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THE STARR REPORT

Scandal Demonstrates Character Can Be a Boom or Bust for Presidency

September 14, 1998|ROBERT SHOGAN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — When President Clinton, in one of last week's frequent apologies for the Monica S. Lewinsky affair, said he wanted Americans to accept him as a model for their children, it marked an implicit retreat from what has been the White House's staunchest line of defense not only during the eight-month-long scandal but throughout Clinton's presidency.

This is the contention that the so-called character issue has little to do with presidential performance.

But even as politicians ponder the legal questions raised by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report to Congress, experts agree that the continuing controversy over Clinton's character will greatly influence his effectiveness for the rest of his tenure in office and will define his legacy.

The experts note that character has always been a major factor in presidential success and failure. And as politicians in both parties agree, Clinton's career has dramatized--perhaps more than any of his predecessors'--the salience of the character issue as a weapon that can inspire the electorate but also wreck a presidency.

Clinton himself tacitly acknowledged the bearing that personal behavior has on the nation's highest office at a fund-raiser in Orlando, Fla., last week when he recalled a little boy who earlier that day told him: "I want to grow up to be . . . a president like you."

Said Clinton: "I want to be able to conduct my life and my presidency so that all the parents of the country could feel good if their children were able to say that again."

A longtime Clinton supporter, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), expressed the political significance of the character issue in broader--and more pointed--terms, when he expanded on his highly critical and highly publicized Senate speech about Clinton and the consequences of the Lewinsky scandal.

"One of the great things the president has done for our country, and for our party, is that in his public statements and in the programs he's advocated, he has reconnected the Democratic Party to the mainstream of American values," Lieberman said. But he added: "This misconduct, behavior that is both immoral and untruthful, undercuts that."

Long before the Lewinsky affair provoked Lieberman to speak out, some Republicans pointed to what they viewed as a contradiction between Clinton's own conduct and his rhetoric about family values and traditional morals.

"He very much wants to be a leader in moral terms," said William J. Bennett, the former secretary of Education and author of the best-selling "The Book of Virtues," midway through Clinton's first term. "He thinks of the pantheon of great American presidents and wants to be in their company and knows that moral leadership is part of that."

An understanding of the political significance of character and the intertwined issue of values to Clinton's presidency begins with the 1988 presidential campaign when Republican George Bush's campaign against Democrat Michael S. Dukakis created what Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg called a "savage caricature" as the dominant image of the Democratic Party--short on patriotism and indifferent to the values of work and family.

Yet at the same time the country was supposedly caught up in a pervasive conservative mood, Greenberg noted, polls showed that voters favored an activist agenda for the government.

Greenberg, who became a key Clinton advisor, argued that to take advantage of this inclination, Democrats had to find a way to reach the middle-class voters who had left the party. This diagnosis set the stage for the "New Democrat" paradigm, which helped carry Clinton to the White House. Along with a bundle of policy proposals, the model relied heavily on Clinton stressing traditional values--such as individuals taking responsibility for their actions--to touch the emotions and win the hearts of the voters.

The problem with this strategy is that Clinton has had trouble living up to his part of it.

His 1992 candidacy was dogged by allegations of infidelity and draft evasion. In response, Clinton claimed these allegations were a false alarm, diverting attention away from the policy questions that confronted the country. His wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, provided enthusiastic and essential support to this line of argument.

"Is anything about our marriage important enough to the people of New Hampshire as whether or not they will have a chance to keep their own families together?" she asked the voters of the then-recession ridden Granite State.

It was a contention that would be echoed six years later when the Lewinsky affair first erupted. Until recently, the president's cohorts pointed to the booming economy and his favorable job approval ratings in the polls as far more relevant indices of Clinton's presidential performance than possible flaws in his character.

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