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When President Clinton delivered his eulogy last week to those slain in the U.S. embassy bombings in Africa, he did what he does best.

With his dark suit and somber expression, he seemed to display the appropriate sorrow, compassion and righteous resolve that you'd expect in such circumstances from a national leader.

I could almost believe he empathized with the victims. But then came disillusionment.

As he spoke of his sorrow at the embassy deaths, the president's eyes began to glisten and, unbelievably, a single tear emerged from behind an eyelid and rolled down his cheek.

I remembered an old Hollywood trick for getting a burned-out actor to deliver tears on cue: A few drops of glycerin in the eyes and, at the right moment, the actor squeezes the lids tightly and you have scene-stealing sorrow.

Did the president of the United State of America really go to such lengths? Or am I being too cynical?

For a Canadian, the esteem with which Americans regard the presidency is sometimes enviable.

But after months of imbroglio, and with the president now confessing to having lied, can anyone be blamed for being troubled by the evident chasm that separates the American president's public conduct and his private life?

To say this is to open up the question of presidential character. "Being president of this country is entirely about character," actor Michael Douglas says in the movie "The American President," in which he portrays a fictional president.

Character counts for a simple reason: Nobody, including a president, lives a compartmentalized life. Our private, inner existence cannot be detached from our outward, public conduct.

Character informs our actions, our judgments, how we deal with each other and, finally, how we respond to adversity.

A leader who shows prudence, self-control and fortitude in his private life is surely more likely to exhibit such virtues in his public practices.

A leader who is immoderate in his private desires is more likely to display similar behavior in matters of state.

A political leader also has a symbolic role. A leader who shows confidence in the face of adversity, and integrity in a time of turmoil, is an example to citizens.

Former President Ronald Reagan demonstrated this in 1981 when he was shot. When people say Reagan restored Americans' self-confidence after the dispiriting 1970s, they are acknowledging, in part, how his personal courage helped restore the country's pride.

Clinton, by contrast, has made the presidency a target of ridicule. The nightly news reports, with their references to oral sex and a stained dress, scrape the edges of obscenity.

Clinton's moral agnosticism tells citizens that immorality is acceptable and even rewarding.

While defending Clinton's character on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition," writer Wendy Kaminer asked, "Why should we hold the president to standards few of us meet consistently?"

Why, indeed? But what happened between Clinton and former intern Monica Lewinsky was not just a consensual affair between two adults.

What does it say about the character of a man -- or a people -- who cannot see the inherent abuse of power in accepting (or soliciting) the advances of a subordinate?

As the more powerful person, Clinton had the ethical obligation not to permit Lewinsky to degrade herself, even if she was willing to do so.

How can some Americans say they have a high regard for "family values," a respect for traditional virtues, and yet remain indifferent to the president's character?

Why are so many willing to condone conduct that is contrary to what they would teach their children?

A kind of moral relativism now seems to prevail in American society. There are those who argue that the scandal doesn't matter because the president's job is keeping the economy humming.

Social theorist James Q. Wilson counters this argument by showing the relationship between a healthy economy and citizens of good character.

In his book "On Character," Wilson argues that prudence, trustworthiness and respect for others are essential to the efficiency of a market economy. Capitalism requires "certain traits that, if not exactly moral in character, (are) closely related to morality."

Have Americans lost sight of this idea that their prosperity (and, hence, the rest of the world's) is bound up with their moral character? Hopefully not.

Still, it's difficult not to think that the ease with which so many shrug off Clinton's conduct reflects something of a moral crisis in American society. And that has wide implications.

In a dangerous world, the authority -- moral and military -- of the United States is vital.

The president is the singular voice of America, and the world needs to know that he can say what he means and mean what he says without the aid of glycerin.

Robert Sibley is a member of the Ottawa Citizen's editorial board.

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