ASHTABULA, OHIO — Joyce Maydale can't understand why politicians in Washington bicker over something as basic and right as prayer.
Especially in these times. A homemaker whose husband fought in Vietnam and son served in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf war, Mrs. Maydale sees a moral erosion in the United States, and is frustrated by school principals who won't discipline students and Washington lawmakers who can't put aside partisanship to address a social crisis.
"Why do they argue about everything?" she asks. "Like prayer in schools. It should be allowed. A little bit of God doesn't hurt kids."
As the nation moves through another presidential election in which values are the focus of much debate, Maydale is not alone in her concerns. A growing number of voters across the country express anger over rising youth crime and teenage drug use, lack of integrity in public office, even poor behavior in professional sports.
In the four years since Vice President Dan Quayle was ridiculed for making an issue of the TV character Murphy Brown's single motherhood, a public consensus has emerged at both the political and grass-roots level that the nation's moral compass is seriously out of kilter. Both President Clinton and Republican nominee Bob Dole are appealing to such voter concerns. They have even framed issues like the minimum wage and tax cuts in moral terms.
Ironically, it doesn't seem to matter. For all of the scandals that have touched the Clinton White House and for all of Senator Dole's campaigning against drugs and lurid Hollywood movies, polls show that voters are on the verge of reelecting a president surveys say they don't trust. The values debate may be louder than ever, but the majority of public opinion isn't turning on issues of morality.
"As in 1992, ethics isn't enough," says Republican pollster Linda DiVall.
There may be several reasons for this apparent contradiction.
Except perhaps for abortion, which continues to draw ideological lines of difference, Republicans and Democrats have narrowed the gap significantly on those issues often labeled "family values." President Clinton signed Republican bills reforming welfare and banning gay marriages. Both issues were couched in "values" rhetoric. The welfare debate was about ending a culture of dependency; the gay-marriage bill was entitled "Defense of Marriage." Other laws, such as the Family Leave Act, add to the argument that Washington has taken steps since 1992 to address social problems.
"Family values has been settled," argues Amitai Etzioni, an expert on the politics of moral issues at George Washington University. "Both parties agree the family needs protection."
Another reason values are not factoring into this election is a shifting attitude on presidential character. The public learned retrospectively of the extramarital or alleged extramarital affairs of Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson. Ronald Reagan broke through a taboo when he became the first divorced president.
The current choice offers a muddled character distinction. The Clintons have all but admitted to extramarital problems in their relationship, but say they've worked out their differences. Dole walked out on his first wife and was an absent father to his only daughter.
All this has a cumulative effect, argues Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania: "We are seeing the natural flow of the history of these issues. And it is not so simple a thing as Bill Clinton is untrustworthy and Bob Dole is trustworthy. It is far more complex." Several prominent politicians, such as Speaker Newt Gingrich, were divorced; others have admitted to taking drugs in their youth.
Tolerance for such transgressions may be especially high among baby boomers. So might resignation. In a new study by the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University in New York, which surveyed 1,166 parents and 1,200 teenagers, mostly from the same families, 68 percent of adults who said they used drugs in their youth expected their children to do the same. Two-thirds of the adults said they could not do much to stop kids from using drugs; 72 percent blamed society for this influence.
The most important reason why values may not factor into this election, however, is because Americans don't believe the political arena is the best place to address these concerns.
The question is whether to pursue a new social doctrine through legislation or grass-roots activism and personal character-building. There's evidence that voters are choosing the latter. Consider Marsha "Pat" Maliszewski.
The wife of a police officer in Battle Creek, Mich., Mrs. Maliszewski hears daily stories about the breakdown of society. Earlier this year, she went to an ethics lecture that ignited a cause in her. She organized a community meeting on values and ethics, involving youth groups, schools, ministers, corporate leaders, politicians, and parents, and invited the California-based group Character Counts to conduct five days of public and private seminars.
Character Counts, founded in 1993 by ethicist Michael Josephson, focuses on six nonpartisan, nonsecular character points: respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, trustworthiness, and citizenship. There are now more than 120 entities nationwide, including whole school boards and counties, building community programs based on this approach. And Character Counts is only one of several such grass-roots ethics movements.
Since holding the Battle Creek gathering in June, Maliszewski has had calls from all over the country to help other communities set up similar meetings. Her own program has stretched across the county, and state leaders are now interested in extending it across Michigan.
"We all know there's a need," she says. "We probably have all the laws we need already. Public figures need to be willing to hold people responsible for breaking them. And we all need to tell the truth. These are simple ethical decisions that we've been sidestepping."
Solutions at home
The Columbia University drug study indicates that solutions exist closer to home. "We found that those parents who were engaged in their children's lives - ate dinner with them, took them to church - don't have to ever mention drugs to their kids," says program director Joseph Califano. "Those kids are at a much lower risk."
Janet Maydale seems to agree that Washington isn't the place to find the answers. "It's a collective responsibility." And when she votes for Clinton, she says, his personal character won't be a factor.