An end to the myth of the 'moral leader' Not Clinton: The presidency has never been the best place to find models of propriety.

November 09, 1998

LIKE A child who resists the maturity that comes with giving up his or her bottle for a cup, America clings to comforting myths that have been with this nation since it was born.

One of the most enduring has been the attachment of the title "moral leader" to whoever is president. This despite having knowledge of immoral acts by presidents that had absolutely nothing to do with illicit sex.

The myth was born with the Founding Fathers, who emulated the aristocratic citizen solons of ancient Rome. The office of president can be traced to the consuls elected by the Roman Senate as exemplars of moral character.

George Washington founded the Society of Cincinnati in honor of Roman general Cincinnatus, who refused dictatorship to quietly return to his farm. The "moral authority" supposedly placed in U.S. presidents derives from Washington, who, like Cincinnatus, resisted entreaties to seize power.

That was, of course, a different time. Most Americans today would not accept Washington's ownership of slaves as morally correct. But people don't always agree on what is moral behavior.

Many find it morally reprehensible that the Tonkin Gulf Resolution used by Lyndon Johnson to escalate the Vietnam war was drafted long before the incident for which it was named occurred.

Some people question whether any war can be justified on moral grounds. Others believe it morally wrong to make government spending decisions that limit financial assistance to poor mothers. Whose morality takes precedence?

Or is morality only to be considered when personal conduct such as President Clinton's deplorable promiscuity is involved?

Americans do expect their presidents to have certain moral attributes. They want a president who can be trusted to tell the truth. But countless times they have tolerated less, for "national security."

In Mr. Clinton's case, people have been force-fed more than they ever wanted to know. They no longer link him to the presidency's tradition of "moral leadership."

Maybe that's for the best. Maybe it's time this nation accepted the maturity that long ago visited our European counterparts, who no longer expect political leaders of mythological stature.

If it's moral leadership for our children that we want, then we should provide it for them in our homes, in our religious institutions, in whatever setting we feel is appropriate to impart the values that we want them to have.

The myth that portrayed American presidents as models of moral behavior has run its course. The nation ought to be old enough to get along without it.

Pub Date: 11/09/98

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