Andrew Harnik/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks to medical professionals after taking a tour of Borinquen Health Care Center, in Miami, Fla., on Tuesday to see how they are combatting Zika.

Clinton's ethical slip violates spirit but not letter of law. Does that matter?

Emailed conversations among Mrs. Clinton's aides reveal requests for preferential treatment of top donors to the Clinton Foundation, further fueling voters concerns about the candidate's perceived honesty.

A new set of emails from Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton's days as secretary of State suggest a slip-up that abides by the letter, but not the spirit, of her ethical pledge.

Emailed conversations among Mrs. Clinton's aides reveal requests for preferential treatment of top donors to the Clinton Foundation, Katy O'Donnell reported for Politico. Clinton herself was not involved, but she had made an ethical pledge not to use her position in government to aid the Clinton Foundation's charitable work.

"There is an argument to be made that Clinton herself has not violated what was in the pledge,” Meredith McGehee, policy director for the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, told Politico. “Whether she or her aides have violated the spirit of the pledge ... yeah, of course they have."

It may be a hair-splitting ethical debate, but it touches on the notion of honesty, an oft-cited virtue in this political campaign.

"The notion of continuing contact between the Clinton Foundation and the State Department – that was not supposed to happen,” Ms. McGehee told Politico. 

Even more important than what ethicists decide, however, is what voters say about Clinton's conduct. The new email revelation comes as Washington Post/ABC News polls show just 38 percent of voters find her "honest and trustworthy," and two thirds of voters described her as "too willing to bend the rules."

The evidence is anecdotal as well. A group of "Wal-Mart moms" convened in a focus group this week to discuss the election, listing “cold,” liar,” and “untrustworthy” when describing Clinton. They also disparaged the Republican nominee Donald Trump and the whole tone of the campaign season.

“There’s a lot of name-calling rather than getting to the point,” said Donna G., a clinic manager in Columbus, Ohio.

Such "name-calling" and questions of integrity have grown so common that both campaigns are employing them regularly as political tactics. The Democratic campaign is keeping the focus on Donald Trump's "lack of fitness" for the presidency, wrote Robert Davis in a contribution for The Hill, as Clinton's "Nixonian skullduggery and stonewalling" otherwise make this a presidential campaign season that "gives new meaning to the phrase, lesser of two evils."

For her part, Clinton has said the lack of public trust worries her, but she attributes it to her long history in the spotlight.  

"I have to only conclude that there is a concerted effort to try to make partisan advantage by really throwing so much at me that even if little splatches of it stick, it will cloud people's judgements of me," Clinton told MSNBC's Rachel Maddow before the New Hampshire primary. "So that's a burden I carry." 

Regardless of where a voter draws his or own own ethical line between "letter" and "spirit," this election season has already yielded some of the nastiest attempts to malign and distort seen in recent history, but the responsibility, writes Mark Gerzon, president of Mediators Foundation for the Monitor, rests with American voters as well: 

To overcome our aversion to truth, it’s time to improve our civic listening skills so that we actually recognize the 'sound of the genuine' when we it spoken. [African-American theologian and civil rights leader Howard] Thurman believed that every human being “waits and listens” for it. And he warned us: 'If you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on ends of strings that somebody else pulls.'

Ultimately, that is the question each of us must answer. Will we be averse to hearing hard truths – or listen deeply for the 'the sound of the genuine?' Will we be puppets – or citizens?

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