Wielding a new moral yardstick

Some see 'sexual McCarthyism' in exposing politicians' infidelities; others see call for higher standard of conduct.

Accusations about sex are nothing new in American politics.

President Thomas Jefferson faced longstanding rumors about involvement with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. President Grover Cleveland laid to rest accusations about fathering an illegitimate child by taking responsibility for that child.

In more recent times, some politicians have been caught with prostitutes and survived. Others have admitted to infidelity and seen their political careers plummet.

Today, as the imbroglio over President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky heads for the Senate, exposure of sexual misconduct has become a means unto itself.

Publisher Larry Flynt's forthcoming expos about congressmen's affairs has already hurt House Speaker-designate Robert Livingston; there are hints of more to come.

"This is categorically different from almost anything that's happened before in American politics," says Calvin McKenzie, an expert on government at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. "It's warfare by other means, and the war is, get your political enemies. When you play this game, everyone loses."

Harvard University legal scholar Alan Dershowitz calls what happened to Clinton "sexual McCarthyism," the title of his new book and a phrase that is being widely used to describe the greater phenomenon of sexual "gotcha" that's playing out in Washington.

Referring to independent counsel Ken Starr's investigation of Clinton, Professor Dershowitz writes that the analogy to what Sen. Joe McCarthy, his aide Roy Cohn, and FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover did to figures like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is compelling: "They investigated the private sexual behavior of public figures in order to influence their public actions," he says.

Clinton's problems, of course, stem not only from the sexual liaison itself but from the charges that he lied under oath about it and obstructed justice. But Dershowitz argues that the scandal really is about sex, and not lying: Mr. Starr ultimately focused on sex and not Whitewater, he says, because the nation could understand it.

Congressman Livingston's decision to resign over his own infidelities muddies the waters further over what this scandal is really about. He was exposed as an adulterer, but not charged with lying under oath about it. For that reason, Democrats argued Livingston shouldn't have resigned. A flawed private life shouldn't disqualify someone for public service, many pleaded.

"We need to stop destroying imperfect people at the altar of an unattainable morality," House minority leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri thundered in a speech, bemoaning the "fratricide" that dominates public debate.

Calls for a higher morality

For politicians who hold the view that morality is unattainable, they may do so at their own risk. The rise of religious conservatism has opened the door to demands for higher moral standards on all levels, public and private. Some observers see a silver lining to the political warfare being waged.

"If the side effect of all of this is ... to set a higher standard and encourage our elected officials to meet the highest of moral and ethical standards, then that's a positive sign," says Randy Tate, executive director of the Christian Coalition.

Though he's sad to see Livingston resign, he doesn't suggest the Louisiana congressman's departure is a mistake.

The Rev. Richard Cizik, interim Washington director of the National Association of Evangelicals, also sees a positive "cleansing" effect in the current turmoil.

Despite Clinton's high job-approval ratings, there is "incredible discussion going on about how in fact we need to evaluate our political leadership," says Mr. Cizik. He also sees this as a time for the church to examine itself, particularly in the way that it trains men and women for civil society. "This crisis could be viewed as God's wake-up call to the church, as much as to Bill Clinton or the Congress," Cizik wrote in a recent essay.

Back to Plan A

For Clinton, living up to the moral standards he set for himself at the beginning of his presidency - to have the most ethical administration in history - has become a part of his ticket out of the political crisis he's entangled in.

When the final moderate Republicans were weighing how to vote on impeachment in the House, many publicly called on Clinton to admit he had lied under oath and to show proper repentance.

There's nothing in the Constitution about showing the appropriate remorse for an impeachable offense, but in the current climate, that has become important to some lawmakers.

Thus, in the early discussion of a possible censure resolution the Senate might consider on Clinton, an admission of lying (and a waiver from legal prosecution) is part of the package.

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