Key casualty of Clinton scandal is his moral authority

September 15, 1998|By Susan Feeney

WASHINGTON -- As Congress weighs the fate of President Clinton, many Republicans and Democrats agree that one certain casualty is the president's moral authority.

The Monica Lewinsky scandal "has, I fear, compromised his moral authority at a time when Americans of every political persuasion agree that the decline of the family is one of the most pressing problems we are facing," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat.

"If he does survive this," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, "then certainly his moral authority is going to be weakened."

The president's credibility and moral standing have been called into question -- as has his ability to persuade and govern at home and abroad.

"When the president goes to Russia and says, hey, have a little self-control, it would help if the president had a little self-control," said Stephen Hess, a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

On specific subjects such as personal responsibility, ethics, family values and teen pregnancy, analysts and lawmakers agree that the president's word is not worth much right now.

Religious leaders, including some from Mr. Clinton's own Southern Baptist tradition, have said the president is no longer an appropriate ethical and spiritual leader or role model.

Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, said the Lewinsky scandal casts a shadow over the president's ability to act on seemingly unrelated subjects like campaign finance reform.

Mr. Shays, who is allied with Mr. Clinton on a reform plan, questioned how the president, his integrity severely damaged, can press Congress to restore integrity to the campaign funding system.

Iraqi threat

Republican lawmakers and foreign policy specialists have accused Mr. Clinton of easing up on weapons inspections because he didn't want to provoke a showdown with Iraq's Saddam Hussein during the current difficulties. Clinton administration officials reject the criticism.

For seven months, Mr. Clinton steadfastly denied any sexual relationship with Ms. Lewinsky. He denied it under oath in the Paula Jones sexual-harassment case and again in his grand jury testimony.

The president finally admitted to an improper relationship with the former White House intern. Now 25, she alleges the two were involved in sex acts near the Oval Office between late 1995 and early 1997.

Mr. Hess of Brookings cautioned that obituaries on the president's authority can go too far. The presidency has power all its own, regardless of the occupant of the Oval Office, he said.

For example, he citied Mr. Clinton's Aug. 20 anti-terrorism missile strikes in Sudan and Afghanistan.

"Would it be better to have the president be a moral leader? And would it help [to get things done] to have someone who is a moral and respected leader? Yes," Mr. Hess said. "Is it a requirement? No."

At the White House, the focus is on the immediate crisis of responding to independent counsel Kenneth Starr's report to Congress and saving Mr. Clinton from possible impeachment.

Fielding a reporter's question earlier in the scandal, White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry rebuffed a suggestion by House Speaker Newt Gingrich that the administration had an all-time low level of moral authority.

"He's wrong," Mr. McCurry snapped.

The president's critics and some of his friends now point with dismay to his signature call for greater personal responsibility. The theme has been a fixture of his agenda since 1992.

In his 1997 inaugural address, Mr. Clinton said, "Each and every one of us, in our own way, must assume personal responsibility, not only for ourselves and our families, but for our neighborhoods and our nation."

Closer to home, in Longview, Texas, the president told a September 1996 campaign rally that his administration has worked "to meet our challenges and protect our values with a simple little strategy: opportunity for all; responsibility from all."

Mr. Clinton has asked for greater personal responsibility from welfare recipients, business executives, deadbeat dads, Hollywood producers, inner-city youths and many others.

His administration required teen parents who are school drop-outs to sign personal responsibility plans as a condition of federal assistance.

Many of the president's statements are undercut by the Lewinsky scandal.

"You can't run a democracy without an addiction to truth and to fairness," Mr. Clinton told a Beverly Hills fund-raiser in May 1994.

He called for "an American family values agenda" before a teachers meeting in July 1995. "How are we going to reward good family conduct? How are we going to stabilize life for families who are willing to do the right thing?" he said.

Beginning in 1992, the president has championed the cause of Americans "who work hard and play by the rules."

Poll results

In national public-opinion polls, more than 60 percent of voters give Mr. Clinton low marks for integrity and personal character, even as they rate highly the job he's doing.

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