The Winning Of Moral Authority

WHAT qualifies a leader, whether a parish minister or a president of the United States? What certifies her or him for official duty? What inspires trust? Is there such a thing as moral authority? Is there a private zone, encompassing a leader's singleness or marital and family relationships, fidelity or lack thereof, that should be declared off limits?

Ministers are usually ordained by a church body and then called by a congregation. Presidents are nominated by a party and elected by the public. Ministers are trained in seminaries, while politicians come with some government, business, military or other relevant experience.

A demonstration of competence must follow the installation if the one installed is to gain respect. A minister or politician - and let's add a teacher or editor, to suggest how large a boat we're in - may be accorded a title and position, but that is only the opportunity to prove that she or he is up to it.

A testing comes.

Bill Clinton is a candidate for president. The Arkansas governor and his wife, Hillary, went before cameras to deal with the allegation that he has had affairs. Mr. Clinton said married partners should discuss their marital conduct only between themselves. They'd had rough patches in their marriage, they owned. Mrs. Clinton noted that women had called their residence, worried they were being dragged into public scandal. How much of this is the craziness that public figures often attract, and how much a c onsequence of a governor's dalliance? The off-limits approach may have been the most considerate way to treat Mrs. Clinton. Why drag her into it further? It kept the governor from a self-incriminating statement that most certainly would have been featured in opposition attacks.

The mainstream media have anguished over the Clinton adultery allegations, which had been out there for some time but surfaced in a tainted manner. The media have been trying to report on issues and ideas, and not get drawn into trash entertainment topics. And here the focus of the campaign has been diverted to charges of hanky-panky. Clinton's rivals would just as soon the focus return to other areas of comparison - and to themselves. In the old nomination system, candidates were looked over by the part y pros, who presumably vetted them for vulnerabilities like infidelity or drinking problems. Well, the questioning of the Clintons on CBS's "60 Minutes" is certainly modern direct democracy at its directest.

There is chauvinism in the adage that a minister's wife must be above suspicion. (Especially so, given that the majority of students in today's theological schools are women.) And what about the politician's wife? Often she is the abler of the pair, and must endure the lights attracted to her partner's ambition.

George Bush, as incumbent, gets a State of the Union address platform as his front-runner rival, Clinton, rides out a storm that would humiliate him. Mr. Bush's test now is competence. The economy is stalled. Bush has just come off a failed mission to Asia. He needs to show focus and discipline, and so does his administration. His campaign organization may be running ahead of the candidate: It is seeded with experienced veterans and a younger generation with the energy required of a presidential quest.

Clinton is thought to have the best organization among the Democrats. If Clinton can come through this character test and use the spotlight to indicate intellectual depth, to suggest caring for the undereducated young and the suffering and the put-upon, to show a comprehensiveness of program, he could be helped by it. We know wife Hillary better; she is smart, a clear asset.

Convincing leaders usually relate some transforming experience, a message or purpose that uses them. Candidates who ask us to trust them too much personally are not to be trusted. Awareness of human frailties qualifies a candidate: What, otherwise, is humility for?

We will know within a few weeks how heavily, if at all, the voting public discounts Clinton's candidacy on the adultery charge. We will see how he draws with women and with men. He may well survive but has not escaped the moral authority reading.

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