As far as we know, Richard Nixon was faithful to his wife and decent to his children - a good family man. But as president, he burgled his political opponents, illegally wiretapped people who disagreed with him, and created enemies lists of American citizens who opposed him politically.
He may have been a moral husband, but was he a moral president? What is more important to the moral health of our nation: the personal behavior of its leaders, like President Clinton, or the way in which our society is organized to treat its citizens?
The first time this question occurred to me was when I was 14 years old and closely following the presidential race between Adlai Stevenson and Dwight Eisenhower. Commentators agreed that Mr. Stevenson was losing a lot of votes because he had been divorced. If the rumors about Mr. Eisenhower's wartime romance with Kay Summersby had been publicly known at the time, perhaps Stevenson's moral disability would have been neutralized. But it seemed to me then, as it does now, that whether Stevenson was divorced or Ike had an extramarital relationship was utterly irrelevant to a citizen's electoral decision.
It was not that I thought morality was unimportant in a candidate. But I measured morality differently, at least for the purpose of deciding who I thought should be president.
The year before the Eisenhower-Stevenson race, Emmett Till, a boy about my age, had been brutally lynched in Mississippi by a gang of white men because of the color of his skin. I knew that his murder was only the tip of the iceberg when it came to racial injustice and the tolerated terror that was regularly used to enforce it.
It seemed to me then, as it does now, that racial segregation, subjugation, and terror were the leading moral issues of our time. In assessing the morality of presidential candidates, I wanted to know which candidate was more likely to do something about Jim Crow laws, to make the moral issue of race discrimination a core part of the nation's political agenda.
After all, I didn't know Stevenson or Eisenhower personally and likely never would. They would never enter my personal life except insofar as they took, or failed to take, political action on society's moral issues. And what was a greater moral issue than the racial injustice that prevailed at that time? Next to that, I couldn't imagine why anyone cared about Stevenson's divorce or, had they known about it, Eisenhower's affair.
Today we are engaged in a great deal of public talk about morality, much of it confused. The religious right likes to measure the state of American morality by pointing to the decline of daily prayer sessions in public school.
But in the 1950s, the states that had the most schools with daily prayer sessions were the states of the deep South. And the state that had the highest percentage of children praying in public school was Mississippi.
That was also the state where Emmett Till was murdered, as later Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were, all for trying to register people to vote. Mississippi was also where James Meredith was shot for breaking the color line at the University of Mississippi. Children may have been praying publicly, but was Mississippi a moral state?
I am not suggesting that public prayer was linked to racial violence; to the contrary, I am suggesting that it was irrelevant. Jesse Helms has supported legislation that would permit prayer sessions in public schools and he may think it will advance morality to have children pray every day in school, whether their parents want them to or not. But in the early 1960s, Mr. Helms publicly opposed sit-ins in North Carolina protesting the refusal of restaurants to serve blacks. Which act defines Helms's morality?
Civic virtue and personal virtue may not be entirely unrelated, but they are certainly different.
And we would be much more moral as a nation if we stopped acting as if the personal behavior of our citizens was a legitimate political issue and instead measured our government and ourselves by how society is organized to treat its citizens, whether justice and fairness prevail, whether equal opportunity is widely available, and whether it is safe to be different and easy to be free when you are not in the majority.
* Ira Glasser is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.