Public Leaders, Personal Lives?

The Paula Jones case raises questions about the importance of presidential character to the American electorate.

The revival of Paula Jones's sexual harassment suit has reignited a longstanding question about Bill Clinton - and about the American public that has elected him president twice.

Does personal character matter in our public leaders?

The answer, say both supporters and critics of President Clinton, is ambiguous. History is populated with great leaders with private flaws. Many American presidents had extramarital affairs, such as John F. Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower. Britain's legendary World War II leader Winston Churchill had a well-known drinking problem.

In the case of Mr. Clinton, the veracity of Ms. Jones's specific charge of sexual harassment in 1991 is as-yet untested in court. But in general, Clinton is widely viewed as having been a womanizer - a point he has himself essentially acknowledged. The Jones lawsuit, which the Supreme Court ruled this week may proceed while the president is still in office, has reinforced that image, despite Clinton's rejection of the allegations.

"A lot of people want to make the personal character question a black-and-white issue, which it's not," says Michael Cromartie, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. "Still, it's very much true that a person's private indiscretions can easily shade over into making public promises they don't keep, or publicly shading the truth in ways that are unbecoming of a person of character."

And for that reason, Mr. Cromartie says he's disappointed that the American public has weighed in favor of electing Clinton president twice and rewarding him of late with approval ratings in the high 50s and low 60s, records for this presidency. Clinton's popularity is particularly troubling, he says, given that we know more today about our leaders' private lives than we did even 20 years ago.

"It shows the effect of moral relativism on the American psyche," Cromartie says. "The public just wants him to keep a smooth running economy, and we couldn't care less if he tells a lie here or there."

Of course, no politician keeps all his or her promises. Some argue that being "flexible" is the hallmark of a pragmatic politician - an art form Clinton has elevated to lofty heights.

On the related question of how politicians conduct their personal lives, America distinguishes itself for its puritanical streak. In Russia, extramarital liaisons are the norm. In France, the late President Mitterrand acknowledged his illegitimate daughter with easy public acceptance.

Still, other recent events show that Americans are not as absolute on sexual matters as purported. When Air Force 1st Lt. Kelly Flinn faced a possible court-martial over her affair with a married man, polls show she won in the court of public opinion and was allowed a general discharge from the military.

It hasn't been so easy for Clinton to put the Jones controversy behind him. But it remains unclear how her lawsuit might affect the public's view of Clinton - an issue White House pollster Mark Penn deflected yesterday at a Monitor breakfast. He asserted instead that Americans are focused very much on "issues that affect them" - their children, their jobs, their communities. And he denied Clinton is a Teflon president: "That implies things slide off him in an unfair way."

Rather, Mr. Penn says, the public weighs what it hears and judges Clinton based on whether he's "getting things done."

HOW the Jones lawsuit affects opinion on Clinton depends on how long the case drags out and how much of a daily news story it becomes, says presidential historian Robert Dallek. But the impact could be devastating to his presidency, especially as he becomes more and more of a lame duck.

"I think there is a breaking point among the public," says Mr. Dallek, who has studied the issue of presidential character.

One way for Clinton to counter the water-torture effect of daily press coverage is to tackle a serious issue - such as the coming insolvency of Social Security - and accomplish something big with it, observers suggest.

In the long run, Clinton's scandal-sheet presidency - not just Jones, but also Whitewater and the campaign-finance flap - could have a serious impact on future presidential races.

"One of the outcomes of this is it's going to heighten the craving in this country for effective moral leadership," says Dallek. "Presidents are not only our presidents, they're our prime ministers and our kings. They're our symbols."

But where Clinton falls down as a symbol of personal virtue, he wins points for "public character" - even among detractors - for taking stands on tough issues. Of course, one man's example of political courage is another's fatal blunder. Conservatives applaud the president's decision to sign the welfare-reform legislation that ended the entitlement.

Liberals decry the welfare move as an opportunistic political maneuver that would be devastating to poor women and children. But in the next breath they applaud him for pushing for tax breaks for the working poor and for signing a minimum wage increase. If nothing else, the history of Clinton's presidency will be a study in contrasts and contradictions.

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