Why the Clinton Allegations Matter

Lucas Morel

January 1, 1998

Wouldn’t you know, when it’s a Democrat’s turn to disgrace the highest office of the land, the sole witness that has talked so far actually lives at the Watergate Hotel! But whether or not any more facts call to mind Richard Milhous Nixon’s fall from power, the latest presidential scandal breathes new life into the debate over character versus political competence. Unfortunately, never have so many said so much in so short a time with so little insight to inform public discussion on the subject.

With the mass media reporting every development over a White House intern’s allegations about an affair with President Clinton, while quickly adding that one shouldn’t rush to judgment until all the facts come in, the American public is in a quandary about how to think about the most scandalous government spectacle since Watergate. Even the leadership of both political parties have turned deaf, dumb, and blind in the face of mounting evidence that the most powerful world figure may have not only carried on an affair in the White House, but tried to cover it up during a federal investigation. And as new words and phrases like "parse," "suborning perjury," and "high crimes and misdemeanors" enter the public discourse, one wonders if anyone really knows what they are talking about and why they are spending so much time talking about it. But one thing is for certain: although nothing has been proven, everyone feels that this time around, the mere allegation that our current president has not kept his hands to himself spells constitutional trouble for the president.

Why do we think this? Several reasons have been offered. First, the persistent question of Bill Clinton’s marital infidelity, made most explicit by the successful continuance of a lawsuit against the sitting president by Paula Corbin Jones, seems corroborated by the latest claims. Second, Monica Lewinsky, the former White House intern at the center of this controversy, with her youth (twenty-one when she first worked for the president) portrays a vulnerability that causes one to blush at the mere suggestion that the most powerful man on earth ("old enough to be her father") took advantage of the unpaid volunteer. Last, that the alleged sexual acts occurred in the president’s own home, which at the time served to shelter his wife and daughter, makes the affair all the more reprehensible to the public. At minimum, all of these suggest a lack of personal and professional judgment that should disqualify a person from holding political office.

But at worst, and here’s where perhaps the public senses that this time it really matters, even if they cannot explain why, the president’s alleged peccadillo displays a flagrant misuse of authority vested in him by the American people. An extramarital affair, as bad as that is for the culprits as well as their families, becomes a political disgrace and liability when carried out at the expense of public authority and resources. In short, the real reason we feel so ashamed of our president is because he did the deed as a government official—and that means he did it at our expense. The man holds a public trust, plain and simple, and may have turned around and used it for personal gain. Whether it be as governor of Arkansas, using state troopers to set up sexual liaisons or diverting public contracts for bond financing to his wife’s law firm, or as President of the United States, turning a night in the Lincoln Bedroom into a campaign fundraising perk or suggesting that a former intern lie to a federal investigator, Bill Clinton as a public servant may soon be proven to have served only himself. This the American people cannot forgive, at least not politically.

When all is said and done about this tawdry matter, the country would do well to revisit a discussion about the relevance of character to the democratic process. This is especially true when the political office draws the attention of the republic to its sole occupant as the head of an entire branch of government. This is as it should be. One reason for having a solitary executive is precisely to focus the nation’s scrutiny on the one person possessing so much authority in a relatively popular governmental system. In other words, the Founders thought that the need for a strong executive department, in a government otherwise dominated by the legislature, required an equally strong—meaning equally vigilant—public to hold it in check. That meant the public would only have to keep an eye on one official when it came to the enforcement of the laws of the land. Therefore the public’s power to censure the president, to praise or blame him for his actions in office and not just his "official" actions, should be understood to extend to both character and competence in order to help the president exercise his authority in the interest of the nation.

As the primary person responsible to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States," President Clinton may soon discover that character does matter to the American people. It matters because in the case of presidents, it is next to impossible to separate one’s private from public life under the Constitution devised by our forefathers. If the allegations turn out to be true, Bill Clinton will learn along with the rest of the country that trying to divide one’s life in this way is a tremendous waste of a president’s talents and a nation’s trust. Instead of a legacy, William Jefferson Clinton will have left the country with a lesson it should have learned the last time Watergate entered the national lexicon.

Lucas Morel is an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.