Has Presidency Slid From Statescraft to Celebrity?

Less faith in institutions and more questions about character may contribute to an erosion of respect for America's leaders.

It was an MTV moment. There stood President Clinton, fielding questions from the youths of America as part of a forum aired on the popular music video channel. And then came The Question:

Do you wear boxers or briefs?

The boldness of that 1994 query pales somewhat in comparison with questions Mr. Clinton currently faces in regard to his sexual conduct and Kenneth Starr's investigation of an alleged coverup in the Monica Lewinsky case. But in retrospect, the question may stand as something of a signpost on a road that's led to what many observers see as a demeaning of the office of the American president.

It is an erosion of respect, they say, fed in part by the did-he or didn't-he questions about the president's behavior. But other factors also have a role - the public appetite for details of individuals' private lives; news media that are too willing to provide such information; and a money-driven system of political campaigning that fosters public cynicism.

Once larger than life

"Historically in America, the presidency has been larger than any individual - it's an institution," says Robert Denton a professor at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg and author of "Symbolic Dimensions of the American Presidency." "Throughout history, the president has embodied the hopes, desires, and dreams of the American people. He's set our agenda in terms of moral conscience and public policy."

"What has happened [in recent years]," Mr. Denton says, "is that the presidency has gone from statesperson, to politician, in terms of the influence of special-interest groups, to celebrity. It's gone from people being elected because of their rsums and their deeds to being elected because of a kind of celebrity status.

"When you can ask somebody whether it's boxers or briefs, that definitely brings down the idea of the office," he says. "It's not a leader we're talking about, but a colleague. That reduces the stature of the office."

Professor Denton and many others criticize Clinton for contributing to the Oval Office's loss of luster. Republicans lambaste him and his aides for asserting "executive privilege" to keep from testifying before a grand jury run by Mr. Starr. Rep. Dan Burton, who heads a House probe of alleged Democratic fund-raising abuses, recently told the Indianapolis Star: "If I could prove 10 percent of what I believe happened, he'd [Clinton] be gone. This guy's a scumbag."

But many critics also note that questionable presidential behavior (alleged and otherwise) is nothing new. Recent history offers Richard Nixon; past history includes, among others, Andrew Jackson, who was accused of being a bigamist, and Grover Cleveland, who fathered a child out of wedlock.

What's different now, they say, is a changed social climate - one in which the line between public and private life has blurred. And with the increasing dominance of television as the medium of power - a medium both intimate and ubiquitous - the line between entertainment and news can blur as well.

"In a way, technology has moved the bar down a big notch, because stories come out in seconds, instead of days or weeks," says Michael Genovese, co-author of "The Paradoxes of the American Presidency" and director of Loyola Marymount University's Institute for Leadership Studies. "All that has made the president not only the commander in chief, but also the celebrity in chief. It demeans the office by treating the president as a celebrity.

"What it means is we ask the president to be entertaining, to be like a game-show host," he says. "But we don't ask for him to be a statesman. He has to look good and sound good, rather than do good. That's very demeaning [for all of us]."

Less-than-great expectations

Other observers note that public cynicism about virtually all elected officials is also a factor. Increasingly fed up with a system that many politicians refuse to fix - despite overwhelming public support for campaign-finance reform - Americans have become "quite hostile towards all institutions, from Congress to the presidency to the media," says Larry Berman, professor of political science at the University of California, Davis.

"People really have low expectations for how any of these people will perform on an honesty scale," says Mr. Berman. "Americans have suspended this question of character for almost any elected official."

Berman cites as "almost outrageous" the fact that a few weeks ago, following his conviction on charges of accepting illegal campaign contributions, Rep. Jay C. Kim (R) of California walked into Congress and cast a vote, making him the first person convicted of a federal crime to do so.

"It's symptomatic that this fact was almost lost on the American public," he says. "It made Page 12 of The New York Times. Mr. Kim has to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet [as part of his sentence], and he's voting in Congress and we don't even talk about it. We're focusing on the issue of sex and the president. The fact that we have such lowered expectations is a very sad commentary."

Such public cynicism and indifference is set against a much larger social confusion, say many cultural observers. Changing social mores in post-1960s America, they say, have led to a breakdown of absolute moral values. What that means is that even while the press and public feed on every new detail of Clinton's personal life - whether true or only alleged - many Americans are less inclined to judge the president on the matter of his morals.

Something lost

"We're in untraveled territory. There's no precedent for what's happening now," says James Bowman, who writes about political and cultural issues. "We haven't got what used to be taken for granted, that some things are out of bounds, that some things are not part of the public discourse. We've lost something that we don't know how to replace.

"There's always been a kind of pendulum movement in American history between moralism and liberty," he says. "But through it all, people had to keep up some kind of front. In the '60s that stopped, when keeping up a front was seen as worse than behavior that was supposedly immoral. How does the pendulum return its swing after that? I don't know.

"If we continue this way, it means that for virtually every president from now on, their public life is going to be dominated by this sort of thing," he says. "At some point, somebody has got to say, we want our public discourse to be about something else."

Steven Klein, a philosopher and anthropologist who studies American culture, says that at least part of the legacy of the '60s revolution is positive, because it called into question "the hypocrisy of holding our leaders higher than we do one another."

But he also notes that the change in values is a double-edged sword - that in putting down one set of standards, Americans have yet to pick up another that allows them to make broader moral judgments.

"What we're left with is, whatever works for you is OK," he says. "But the question is, What do you become when you have no ideals? What binds you together as a community? Unless we find standards of acceptability based on something other than what's strictly legal, there's going to be a great deal of confusion, not only in public, but in people's personal lives."

Public willingness to accept much of Clinton's alleged behavior, he says, makes him wonder, "If people are willing to accept that in a leader, what are they willing to accept in their personal lives? ... These issues are rooted in very basic philosophical problems that have yet to be resolved."

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