The Great American Scruples Test

THOSE who are still debating about Nannygate as if it were an isolated ethical issue may be missing the larger picture.

The Clinton administration, to a degree still to be fully appreciated, rode into office on a wave of generational change - sounding humane themes from the 1960s. By each gesture, these youngish bus-riders, with their copilot wives and young children, signaled they understood the problems of ordinary Americans. Every jog into a McDonald's proclaimed that they "got it," they knew where "it was at." They were new.

Beneath the alleged cynicism of the American voter the newcomers tapped into an American idealism that survived Vietnam and Watergate - an idealism nobody knew still existed.

And now the new administration is being judged by the emotion it aroused. Fair enough. In retrospect, it can be seen that the rhetoric and response of the campaign - the collaboration between promises of the candidates and expectations of the electorate - were calling for nothing less than a new standard for sensitive behavior in public life.

It is no accident that the "care" issues - child care, health care - are so prominent on the domestic agenda. Or that human rights, for the first time since the Carter administration, are a serious criterion in foreign policy, driving it beyond national self-interest in the cases of Bosnia and Somalia.

Nor is it just "politics." Business as usual is no longer tolerated in this strict-constructionist Age of the Conscience. Last month, the Atlanta company Home Depot, in the business of tools and building materials, demanded in a test questionnaire whether its 300 foreign suppliers employed children or prison labor.

Levi Strauss & Co. has cut off suppliers in Burma because of that government's human rights violations. And the "Made in America" label placed on goods from the sweatshops in Bangladesh or Indonesia only alienates knowledgeable consumers.

For the moment, scruples are a form of empowerment - from the marketplace to the White House. Woe to those who think they can still operate by the rules of the Age of Me. This is the broadest lesson of Nannygate. Scruples are back.

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