COMMENT/John Buell

The Scandal of American Politics

As an independent journalist, I lack the resources to do survey research. Nonetheless, I have done some informal polling among the journalists and scholars with whom I collaborate. To a person, all are convinced that the Clinton Presidency is damaged beyond repair. Many believe impeachment is unlikely, but they are virtually certain Clinton's ability to enact any progressive agenda is finished.

All of my respondents believe that the president has been damaged more by lies about his sexual activities than by the activities themselves. My "sample" is a biased one. Academics and journalists tend to be more socially liberal than the majority of the population. Yet, if national polls are accurate, even the great majority of middle class Americans are more willing to forgive the affair than the remarks about it.

Not only did the President lie when he declared denied engaging in any improper relationship with "that woman." He also apparently lied to some of his closest political associates, thereby leaving them out on long political and even legal limbs.

More broadly, they are critical of the President's hypocrisy. He has made a point of chastising teenage "welfare mothers" for their sexual irresponsibility. Now the president willingly engages in a sexual act with a young woman.

I then asked my friends and associates why the media, and presumably much of the public, make so much about this particular set of lies regarding personal life.

Lying to the public about a sexual relation is serious, but is it more serious than other lies this President has told us? He promised labor unions he would advance trade treaties that protected wage and labor organizing standards and then did exactly the opposite. Millions of workers have suffered from Clinton's political deceit.

He further compounded the deceit in a speech last spring by admitting, almost bragging, that in the process of certifying human rights progress in nations with whom we trade, he routinely fudges the numbers. He then blamed Congress for imposing too strict requirements and standards.

Imagine your reaction if a teenage child, upon being chastised for lying about school work, complained that the parent's demands for honesty were unreasonable! And consider the labor leaders and dissidents world wide who are tortured because of this cavalier defiance of Congressional mandates.

A long-time student of the presidency reminded me that our highest office combines two functions often separated in Europe. The President is a political leader, but he is also head of state, a kind of ceremonial "father of the country." Apparently we expect of our fathers a degree of personal virtue that we wouldn't necessarily seek in a mere political leader.

This last thought makes a great deal of sense to me. Nonetheless, I would go on to add that we now worry so much about the private character of the President and his role as "head of state" because our politics is far more scandalous than our President.

Our political parties seem unable to address the forces of economic deterioration and insecurity. They are badly fragmented, lack new ideas, and are driven by money. Many of our citizens are disgusted by this process. Nonetheless, they have become hopeless as Congress buries campaign finance reform. Thus many middle and working class Americans have great difficulty in establishing their personal values or must make continuous sacrifices to sustain them.

In such a context it becomes easier to focus on the moral failings of our national father or on the purported personal morality of suspect groups, racial minorities, welfare mothers etc.

My presidential scholar friend foresees a disaster for Democrats this fall. It is not so much that voters will repudiate local Democrats because they view the party as tainted by Clinton's excesses. She believes that Democrats are divided not only by Clinton's actions but by his tactics as well. The Republican Party is also divided between a social conservative element and a business elite primarily interested in economic matters. But paradoxically, these uneasy allies can unite to elect Republicans in an effort to impale a President neither likes. She cites preliminary studies projecting voter turnout of nearly 60 percent among Republican-leaning voters and only about half that number for Democrats.

Social Security as we know it then might well be finished. A President who is eager to be remembered for more than Monica would bend heaven and earth to reach an accord with Republicans on Social Security "reform." If trade and welfare are any indicators, labor, liberals, and the elderly have much to fear from such "bipartisanship."

Whatever one thinks of the relevance of personal character to public performance, one large lesson here is that when broader politics collapses, we all suffer. If one's issue is security for children and the elderly, the rights of labor, the abuse of women in homes and workplaces, all these causes suffer when we no longer have parties that stand for a real agenda and political processes to hold those leaders accountable for their public performance.

I can end only with two limp wishes, that some candidates will still run on a reform agenda and that a least a few liberal and labor activists will remind citizens that failure to vote for these candidates opens the door to an even more degraded politics.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. He is co-author, with Tom DeLuca, of Sustainable Democracy: Individuality and the Politics of the Environment (Sage). He invites comments via e mail at:

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