Clinton and the Crisis of Values

September 20, 1994|By GARRY WILLS

CHICAGO — Chicago.--Why should a president under whom America is prospering be so low in the polls -- down in the 30s, which is as low as modern presidents tend to go?

Some attribute this to Bill Clinton's personality, or morals, or character. Some of the problem is there; but the distrust of him, and of government, and of authority is general, and has deep roots.

Mr. Clinton has had the bad luck to take office at a time when the country is undergoing a crisis in its values. Fifty percent of the people say that the president does not share their values. But to an unprecedented degree, the American people do not share each other's values. It is a time of rapid change in the sense of people's rights and moral claims upon each other -- the rights of women, of students, of gays, of ethnic minorities, of prisoners.

Mr. Clinton symbolizes some of these changes. His youth and background locate him in the areas of greatest sensitivity, vulnerability or stress. Consider all the firsts he represents:

* He is the first American president since Harry Truman who was in the armed services during World War II. As a baby boomer, he is condemned for being ''a child of the '60s,'' one of that group Midge Decter, the social nag, calls selfish and immature.

* He is the first post-Cold War president. For half a century, a rough consensus held the country together on the challenge of the Soviet Union. That gave us all a scorecard for grading presidents and policies. What hurt communism was good for America, and vice versa. Now we have no scorecard, no clear rationale for intervention abroad -- or for non-intervention, as the case may be. There is no easy way of setting priorities.

* He is the first president with a professionally trained wife at the peak of her career. Nancy Reagan was a trained actress, but she gave up her profession long before her husband entered the governor's office in California, much less the president's office in Washington. Hillary Clinton was voted one of the nation's top lawyers while her husband was the governor of Arkansas, just before he ran for president. (Eleanor Roosevelt was not a trained professional, but a glorious amateur. She regretted her lack of schooling, but made the most of her ladies' philanthropies, of the sort her class had long engaged in -- and more power to her.)

* He is the first president to have conceded (albeit in code language) having committed adultery. Grover Cleveland admitted to having had an affair, but it was not adulterous. The sexual revolution came to the presidency with Ronald Reagan, who was the first divorced president but whose adulteries before divorce from his first wife were not conceded -- the press did not yet intrude that far into a man's past life. It will in the future.

Al Gore is the first vice president to have conceded having used drugs (he did inhale). Tipper Gore is the first vice-presidential spouse to have admitted the same thing. Betty Ford admitted to alcohol abuse, but only after her husband left office.

All this simply means that presidents henceforth will be more typical of their generation. Most candidates will henceforth have professional wives, lawyers like Elizabeth Dole or Marilyn Quayle. Many candidates will have experimented with the increased options their contemporaries considered acceptable at the time. Openly gay candidates are already successful in state legislatures and in Congress. In time, they will run for governor, for the Senate, for president.

But the older generation will not be converted. It will simply have to shuffle off the stage for its resentments to disappear. That will come too late for Clinton's exoneration. In the meantime, he must bear the brunt of the transition, with all its strains of disorientation, discomfort and distrust.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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