character assassination is no longer of overarching concern. For one simple reason: Clinton continues to be his character's most notorious assassin. And as such, he makes the line between constructive criticism and character assassination all the more thick and easily discernible. He can resort all he wants to the defensive posture of choice these days—that he's been victimized—by blaming the media or a "vast right-wing conspiracy." But as we've been learning for several years and, at the moment, virtually daily, the root causes of Clinton's political and personal problems are to be located in the weaknesses and deeply ingrained bad habits of his own personal character.
Indeed, in the person of Bill Clinton, we have about as much proof as we need to demonstrate the ways in which a political leader's personal character can have everything to do with his or her public character. In case you're one of the surprisingly large number (albeit a minority) of people whom recent polls have indicated are still clinging to the belief that Clinton's personal character has nothing to do with his role as president, then consider the following assortment of "character matters" questions:
• Given his seeming predilection for using women sexually and emotionally (something virtually everyone, on the right or left, will not deny), would you trust Clinton to be alone with your daughter, much less your wife?
• What in the world makes us think that a man who has been habitually unfaithful to his wife would have the character and integrity to be loyal and faithful to millions of faceless Americans whom he doesn't know from Adam?
• Is it really logical, much less commonsensical, to maintain that Clinton's dishonesty, disrespect and unfaithfulness only manifest themselves in relation to his marriage and no other dimensions of his life?
• Can we really be so naive to think that Clinton absolutely wouldn't in any way compromise national security or our nation's best interests in the heat of passion?
• Shouldn't it go without saying that things like reason, self-control and sober judgment don't exactly reign supreme when a man is in the midst of sexual conquest or frenzy?
• Does it bother you at all that, despite his emphatic, passionate and persistent denials to the contrary, Clinton did indeed lie—repeatedly—to you, me and all our fellow citizens about his protracted extramarital affair with Gennifer Flowers? (If you missed this revelation amid the last several days' dizzying number of media reports, Clinton himself confirmed his lie recently while giving his deposition in the Paula Jones suit.)
• Given his verifiable and well-known track record of bending, twisting, finessing and otherwise falsifying the truth about private and public matters, on what moral (as opposed to legal) grounds should we now be inclined to give Clinton the benefit of the doubt?
• Are we really supposed to believe that Clinton is a man of his word, a man of honor and integrity, given that he has invariably either (a) flatly denied any wrongdoing or (b) evasively claimed a memory lapse every time a scandal of one sort or another has besieged his presidency? Can you in good conscience say that Clinton is a man of his word?
• Do you not find it the least bit ironic that the president known as William Jefferson Clinton, who so ardently vowed that his administration would have and live by unprecedentedly high ethical standards, has turned out to have one of the most (if not the most) scandal-ridden, lawbreaking and unscrupulous administrations in U.S. history? (Is it really necessary to recount Clinton's dirty-laundry list one more time?)
Finally, notice that even if we concede, for the sake of argument, that all of the legal claims against Clinton are baseless—in other words, that he broke no laws—all of the questions above would retain their full force and point about his character. Make no mistake: Clinton's personal character and his public character are, at best, deeply intertwined. And, at worst, they are the same thing—whether we can see beyond his warm, engaging smile or his polished State of the Union address, or not.
by Russell Gough, 5/3/98>
"The foundations of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality."
A profound, provocative statement, isn't it? And even if you don't completely agree with it, wouldn't you agree that it represents a rare species of political sound bite—one with real, thought-provoking substance? Bet I know what you're thinking, whether you sympathize with the statement or not: It sounds exactly like something a present-day Republican or a Clinton critic or a conservative talk-show pundit or all of the above probably declared in recent weeks in front of a TV camera.
I'll tell you unabashedly what I'm thinking: I wish the author of this profound sentiment were still alive to defend his claim, given how deeply I agree with him, and given how much I believe we need his wise and influential counsel. But he's not alive, and I'm hoping by merely revealing who uttered these words I can help you to see or appreciate more profoundly why, in the most fundamental ways, we simply can't separate private character from public character—although so many seem to assume the contrary, given the results of recent polls.
George Washington, our nation's first and illustrious president, in his inaugural speech—that's who declared eloquently and passionately that the essential basis of our democratic form of government would be, must be, "the pure and immutable principles of private morality."
I was reminded of Washington's statement while perusing Boston University Professor Angelo Codevilla's insightful new book, The Character of Nations. I was so excited about this rediscovery that I quickly went to my Web site and posted the sentiment as my "Character Quote of the Week." And I did so in the admittedly idealistic yet sincere hope that Washington's remark would carry so much weight and credibility that it would settle the private-public character debate once and for all in the minds of any and all doubters or naysayers.
When our founding fathers ardently contended—as James Madison and others did in "The Federalist Papers"—that the new and fragile political experiment called democracy absolutely depended on a high degree of virtue—of ethical character—in its citizenry and leadership, they unequivocally had in mind "the pure and immutable principles of private morality" of which Washington spoke. Their argument, in a nutshell: our national character depends on our private character.
It's not difficult at all to envision how President Clinton's defenders—his spinsters—much less Clinton himself, would respond to this argument. They'd contend, as they always have, that one's "private" failings or weaknesses have little or nothing to do with one's "public" abilities and strengths to lead the country.
The degree to which Washington's words fly directly in the face of Clinton's own defensive argument, not to mention in the face of apparent popular opinion, could not be more striking. Here we have, from the mouth of our first president, an emphatic, one-sentence proclamation that national or public character is not merely connected to but is based on personal, private character. And let's not fail to appreciate that his proclamation at the time was importantly rhetorical—meaning that virtually all of Washington's fellow 18th-century Americans wouldn't even have entertained the thought of challenging the consequential truth of his words.
In my own estimation, how far we Americans at the brink of the 21st century have apparently moved away from our 18th-century forebears in this respect may very well be the most telling and disquieting aspect of the ongoing scandals surrounding the Clinton White House. Yes, other U.S. presidents have been unfaithful to their wives, but let's not be guilty of naively construing a president's "personal character" only in terms of marital faithfulness. (Although some of us will still maintain that one's marital faithfulness or lack thereof can speak volumes about one's overall ethical character.) Nor let us be guilty of assuming that the infidelities of past presidents change or undermine the important fact, so passionately proclaimed by our founding fathers, that the well-being and survival of our nation depends on the "private morality" of its citizens and its leaders.
Don't know about you, but I find it very difficult to take issue with our first president on this point. Which means, of course, that I find it quite easy to take issue with the defensive arguments of our current president. When it comes to George Washington vs. William Jefferson Clinton on the character issue, it's a no-brainer, both in presidential word and deed: I'll take Washington any day of the week, any election year.