A Deficit of Values

Character must not become a defining campaign issue

On January 27, 1998, then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared on NBC’s Today show to deny allegations that her husband, President Bill Clinton, had carried on an extramarital affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The first lady blamed the charges of infidelity and obstruction of justice on a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” that had been out to get her husband “since the day he announced for president.”

Now, more than seven years later, Rodham Clinton, since 2000 the junior senator from New York, is finding herself in a tempest-plagued teapot of all her own. Two weeks ago, the trial of David F. Rosen, Sen. Clinton’s former fundraising director, began in Los Angeles. Rosen is charged with illegally underreporting the cost of a 2000 gala fundraiser, the Hollywood Gala Salute to William Jefferson Clinton, which fêted the outgoing president and reportedly raised over $1 million for his wife’s campaign for the Senate. As conservative activist groups, such as the United States Justice Foundation, contemplate ways to use Rosen’s trial as a means to torpedo Sen. Clinton’s expected run for the presidency in 2008, the former first lady is fast becoming the target of a vast—but not solely right-wing—conspiracy, whose intentions are nothing short of a complete hostile takeover of American political culture.

These conspirators are intense haters of policy and platform and prefer to attack their opponents by exploiting “character flaws,” “deficits of values,” and other assorted straw-men that they spin out of personal histories. They come from both political parties. And, in the battle for America’s political consciousness, they are winning.

In the 2004 presidential campaign, significant media attention was devoted to the claims of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group whose purpose was to squelch Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry’s use of his distinguished service in Vietnam as a campaign tool against President George W. Bush, who avoided the draft by enlisting in the Texas Air National Guard after graduating from Yale in 1968. In a television ad that ran during the campaign, the group justified their attack on Kerry by saying that “honesty and character still matters…especially in a time of war.” And while it is true that a leader’s honesty and character are important issues during any election campaign, those issues should never crowd out completely more substantive campaign issues, which, in the 2004 campaign, were frequently marginalized in favor of the kind of personality politics in which Swift Boat Veterans for Truth engaged so thoroughly.

Yes, John Kerry threw away his military decorations and joined the anti-war movement after returning from his tour of duty. Sure, George W. Bush never saw combat, possibly because of his family’s political clout. But these kinds of assertions should never dominate in a presidential campaign, especially at the expense of the platform issues that will actually shape the administration of the victor.

Now, it seems that the ad hoc alliance for the obfuscation of truly significant campaign issues has already begun to mobilize its three-years-hence campaign against Sen. Clinton. The United States Justice Foundation has launched the Hillary Clinton Accountability Project, a direct-mail operation designed to disseminate damaging information about the senator. What’s worrying is that the kind of character-based accusations the Accountability Project will surely level against Clinton will prove damaging if she decides to run for president, even though they will ostensibly have little or nothing to do with her campaign platform.

The character politics that played such a prominent role in the 2004 presidential election are damaging not only to the reputations of targeted candidates but also to the American political process as a whole. Character cannot be allowed to supplant policy as the ultimate source of Americans’ decisions about their leaders.

Adam Goldenberg ’08, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Grays Hall.