Column

Presidents are meant to lead by example

Peter C. Newman February 2 1998
Column

Presidents are meant to lead by example

Peter C. Newman February 2 1998

Presidents are meant to lead by example

The Nation’s Business

Peter C. Newman

At its worst level, the White House scandal that exploded last week immediately triggered an avalanche of tasteless and offensive jokes, such as the one about Bill Clinton and the Pope, when they die, being sent to heaven and hell. Unfortunately, there is a bureaucratic mix-up and Sinful Bill ascends into the clouds while the pious John Paul is dispatched to burn through eternity. The error is quickly corrected and the two leaders are ordered to switch places. Luckily, there is an escalator connecting the two afterlife extremities. They pass each other halfway. The Pope is blessing the opportunity of finally going to heaven. “I cannot wait to meet the Virgin Mary,” he tells the descending Clinton, who smirks, and shouts back, ‘Too late!”

That highly sacrilegious story illustrates the problem with the death of an icon. American presidents are not, like Canadian prime ministers, simply heads of government.

They are also heads of state and as such become spiritual and not merely political leaders of their country.

This carries with it a certain responsibility, including the exercise of some basic ethics, such as not indulging in sexual dalliances in the Oval Office—or the handy cubbyhole beside it. Being president of the most powerful nation on earth means setting an example. Watching more and more of Clinton’s sexual escapades become public is so chilling because it firmly sets a pattern. His affairs are not isolated incidents, which would be bad enough, but an entrenched behavior pattern that has persisted into the presidency. Being Hillary means always having to say you’re sorry.

The fact that we’re neighbors, allies and good friends means that the American president’s character affects us in Canada as well. And that’s what it’s about. Gauging the character of politicians is a relatively new development. In the past, we tended to believe in politicians’ personalities, their promises and their policies. Jean Chrétien has certainly destroyed that naïve approach. Before he became prime minister, his personality seemed sunny and promising. He was the little guy from Shawinigan who would deliver the country from the pomposity and artificiality of Brian Mulroney. Instead, the Liberal government has retreated into inactivity and lies.

None of the promises Chrétien made, such as jettisoning the GST, renegotiating NAFTA and not buying Cadillac helicopters, has been honored. No new initiatives have taken their place. Still, Chrétien has not spoiled his record for ethical behavior. Bill Clinton’s problem is much more personal.

It’s his character, stupid.

Character is a much deeper measure than personality. Personality can be changed with the occasion, altered by the kind of sin-

Like Richard Nixon, Clinton suffers from a deep insecurity that compels him to keep trying to prove his manhood

cerity training that seems to get most politicians elected. The defining difference is that good character is about socially desirable values. (Doesn’t matter where you get your appetite, as long as you dine at home.)

Psychological assessments of Clinton have stressed the man’s insecurity, so deep that it is not measurable. In that way, at least, he reminds me of Richard Nixon, and the only presidential news conference I ever attended. That was at the height of the Vietnam War, which had turned from a diversion to an obscenity, and hung like a dense smog over Washington.

Impeccably dressed and made up, Nixon walked into the East Room of the White House on that long ago afternoon, flanked by aides in blazers and brush cuts. In the glare of the television lights and under the timid assault of the reporters’ questions, he seemed to be constantly on his guard, patrolling himself, listening to his own voice, adjusting its cadence, putting the adjectives in their proper order. Nixon’s responses, whether they dealt with the tax bill then before the Congress or the My Lai atrocities, came from a man anxious to dispute definitions and shades of meaning when he should have been arguing facts and conviction.

Even though he held the most powerful office on earth, Nixon gave the impression—as Clinton often does—of still pursuing power, campaigning against himself, trying to allay old fears and insecurities. About 15 minutes into the news conference, Nixon began to sweat. As I looked around the magnificent East Room, festooned with gilt chairs, crystal chandeliers hanging from the decorative ceiling, the portraits of George and Martha Washington flanking the stage, I wondered how this great nation could have at its head such a plastic parody of a leader.

I kept watching Nixon, searching for some glimmer of human response under the careful television mask he wore. Our glances briefly locked and he noticed me looking at him. Then, just for an instant—a frozen flutter of time—I recognized a man so terrified that he could barely keep himself under control. His wild gooseberry eyes seemed'to be begging for belief. Whenever he mentioned Vietnam, Nixon acted as if his (and America’s) virility were at stake, as if his quest was not to win a bloody contest in some distant battlefield, but to resolve the terrible insecurities within himself. Only winning the war would show the world that he—and America—had not lost their manhood.

Bill Clinton has obviously thought of easier ways to prove his manhood, but the source of the two men’s insecurities isn’t that different So, think of Richard Nixon as you watch Bill Clinton struggling to keep the keys to his office. Neither man deserved the presidency. Slick Willie will soon follow Tricky Dick through the exit door.