World

The Clinton paradox

ANDREW PHILLIPS February 16 1998
World

The Clinton paradox

ANDREW PHILLIPS February 16 1998

The Clinton paradox

World

ANDREW PHILLIPS

IN WASHINGTON

So, what do we tell the kids? There are many reasons why Bill Clinton’s alleged trysts with Monica Lewinsky trouble Americans— especially American women. The idea of the President of the United States having sex with a young intern only steps from the Oval Office is bad enough. That he may have lied about it or encouraged others to lie, say many, is even worse. But to a good many parents, the worst part of all is sitting uncomfortably beside young children as the anchors on the evening news matter-of-factly discuss such matters as oral sex. Ethel Galzerano, a marketing consultant in Cincinnati, says her eight-year-old son, Rick, just covers his ears and leaves the room when Clinton’s troubles are blared into their living room: “He says: T don’t want to hear this.’ ” Mary Beth Bowen, a teacher in Washington and the mother of two boys, has overheard fifth-graders discussing explicit sexual matters. “Their minds are being put in the sewer,” she says, “and it’s because of the President, for heaven’s sake.”

The political and legal issues raised by the Lewinsky affair continued to roil Washington last week, as the standoff between Clinton’s White House and the special prosecutor investigating the matter, Kenneth Starr, became increasingly bitter. Clinton’s aides, and the President himself, accused Starr’s office of leaking false and damaging information— especially a report that Clinton might have tried to influence testimony about the controversy by his personal secretary, Betty Currie. According to the report in The New York Times, Clinton may have tried to coach Currie to say that he and Lewinsky had never been alone together, while Currie told a grand jury convened by Starr exactly the opposite. If Clinton did try to influence his secretary’s testimony, that would be a devastating development—but both he and Currie, through her lawyers, flatly denied it, with the President insisting: “I’ve never asked anybody to do anything but tell the truth.” Who-leaked-what-to-whom-and-why may have been the immediate issue. But like all great controversies, l’affaire Lewinsky shone a bright light on America’s shifting social values. Suddenly, Americans were forced to confront a troubling paradox. The blizzard of opinion polls conducted since the first report on Jan. 21 of the alleged sexual liaison between Clinton and the intern shows two things. Most Americans do not believe their President’s protestations of innocence; they think he did commit adultery in the White House and is probably lying about it. At the same time, they say in record numbers that he is doing a fine job and should not be forced from office. And

The Lewinsky scandal shines a new light on morality—and the sexes perhaps most striking, given the nature of the allegations, women are standing more staunchly beside Clinton than are men. When his support briefly dipped in the first shock of the scandal, that was due almost entirely to male voters registering negative opinions. Women stayed with him, and many men then returned to help drive his approval ratings to record levels—over 70 per cent in some surveys.

Clinton’s apparent indiscretions do not sit well with many voters, and many women. Their support for Clinton in 1996 was 11 percentage points higher than men’s—the so-called gender gap. Now, they face yet more evidence that the man who seems to best articulate their values may be, in his private life, a serial philanderer who used

the power of his office to treat a young woman like a sex toy. There is no shortage of explanations for his political pull. Women like his policies. They like the way he shows his softer, feminine side. They admire his wife. And yes, they like his charm and good looks. All that makes the allegations against him more difficult to accept. ‘This is the hard stuff— when someone is your friend and supporter,” says Debbie Walsh, acting director of the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. “It’s painful to think there’s another side to him.” Painful is an understatement for Hollis Gabriel, a fourth-grade teacher in New Orleans and the mother of two young boys. She c voted for Clinton in 1992 and | again in 1996, but has reluctantly e concluded that “it looks like he’s I been carrying on.” It is, she says, g “disgraceful for any married man S to be acting like that—but for the £ President of the United States it’s just unspeakable. These things are out there for our kids to hear. It’s embarrassing.”

Still, she reflected last week, the United States is doing better than ever before and Clinton’s policies on such issues as education and child care are the best she has seen. “I don’t want us to get into a position where we’re impeaching a president over a thing like this. It would be so disastrous. Bill Clinton is just a president for our times. Maybe that’s what’s so scary.” But doesn’t that mean putting aside basic moral standards? She paused and asked: “Do we have any left in the United States?”

Some conservative commentators, faced with the public’s apparent willingness to tolerate reprehensible behavior in exchange for a sound economy, are frankly appalled. William Bennett, a onetime education secretary under Ronald Reagan and author of the influential moral tome The Book of Virtues, wondered in a television interview last week: “Is the argument that to have effective government we have to have a knave in office? Has it come to that?” Actually, say some who have closely tracked attitudes towards the latest scandal, probably not.

