Whose Integrity?

Bob Dole's sharpened demand for integrity in the White House comes off as a political tactic. But the question of integrity should cause self-searching not only on Pennsylvania Avenue but in households across America. Individuals and nations have responsibility for living in accord with the same principles that decide their votes.

No one claims a monopoly on virtue. The crusading Christian Coalition has faced allegations of lapses such as funding candidates through "backdoor channels." Yet no one would deny the words of the coalition's executive director, Ralph Reed :

"We are not, in the end, measured as a nation by our gross national product or by the Dow Jones industrial average. We are measured by the moral fiber of our people and the integrity of our leaders."

This declaration was reported last month as part of a warning to Mr. Dole and other Republicans in their quest for votes. Now the anti-Clinton campaign is getting up to speed on it. A radio commercial laments a "moral crisis" in America, saying the problem "isn't in your house" but in "Bill Clinton's White House."

Yet any president's White House, or any political post at any level, takes its character from "our house" - what the people do and what they allow to go on.

Today's America shouldn't shrink from being "measured by the moral fiber of our people." The fiber is strong. But right now it seems threatened by moral numbness. What else do you call a condition so often indifferent to morality in political, corporate, and human relationships?

Maybe, after all the low morals in high places around the globe, Americans are not the only people who are scandal-fatigued, in the phrase of a successful scandalmonger. Maybe feeling will return to deadened moral nerves when the Ten Commandments become fashionable at the princely, presidential, pop-icon, executive-suite level.

President Clinton is fond of saying things are "right" (his policy) or "wrong" (the policy he rejects). In a long, public-TV interview, he missed an opportunity to plainly apply such distinctions in the realm of integrity.

It came when Jim Lehrer brought up such essentially moral issues as the scandal causing top adviser Richard Morris to resign and the possibility of presidential pardon for former Clinton investment partner Susan McDougal. The president could have taken the opening to express a sense of ethical conviction. Instead he fenced the questions and risked giving an impression that for him the main wrongdoing was the get-Clinton motive he dubiously imputed to independent counsel Kenneth Starr.

The public needs more inspiration from its leaders. In the present atmosphere many people tsk tsk about one or another politician's personal failings, misuse of power, distortion of truth, but cut to the chase of issues exploited, polls won, promises made. There's less sympathy for those hurt by the politician's failings than calculation of how much the exposure of the failings will hurt the politician.

The "integrity of our leaders" - and potential leaders - has to be measured thoughtfully, considering integrity in both governance and personal conduct. History is full of contradictions when the public and personal qualities of leaders are added up. Americans, not to mention citizens elsewhere, use their best judgment of the net balance to decide whom to support at any level of government. When they use that judgment on their own working and personal lives they test the moral fiber their leaders reflect and depend upon.

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