President Clinton has an uncanny ability to compartmentalize, to stay on message.
This is something we are hearing a lot these days--from reporters and supporters of the president. On Thursday, when Monica Lewinsky was pouring her heart out to a grand jury half a mile from the White House, Clinton beamed during a lavish Rose Garden ceremony featuring the disabled former White House Press Secretary Jim Brady. Last week he was laughing and noshing his way through the Hamptons; the week before he stumped for Social Security in Albuquerque, all the while "tuning out" the unpleasantness closing in on him. Call it the uniquely Clintonian talent of staying focused no matter what.
But is this really something to be admired in a president whose moral legacy has been eviscerated? Of course no one wants a political leader who withers at the slightest criticism, a la Edmund Muskie in the snowbanks of New Hampshire. Certainly respected leaders--Churchill, Reagan and Thatcher--did not allow naysayers to derail their principles or political agenda. But they were not confronting potential charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. Given his personal value system, Clinton's impervious, upbeat exterior is not a virtue. It is a sad hoax. It smacks of the sort of deep denial usually associated with alcoholics or chronic gamblers--the old "I don't have a problem" mentality.
Yet the president's "business as usual" approach during the past six months portends something much more distressing than a mere psychological infirmity. It means that he has convinced himself that it doesn't matter what most Americans think about his character. Today most people believe he's a liar, a cheater, a guy who takes advantage of a star-struck young woman, then sends out his wife (on whom he cheated) to beat up his detractors for him. They hear him demand truth and integrity from tobacco and insurance companies but then see him hide behind his lawyers and claims of privilege when questions are asked about his own integrity.
But then perhaps the rest of us have compartmentalized as well.
Men once dueled over honor impugned. Yet Clinton's response is not to defend or resuscitate his own character. Instead, his Robo-spinners such as Lanny Davis and Jack Quinn point to his high "job approval ratings." The outrage is directed at the cost of the independent counsel's investigation, at the alleged "illegal" leaking, at Linda Tripp's taping and even at a federal appeals court judge--but never at his own questionable judgment. Meanwhile, Clinton compartmentalizes: He signs executive orders, appears at tightly controlled fund-raising events and strategizes with his legal team.
However the president manages to get through the day, one thing is clear--he deems his own day-to-day "survival" as more important than his presidential duty to be "the servant of the people." When political survival is the overriding goal, questions of honor must be compartmentalized. Recently, the ever-defiant Clinton said he would seek a third term "if it weren't for the 22nd Amendment. . . . I believe in what we're doing." Who cares if no one believes him? Or if there is a consensus that he has acted dishonorably in everything from technology sales to China to fund-raising for his reelection and yet his job approval rating remains paradoxically high? The salient point for Clinton is that he is still subsisting in office--still hearing "Hail to the Chief" play when he enters a ballroom, still able to stop a motorcade for Christie Brinkley, still able to get Benjamin Netanyahu on the red phone.
For those who buy the notion that perjury about sex doesn't affect governing, that it may be compartmentalized, it is worthwhile to review some of the president's major speeches in light of the recent scandal. In his 1996 State of the Union address, he described ours an "age of possibility," where one of our fundamental challenges is to "preserve our old and enduring values as we move into the future." He urged "American men and women in families to give greater respect one another." He challenged our schools to "teach character education, to teach good values and good citizenship." He reminded us that "our country is--and always has been--a great and good nation."
Because America is great and good, no American president should be indifferent to public perception that he is neither. If personal integrity doesn't matter in government as long as our economy is chugging along, then why don't we simply shut down the White House and inaugurate Alan Greenspan? If the president can prevail by lying, how does he look at a poor kid today and urge him to swear off selling crack for a job that is low-paying but honest?
We were schooled in George Washington's line, "I cannot tell a lie," and we remember President Lincoln as "Honest Abe." If Clinton gets his wish and survives politically, what lessons will our children learn? They already have heard his nicknames. Will he have made it easier for them to justify cheating and lying, as long as they are doing well professionally?