The Politics of Our Values

We've known for a while that our workaholic, wavering, Big-Mac-attacked President is far from perfect. But we decided when we elected him that the future of our country was more important than the history of his marital woes. Nonetheless, the media has dog-piled on the recent rumors of philandering, justifying its behavior like pubescent students drooling over Playboy: "It has really good articles, I swear!"

The two Arkansas state troopers who now accuse Clinton of womanizing on the taxpayers' tab are far from credible. David Brock, the reporter who broke the story in the conservative magazine The American Spectator, is about as unbiased as Harvey Mansfield is liberal. And the women who were purportedly Clinton's mistresses at the Arkansas governor's mansion before he left for Washington are themselves denying the allegations. The media establishment went ahead and printed the troopers' stories even though they are even flimsier than the charges Clinton faced from the likes of Gennifer Flowers during the '92 campaign.

But aside from whether or not Clinton is a compulsive womanizer--and I would be very surprised if he had never messed around--what does it have to do with our country's politics?

Our voyeuristic media too often justifies its feeding frenzies with the notion that Clinton's exploits are somehow important and relevant. If Clinton's personal life does effect his ability to promote his legislative agenda on issues like welfare reform (which he has now postponed until 1995), it will be due to the media's self-fulfilling prophecies.

Because people have inquiring minds and because newspapers must compete with each other, perhaps it's too much to expect that stories like these never enter public awareness. It's too easy to blame the media alone, for it is feeding off of a deeper confusion in our public culture. But should whom Clinton has slept with really matter? Should we care?

People, unfortunately, are not only interested in sex-scandal stories for their salacious details. Like the media, some people also assume that it might be relevant to how we view our elected officials and our politics. People seemed to have resolved the issue of whether a clearly flawed man can be President when they elected Clinton last year. Yet our continuing interest in the tales of Clinton's extramarital activities shows that the line between personal morality and politics is still unclear. If people had a clearer idea of the distinction between morality and politics, newspapers and public forums would be forced to stop playing self-deluding games that eclipse issues of political importance.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to read about Clinton's sexual exploits, whether they're true or not. My problem comes when we start believing that they actually bear relevance to our country's politics. As politically jaded as many of us are, we hold onto the belief that a President should not only save our economy and every other problem, but lead us by moral example, too.

There are practical reasons that such expectations are a dangerous risk. Expecting moral perfectionism from our public officials has a numbing effect on our elective politics. Talented, committed people are increasingly reluctant to seek office because they do not want to subject themselves to the media spotlight. Many incumbents have also been saying they've had enough. And the dwindling pool of candidates only decrease the chances that our elected officials will have integrity.

The irony of our present situation is that moral laxness has always existed at the top levels of our government--the media has just kept quiet about it. Even though we compare the cynical temper of our country today to the optimism of the early 1960s, Camelot was more illusion than fact. Back then, our desire for moral authority was so strong that we were willing to shut our eyes to the truth, including the sexual exploits of John F. Kennedy '40 from Winthrop House to the White House. When Watergate shattered our notion that the government is morally impervious, we decided that more is always better when it comes to information about our politician's personal lives.

The publicity, reform and accountability that swept through politics in the early '70s is a good thing, but this greater scrutiny of our elected officials demands a more sensitive understanding of what constitutes moral and political leadership, and the difference between the two. If we demand to know every piece of dirt about our elected officials' personal lives, we cannot maintain our expectations of moral perfection. In our prurient culture, it is natural for Clinton's sex life to come up now and then, but its relevance to our country's political discourse should be nil.

If we continue to expect too much from politicians, we not only risk making candidates scarce. The real price for refusing to separate morality form politics is widespread cynicism. Our public culture grows sour as we wonder whether there is any point--for politicians and for us--to engage in politics.

We want to place our elected officials on moral pedestals, expecting them not only to pass welfare reform but to lead us by example. If we could rid ourselves of those high standards, we would perhaps even be able to appreciate the fact that a checkered past might provide a politician with greater sensitivity in crafting legislation on difficult social issues like welfare reform or gays in the military. We would understand that politics is not the place to resolve all our moral dilemmas cleanly, and that the best we can hope for form politics is that it keep these difficult questions alive.

The desire to close these complex moral issues rhetorically is what drives many social conservatives. Their inability to embrace the irony of having a strong belief without forcing it on everybody is what drives the worst kind of politics.

