Character Matters: America Has Forgotten the Value of Integrity
The allegations against President Clinton have provoked a great deal of indignation among Americans - interestingly, indignation expressed at a wide variety of sources, including the president, his accusers, the special prosecutor, and, above all, the press.
Yet the entire scandal has once again exposed American political institutions to a greater threat, a threat that will be sustained even if Lewinski's allegations are ultimately rejected. The threat is that each year fewer and fewer Americans look to political leaders for leadership.
The slow erosion of political leadership has insidious ramifications for the future of America, democracy, and, ultimately, the ability of political systems based on personal freedom and collective choice to sustain themselves.
A couple of questions first need answering: Is political leadership eroding over time? If it is, what has caused the erosion, and who is to blame? Lastly, what should we do about it, if anything?
The strength of political affiliation in America has declined considerably over the past century. Fewer people consider themselves a part of a political party, and those who do are more weakly affiliated than before. The primary method of contributing to a campaign used to be direct involvement, through pledging a vote, attending demonstrations and rallies, and speaking directly to others. Now grass roots campaigns are a thing of the past; impersonal, monetary contributions, which are needed to fuel television advertising campaigns, are paramount.
Voter turnout has experienced a long decline over the last century, to the point where a majority of Americans now choose not to vote. Each presidential election year, fewer people tune in to the parties' political conventions. Each year, fewer schoolchildren express a desire to become president.
Interest in political campaigns has also waned. A tickertape parade in New York thirty years ago could draw over a million spectators; now political leaders typically do not figure in parades at all. When candidate Harry S. Truman visited Boston on a campaign swing in 1948, a quarter million people turned out just to watch his motorcade drive down Storrow Drive. When Clinton campaigned here at the height of the 1992 political season, barely 30,000 showed up, even if you include claques brought in by the campaign to fill out the crowd size. Both of these campaign events occurred during the age of television, when people had the option of seeing the candidate other than in person.
In the past, local officials made every effort to associate themselves with regional and national political figures. Candidates sought coattail effects, even when the national candidate of their own party was trailing in the polls. Now candidates often seek to dissociate themselves from the national campaign, from the president, or from controversial political leaders, for fear that association with national leaders will do more harm than good.
So many things have changed in American society over the last century that it would be foolhardy to ascribe all of these facts to a single set of causes. But together they paint a picture of a nation that has lost faith in political figures.
Although it may be impossible to point to specific causes for this change, it is possible to point to the Watergate scandal as a watershed in America's thinking about its leaders. In this day and age of constant scandal that the presidency was once perceived as above scandal. Richard Nixon's greatest defense against his inquisitors was that the press and the courts had no right to impinge on his "executive privilege," and that, if they did, the institution of the presidency would be destroyed.
Fortunately Nixon's conception did not prevail, and the presidency was not exempted from the laws of the land. Since that time, every presidency has experienced some sort of investigation, and all but Ford's have been subjected to the scrutiny of special prosecutors.
Since Watergate, the presidency has been exposed to far more press scrutiny than ever before. It is difficult to say if any specific events brought on this increased attention. It is clear that scandals sell, in spite of public griping. For another, the tale of Woodward and Bernstein inspired the great city newspapers, and the networks that trail their news cycles, to take the role of public investigator more seriously.
Some trace the examination of candidates' personal lives back as far as Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. But the fact is that there was a long hiatus between Grover Cleveland and Gary Hart - a hiatus that apparently spared a Harding, an FDR, and a Kennedy, if not others.
The current scandal has been made possible by changes in press scrutiny, by the Watergate rejection of executive privilege, and by Clinton's own impropriety (some of which is now a matter of record, and some of which remains only allegation). Whatever our distaste for press examination of private lives, this level of scrutiny is here to stay.
Just because a inquisitory press is here to stay doesn't mean America has to put up with public scandal. A respectable presidency - and by extension, respectable political institutions and leaders - can provide a great but intangible benefit to the people of the country. It is a benefit not many people see today, because respect for American political institutions has been on such a long decline.
Leaders have the potential to inspire, to express the noblest ideas, and, in doing so, have the potential to bring about great change. Political leadership has played a powerful role in American history. The eloquence of Washington, the Adamses, and so many others brought about a revolution in American thought. Lincoln's eloquence brought about a new view of American values in his time. The first Roosevelt inspired a nation to back conservation; the eloquence of the second inspired a very reluctant nation to save the world from Fascism.
Strong leaders can move nations and change history, but they can also improve lives more directly, by force of inspiration, and as a means of self-expression. Democracy has the potential - a potential that has been realized in the past - to provide its citizens with a diverse set of leaders who, by speaking, writing, and doing, give society's members a means of self expression.
In a free society, of course, people can find expression however they wish - in art, music, speech, writing, or private acts. But by accepting leaders who we would not personally trust to speak for us, or accepting that as an unfortunate feature of our political system, we will essentially prevent ourselves from finding inspiration or expression in the political sphere. It is therefore correct to reject leaders who have lost all potential for inspiring us - by virtue of personal misconduct, for example - if only to send a message to future politicians that it we will not tolerate bad behavior.
If we choose instead to lower the standards of personal conduct, ignore impropriety, or blame the press for our president's troubles, we risk throwing away our political system's greatest asset - its potential to produce great leaders like the presidents of old.