President's Business - All of It - Is Our Business

ONE of the more surprising arguments voiced in Bill Clinton's favor during the continuing White House scandal is that the president's sex life is his own business, not ours, and that he should not be expected to serve as a moral exemplar.

"Greatness in leadership does not depend on sexual purity," writes New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis.

"We elected a president, not a pope," says Clinton friend Barbra Streisand. Sadly, most public opinion polls seem to support that blas view.

Now that Federal District Judge Susan Webber Wright has thrown out the Paula Jones case, expect a new wave of pundits to step up and equate legality with morality: If the president didn't break the law, what's the big deal?

Judge Wright found that Jones presented "no genuine issues for trial," though she was careful to point out that the "alleged incident in the hotel, if true, was certainly boarish and offensive."

However, in dismissing the case, Wright did nothing to clear up the moral questions still plaguing the president.

Did the incidents related to Ms. Jones, and more recently to Kathleen Willey and Monica Lewinsky, happen? In the case of Ms. Lewinsky, did he suborn perjury?

One doesn't need to be a pope to know that if the answer to either question is yes, Clinton's effectiveness as president will be seriously undermined.

Many argue that Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy performed well as president despite having extramarital affairs while in office.

In fact, they argue, those leaders did so facing much more pressing matters than President Clinton has - economic depression, world war, the civil rights battle.

However, the reason such trysts didn't affect the ability of Kennedy and Roosevelt to lead is not because people didn't care about such sexual misconduct, but because the public didn't know of such affairs.

Would FDR have been able to rally the country to war had his unfaithfulness to a wildly popular Eleanor Roosevelt been known?

How would JFK, still years before the sexual revolution, have explained his many tawdry affairs while proposing to lead the moral charge against racial segregation?

Those presidents benefitted from an uncritical media corps that followed a simple rule on such "private" matters: what the American people didn't know wouldn't hurt them. But then came Watergate, when the secret closets of high office were opened to a media spotlight. Now the rule has become: What the people don't know might indeed hurt them, so the people should know everything.

Presidents no longer have the luxury of concealing peccadilloes. They must be above reproach precisely because an enterprising media will likely expose whatever they do.

That's as it should be. Presidents, for better or for worse, belong to the public. We feed them, house them, protect them with a small army of Secret Service agents. The office, and by extension its occupant, belongs to us.

As Thomas Jefferson said: "When a man assumes a public trust, he should consider himself as public property."

Some complain that no president should be expected to live in the fishbowl created by modern media. However, in a time when none of us enjoys the privacy we once did, a president can expect no less. Bill Clinton, a master of modern media spin, should know that better than most.

We often hear that the chief executive is little more than a manager whose political character can, through sober analysis of policy, somehow be separated from his personal morality.

"Many of us know highly competent people at work who have cheated on their spouses," argues Wendy Kaminer, a fellow at Radcliffe College, in defense of Clinton.

Is Bill Clinton just another person at work?

This argument might better have been made 100 years ago; it is embarrassingly ignorant, however, of what the presidency has become in the 20th century.

The "imperial presidency," as historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. calls it, grew out of the moral crisis facing the country during the 1860 election. Abraham Lincoln defended the Union and opposed slavery largely on moral grounds, by appealing to "the better angels of our nature." The wars on poverty waged by FDR and Lyndon Johnson were fought not merely for political reasons but for moral ones as well. Presidents do more than manage. They lead, and leadership always entails a moral role.

Bill Clinton understands and even relishes the moral role he plays. He may be no pope, but there's a reason Clinton, arm in arm with his wife, makes very public entrances to Sunday church services carrying a Bible.

His efforts to pass sweeping health-care reform in 1993, to spark a national dialogue on improving race relations, to stop the partial-birth abortion ban - these positions stem from Clinton's moral convictions. The message is clear: The president knows right from wrong, and we should trust his judgments.

But such "private" sins as sexual predation, if true, would make it hard to accept that his "public" moral barometer is well-calibrated.

There's another important reason why Bill Clinton is not just another business executive: He commands the most potent military power in human history. Should he be exempt from the moral standards required of those serving below him?

Adultery is a crime in the military. One may debate whether that is a reasonable regulation. But when Clinton swore to uphold the Constitution, he agreed to honor his constitutional duty as commander-in-chief. In doing so, he also agreed, at least implicitly, to uphold the moral precepts expected of all officers and enlisted personnel.

If soldiers see superiors violating important moral principles, won't they then question all the rules?

If Bill Clinton committed adultery, his authority as commander of the armed forces would be bruised - this while continuing to call on military women and men to stand in harm's way in hot spots such as Bosnia and the Persian Gulf. Those troops have a right to know whether the president who leads them has good judgment and high moral standards.

They deserve a leader responsible enough to rein in his own lewd instincts. For that matter, so do the rest of us.

David T. Gordon, a former Newsweek reporter, is a freelance writer in Boston.

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