Anita Blair, executive vice-president of the Independent Women’s Forum, a conservative think-tank in Washington, insists that Clinton’s charms have not robbed women of their moral bearings. “They wouldn’t do these things themselves, but they won’t make judgments for others,” she says. “It’s not so much a lowering of standards, as it is a loss of the concept of standards. Being judgmental has become the ultimate sin.” Agrees Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, president of a Republican consulting firm called The Polling Company: ‘To even speak of morality now is considered equivalent to passing judgment. People are really reluctant to do that.”

In that, women may be following the lead of Susan B. Anthony, the legendary American suffragist who once wrote: “If a man’s public record be a clear one, if he has kept his pledges before the world, I do not inquire what his private life may have been.” Ethel Galzerano, who volunteers on Democratic party campaigns and voted for Clinton twice, calls him “the best president of my lifetime.” The media should be faulted, she says, for cavalierly tossing around unproven allegations and lending itself to an “orchestrated character assassination against the President.” And frankly, she says, “what we’re finding out is that there’s nothing new under the sun.” Revelations about the extramarital activities of former presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and even the sainted Franklin Roosevelt have taken the edge off the latest allegations. “The fact that we’re finding it out while it’s

going on may be new, but the kind of thing that may be going on isn’t new,” she says. “The important question is: has he executed his duties honorably and responsibly? And that shakes out quite well.” There is, though, little joy that events have come to this. “These things have lost their shock value,” Eileen Luby, a mother of three in Cincinnati who sends her children to Catholic schools, said with some sadness. “Frankly I wish it wasn’t like that. I’d prefer to live in the past a bit, but that’s society.” Luby did not vote for Clinton, but acknowledges his remarkable political skills: “I think he’ll stay in office, I think he’ll somehow weasel out of it again.”

Women have also reacted against the “other woman” in the story: Lewinsky. Polls and anecdotal evidence suggest that she has drawn little sympathy as a young and possibly vulnerable young woman. A survey by Fox News asked whether Lewinsky was “an average girl taken advantage of,” or “a young tramp looking for thrills.” By a margin of 56 to 18 per cent, women chose tramp. Any feeling of sisterhood has been extended to Hillary Clinton as the apparently wronged wife. ‘Women seem to be blaming the victim,” says Blair. “The feeling seems to be: the little hussy shouldn’t have come on to him, and the great man shouldn’t be disturbed.”

Certainly, major feminist organizations have been quiet. Conservatives point out that those groups rallied around Anita Hill in 1991 when she accused conservative Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, and quickly demanded the resignation of Republican Senator Robert Packwood in 1993 when he was accused of the same offence. Clinton, however, has kept their support. During a speech in Toronto last week, feminist writer Gloria Steinern made a joke out of the whole controversy, hoping that Hillary Clinton “has been having some, too.” Groups like the National Organization for Women did not rally to Paula Jones’s side when she brought her allegations of harassment against Clinton with the help of right-wing organizations, and they have been almost as silent this time. ‘The same people who said Packwood couldn’t be in a position of power over women—where have they been?” asked Amy Holmes of the Independent Women’s Forum. “We haven’t heard a peep out of them.” In fact, NOW did issue a cautious statement saying that while the facts were not in on the alleged Clinton-Lewinsky entanglement, “no public official should take advantage of the aphrodisiac of power.”

For Clinton, however, the controversy is far from over, as last week’s round of leaks and allegations made clear. The White House confirmed reports that Lewinsky had been a frequent visitor after her job there ended in April, 1996, and she took another position at the Pentagon. She was cleared for entry to the White House 37 times between then and Dec. 28, when she apparently made her last visit to see Clinton. The person who cleared her was Currie, the President’s personal secretary whose testimony before Starr’s grand jury could be crucial to his investigation. She was reportedly questioned closely about contacts between Clinton and Lewinsky. In The New York Times account, the President summoned her to the office on Sunday, Jan. 18, the day after he gave his deposition in the Paula Jones case. He had been questioned about Lewinsky, and reportedly encouraged Currie to say that he had never been alone with her. Currie, however, remembered that the President and Lewinsky had in fact been alone on occasions. Her lawyers later denied that version of events, and insisted that she was not aware of “any legal or ethical impropriety.”

The fight is bound to get more intense as Starr presses his investigation and Clinton’s camp steps up its attempts to discredit him as a right-wing ideologue with a political agenda to destroy the President. A Democratic congressman, John Conyers, even called for an investigation of the investigator—an official probe to find out how so much information damaging to the President was leaking from the prosecutor’s office. And Clinton himself signalled his determination to tough it out. At a news conference with visiting British Prime Minister Tony Blair, he was asked at what point he might consider stepping down because of the pain that questions about his personal life cause to him and his family. He paused just an instant and then snapped out his answer: “Never.” □