Making an example of the U.S. president

October 20, 1998|By Daniel Berger

YOU might think the United States was a moral society, based on the effort to drum President Clinton from office for a furtive affair with a young woman and conventional efforts to disguise it.

It should not escape attention that this is the first such effort in U.S. history. Presidents Johnson, Kennedy and Harding are now widely believed to have been more active sexually, and more reckless than anything Kenneth Starr suggests about Mr. Clinton.

But the FBI never sent 50 agents to pin any of their affairs down. Its former chief, J. Edgar Hoover, is reputed to have got the goods on leading figures in Washington while allegedly being rather unusual himself.

If so, he did it not to make the findings public but to keep them secret from the public.

Jefferson's private life

Thomas Jefferson was accused by a character-assassinating journalist he had kicked off the payroll of having fathered children by a slave, starting a controversy which has not ended, but was never investigated.

Grover Cleveland was accused of having fathered an illegitimate child, admitted it and was elected president. In our own time, a congressman was accused of allowing a male lover to make possibly criminal phone calls from his apartment, admitted the relationship, won re-election and remains in office.

The current speaker of the House admitted lying to Congress and was accused in print by an old girlfriend of having made the same legalistic distinctions about sexual activity that have brought Mr. Clinton into national contempt. He remains speaker of the House.

This is a country whose major cultural export is "Baywatch" (which should be called "Bodywatch"), whose leading radio program is Howard Stern's gross blabbering, whose top

television program is Jerry Springer's contrived violence, whose fashion photos suggest heroin chic, whose pop music is sexually violent and often misogynistic, whose major use for the Internet is for pornography, half of whose marriages don't last, most of whose children in many localities are born out of wedlock.

Evidently, we are not prudes.

That's the point. The sexual police state clamped on President Clinton, the Starr proceedings by which defending himself was proclaimed an impeachable offense, flow not from high morality but from the perception of intolerably low morals everywhere, demanding that a stand be made someplace.

The low part of this is anything-goes political warfare. But the nobler sentiment for lynching the president flows from the anguish of many decent people at what is happening to the country. This is concentrated politically in the movement called the Christian right, but the ardent desire to raise the tone is found across the spectrum.

And so the president is held to standards that do not apply to others, standards not found in the Constitution or in history or in the Federalist Papers. Mr. Clinton violated the notion that the president serves as perfect man, exemplary husband and father, role model for children, the keeper of standards that others may ignore.

Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Reagan were not held to such standards. It is a very recent requirement.

Andrew Jackson could not have withstood such scrutiny. Andrew Johnson was believed drunk at his inauguration, after Lincoln's assassination, but that is not why they impeached him.

Implicating the press

London's tabloid press concocted the notion that Britain's royal family is obliged to have happy marriages on pain of abdication as symbol for a nation that does not. In imitation, many Americans, including much of the press, invented the principle that the Boy Scout oath is constitutionally binding on the president of the United States precisely because so few others abide by it.

This idea recently came out of nowhere. Of all the current proposals to rewrite the Constitution, it is the most radical and dangerous to the stability of American institutions.

Daniel Berger is a Sun editorial writer.

Pub Date: 10/20/98

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