It is important to explain the values underlying legislation, for our collective goals depend on our behavior as individuals. When Clinton spoke about welfare reform last month, he discussed the importance of the stable two-parent family. Though some snickered at the President's apparent hypocrisy, Clinton's statements were justified. For people caught in the cultural and economic web of poverty, our public policies need to promote the kinds of behavior that will allow them to pull themselves out. Clinton was brave to talk about the values underlying his recent welfare reform legislation not only because of his own imperfections, but because it is difficult for concerned politicians to address these issues without sliding down the slope of political posturing and rhetoric.

To justify legislation in this way is not the same as saying that certain forms of behavior are morally wrong. When the government uses values to condemn, it is no longer a government for the people. Elected officials who use their offices as bully pulpits from which to divide the country along moral differences reduce reasonable discussion to pointless, destructively polarized debate. Politicians who try to use their positions to resolve difficult moral questions see politics as a battleground between good and evil. If only we could keep moral questions separate from political ones, we would gain a clearer understanding of the complexities of both.

That is what separates Clinton's welfare speeches form those of Dan Quayle when he slammed of Murphy Brown's single-parentdom. Unlike Clinton, Quayle was not justifying a policy so much as he was using morality to exclude people and to batter them into certain types of behavior. He was using words to cut off certain groups of people from the "mainstream" of our society. His words did not change anyone's moral decisions, but served only to increase people's disdain for politics.

Similar demagoguery also plagues the irresolvable and divisive issue of abortion. Here socially conservative rhetoric trips even harder over the distinction between what is morally right and what is political sensible.

No one would deny that an abortion is a difficult moral decision. No one believes that choosing an abortion is an unambiguously correct or morally flippant decision. Abortion-rights advocates who have had abortions themselves acknowledge the difficulty of choosing to terminate a pregnancy.

It's because abortion is such a morally complex decision that liberals believe that it best be left in the hands of the individual, not of a distant Washington bureaucracy. Our thoughts on abortion are sometimes so personally conflicting that individuals should have the freedom to resolve the issue themselves.

Abortion-rights proponents are not amoral people, but they do have a richer understanding of the necessary ambiguities of public life. Their political sensibility informs them that some questions are not easily hammered out, and so they do not believe it is reasonable to try to sweep aside moral complexities for the sake of public consensus and resolution.

Injecting these unresolvable issues into our public life serves only to feed our growing frustration toward politics. People cease to view government as a set of institutions responsive to our individual opinions and energy. And demagogues rush in to exploit this political resentment.

Unfair and unmet expectations for our politics have led to the creation of a cynicism industry, led by talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh, whose book, See, I Told You So, continues to top the bestseller lists. Limbaugh feeds off this growing disillusionment with government to promote himself. His tactics are not unlike those of Ross Perot. (Expect him to share a ticket with Perot in 1996.)

Limbaugh's listeners do not always agree with his often offensive rhetoric, but the radio pundit remains popular because he has tapped the growing public sense that something is seriously wrong with our political culture. It has become conventional wisdom that our special-interests-beholden political parties are barely distinguishable from each other.

As much as they scare us with their reactionary, knee-jerk rhetoric, Perot and Limbaugh scare Washington even more, Politicians tremble when they sense that public opinion, which they thought was theirs to manipulate, is escaping their control. Even though Limbaugh and Perot exploit our cynicism to promote themselves, they unwittingly create an opportunity for the public to engage itself more constructively in political life.

It is easy to be critical, to flatten politicians who are not perfect, but our real challenge is to convert cynicism into action, and action into progress. It's easier to snicker at higher-ups than it is to critically probe our own foibles; it's easier to blame others when we have not yet faced up to our own responsibility for improving the state of our political affairs.

I do believe that there is a place for morality in our politics. And if I knew what Hillary Clinton means by a "politics of meaning," I'd probably be for it. But the kind of political morality that we need in our politics has nothing to do with sexual propriety; it consists essentially of accepting one's responsibility to participate in the direction of everyone's affairs. As Czech President Vaclav Havel has written, "If you are modest and do not lust after power, not only are you suited for politics, you absolutely belong there."

This kind of politics has to start from the bottom, percolating up from the electorate to the officeholders. When we stop blaming government for not doing the impossible and we look at the morality of our own actions, we will start getting the political leaders we deserve.

Even more importantly, we will have taken a long step toward living fuller, more interesting lives, in which we are not easily swayed by what we hear and see, but trudge through the dilemmas of politics and morality ourselves, becoming more active citizens and the authors of our own lives.