What Do I Tell My Child?

Sorting Through the White House 'Scandal'

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I voted for Bill Clinton in 1992, even though I knew - as most people who follow politics knew - that he had a reputation for pursuing sex outside his marriage and for not telling the truth. I voted for him because I viewed George Bush's presidency a failure, and because I admired Mr. Clinton's intelligence and supported much of his policy agenda. I suspect many voters made calculations quite similar to mine.

Now it seems we were wrong. Personal integrity may not be everything - some admirable people turn out to be ineffective presidents - but is it any longer possible to pretend that such integrity does not matter? Many of us who voted for Clinton thought we were sophisticated. We turned out to be naive.

Our religious traditions teach us that the basic human virtues - temperance, prudence, justice, and courage - are far more important than secondary qualities such as intellect, attractiveness, charisma, or cleverness. Many of us at the time seem not to have grasped this truth.

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It's true that we don't yet know all the facts. In addition, most people have a natural and admirable inclination to give the president the benefit of the doubt, as well as to look askance at the relentless invasion of his privacy. Finally, it seems obvious to many people (myself included) that our political leaders spend too much time investigating one another, regularly seeking to destroy one another personally and to criminalize policy differences.

But, to me, the central issue remains the president's behavior. Why does his personal conduct matter? For starters, the presidency is a symbol of the American people. We expect the president, more than any other individual, to try to reflect who we are and what we aspire to. We honor the president - we address him as "Mr. President," we stand when he enters a room - precisely because we expect the presidency, in turn, to honor us.

When the president travels overseas, we want people in those countries to say, "I see why Americans trust this person to lead them." We want to tell our children, "This man is our president, you can be proud of him."

My wife and I have three young children, including an 8-year-old son who likes to watch the evening news with us and talk with us about current events at the dinner table.

When I think about what he's now hearing regarding the president of the United States - terms such as sexual harassment and DNA evidence from semen, or questions such as whether some form of sex between a married man and an unmarried woman constitutes adultery - I am heartsick.

What do we tell this little boy? That powerful men can get away with anything? That everybody does it? That it's possible to be a professing Christian while at the same time unapologetically having sex with women other than your wife? That as long as the economy is good and everybody keeps making money, nobody really cares how badly the president behaves?

No, I won't tell my son these things. I will tell him instead that, if what appears to be true is in fact true, this president has disgraced himself and our country. And I will tell him that this ugliness surely will end soon. In this moment of national reckoning, surely we will not collectively forfeit our sense of decency.

How could a parent feel any other way? If for no other reason than because we have children, this degrading farce should not drag on. If we are still the kind of country I hope we are, it will not drag on.

When it is over, perhaps there will be, for all of us, some redemptive aspect to this tragedy, some collective sense of lessons learned. One lesson is that we should never again permit a politician to convince us to judge him by political and policy standards but not by personal standards. Another lesson is that, as I once heard Martin Luther King Jr. say, "the arch of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

Over time, what is true tends to become known. Many of us, in either our frustration or what we believed to be our sophistication, had forgotten this lesson. Until just a few days ago.

* David Blankenhorn is president of the New York-based Institute for American Values. He is co-editor of 'Promises to Keep: Decline and Renewal of Marriage in America.'

Two Views

As conflicting allegations of (1) sexual misconduct in the White House and (2) conspiracy against the president move from earthquake to aftershock, opinions have poured in to this page.

These two articles speak to some specific themes that have arisen among Americans' replies to pollsters:

* Is there a moral dimension that outweighs political, legal, and ideological considerations?

* How does a feminist explain the statistics that show a majority of women polled support the president?

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