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Trading Substance For Style


By Riad M. Abrahams

Interning on Capitol Hill necessarily steeps one in a daily flood of political information and expert analysis. And yet, of the numerous political analysts who attempt to interpret the latest developments and character of the '96 presidential campaign, none have surpassed that greatest of social critics, Shakespeare, in capturing the essence of Election '96.

Shakespeare wrote through a character's voice in "Timon of Athens," "Every man has his fault and honesty is his."

Poll after poll describes an American public at once enamored of Bob Dole's character and integrity and at the same time casting their future vote for President Clinton. Bob Dole's honesty, the moral fortitude he has cultivated through his many years of service to this country, has now become his Achilles heel. Every man has his fault, and honesty is Bob Dole's.

To be sure, when 35 percent of Americans in a U.S. News and World Report poll describe President Clinton as somewhat or very dishonest, and 70 percent of Americans in the same poll characterize Dole as somewhat or very moral while at the same time casting their votes for Clinton, society must be sending a message. Americans today have either lost their moral judgement or relegated it to the lowest position on the hierarchy of issues upon which they choose their political candidates.

Most political pundits subscribe to the latter rationale. Their proverbial argument amounts to proclaiming that Dole's advanced age and inability to communicate account for Clinton's lead in election polls. The same U.S. News and World Report poll substantiates this analysis. Fifty-four percent of Americans would vote for a candidate with serious concerns about his character but with a similar political bent, while only 31 percent would vote for the individual whose character they respect but whose opinions they do not favor.

Many have brushed aside Clinton's character flaws, proclaiming them secondary to his ability to carry out the office of the presidency. My political bias aside, this is preposterous.

On the one hand, to assume that an individual's character can be of little consequence to his ability to act is to deny that the decisions that same individual makes are predicated upon his conception of right and wrong. President Clinton may have had an inexperienced staff. Indeed, he is entitled to the few honest mistakes which characterize any president's first years in office. But the endless list of scandals smearing his administration from day one--the honest "bureaucratic snafus"--cannot be digested without making the connection between Clinton's character and his maligned administration.

Clinton's questionable character is rooted in his blended conception of right and wrong. Granted, the scandals have entitled themselves to the exaggerative tendencies of the Republican Congress, but to the extent that they continue to reflect a fundamental disrespect for the offices of our government, they must resonate with an America whose traditional optimism has been based upon the integrity of its citizens and its government.

The effects of Whitewater or Travelgate reverberate little through American society. It might be true that Clinton's loose definition of marriage and fidelity has little effect on his ability to carry out the presidency. But as the seizure of the files demonstrates, there is a definite point where flexible integrity leads to horribly misguided decisions. With the memories of Hoover's FBI still vivid, we cannot help but attribute the seizure of the FBI files to the lack of morality and integrity within the Clinton Administration--a want which evidently traces itself from the lowest administration employees to Clinton himself.

Americans today have cast integrity aside in favor of oratory eloquence and political craftsmanship, and they remain oblivious to the consequences. Regardless of whether Clinton was ultimately responsible for the seizure of the FBI files, that the decision behind the seizure was motivated by a thought process valuing use over principle proves that loose ethics and responsibility do not mix.

We cannot call ourselves sane and at the same time convince ourselves that the decision process lies independent of an individual's moral conception. The notion of ethics is rooted in an individual's ability to have his actions and decisions reflect his moral standing. And clearly, if we are to have a capable president, one fit to inhabit the most respected office in the United States, in the world, we cannot delude ourselves into thinking that because he may stand for my belief, he won't amorally sacrifice that belief in the name of political gain.

It baffles my imagination that Americans can so distrust an individual and yet prepare themselves to cast their vote for him. To be sure, Dole is partly responsible for a poorly-run campaign. But it is my hope that America has not sacrificed its moral fortitude in the selfish hope that partisanship and political efficiency--and here, Clinton's administration hardly is at home--ought to be given greater importance than a candidate's core integrity. Trust has formed the core of our nation since its inception and we must not allow it to fall to the wayside in favor of hypocrisy and deception.

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