The Common Good
May-June 1999

Lessons (Not) Learned

by Jim Wallis | May-June 1999

President Clinton said today that recent reports of police misconduct had shaken people’s faith in the police, and he proposed several measures that he said would help restore that trust.

President Clinton said today that recent reports of police misconduct had shaken people’s faith in the police, and he proposed several measures that he said would help restore that trust. The President said he would propose that Congress spend more money to expand ethics training for police officers....The $42 million request includes $20 million to add ethics and integrity training for police officers at the nation’s 30 regional community policing institutes.

The New York Times, March 14, 1999

Pardon me. Something is seriously wrong here. We can be grateful that President Clinton realizes that one’s ethics and integrity play a vital role in being an effective police officer and in restoring the public’s trust in law enforcement. But what about the presidency?

For the last year, President Clinton has argued that he should be judged on the basis of his policies and that personal moral failures, while regrettable, are not really relevant to the job he is doing for the American people. Apparently, what’s true for police officers is not true for the nation’s chief law enforcement officer.

Both of us often felt politically homeless during the Clinton scandal. All the Democrats and most liberals ended up making excuses for Clinton and defending him politically. We weren’t comfortable with that. But the Republicans ended up looking like the Pharisees who were ready to stone the women taken in adultery while Jesus looked on. And while we often agreed with the conservatives on how much Clinton was morally damaging the country, we were uncomfortable with their broader political agenda. Now it’s time to take stock.

What lessons have we failed to learn in the course of the nation’s yearlong, Washington-produced drama on sex and politics? And what lasting wisdom and word should the church seek to impart as the curtain is drawn and this program goes off the air?

First, effective public leadership cannot be severed from the trustworthiness of one’s personal character. Ethics and integrity do matter, and not just superficially. Leaders need to be believed. They have to engender trust not only in their policies but also in their judgments. They must create a climate of faithfulness to shared commitments among colleagues and supporters. Thus, leadership derives credibility from one’s example and not simply from pronouncements. In times of crisis, people follow courage rather than charm. Any serious crisis could quickly show how shallow Clinton’s charm really is.

Throughout the past year, we’ve witnessed a split-screen presidency. The president visits a local school to push his education policies while Henry Hyde reads a letter from a Chicago school boy wondering why he should be punished for lying when Bill Clinton is not. The president tells Congress that the state of the union is fine while politicians, almost exclusively on partisan lines, make constitutional judgments about the moral gravity of presidential offenses. Perhaps the most telling image of Clinton’s bifurcated style of leadership is the scene of his phone conversations with congressional leaders while a White House intern his daughter’s age performed oral sex on him. The late night talk show hosts love such material, but such moral schizophrenia is a sign of a deep personal and public malfunction.

Bill Clinton’s strategy was to focus the public’s attention on what he does as president rather than on who he is. And it worked, aided by an escalating Dow Jones that de-escalated public worry about injury to the common good of political life. Further, the spiteful vindictiveness of Bill Clinton’s enemies provided him with one of his most effective defenses. Ken Starr was so offensive he sometimes made even Clinton seem like a victim.

But where does this leave us?

We have a "successful" example of leadership that has skillfully segregated public policy from personal integrity. Morality in politics, especially for many Democrats, is defined only according to the pragmatic effectiveness of policies. Conversely, for many Republicans morality is focused exclusively on personal behavior, with blindness to the sins of social injustice.

This will not work. Christians should be the first to say so. A firewall between the personal and public dimensions of our lives is a secular fiction. And it is dangerous to both people and politics. Christian faith nurtures a healthy congruity between one’s inner and outer life. Its understanding of sin, and vision of wholeness, weaves together the social and the personal. Any discerning ethic of leadership does the same.

Let us be clear. Personal sins and failures by anyone, including the most powerful, are to be understood and graciously forgiven by Christians who know that such forgiveness lies at the heart of our faith. Yet we also know that repentance is born out of confession and never from denial. Bill Clinton’s seven-month campaign of deceit, carried forth through the full powers of the presidency, inflicted irreparable damage on our political fabric. As Jesuit ethicist Thomas Massero said, "Clinton turned the government into a lying factory." This was rooted in his resistance to personal accountability, justified by a self-serving plea to limit political judgments to policy sound-bites.

Second, a poll-driven presidency lacks a moral foundation and vision. In late January 1998, shortly after the allegations regarding Monica Lewinsky became public, Bill Clinton worried openly about what he would say to the National Prayer Breakfast, scheduled a few days later. Some close pastoral friends encouraged him to make a public confession and apology, ask for private space for healing, and recommit himself to his service as president. That probably would have ended the crisis after a week or two of shrill condemnations from the Republican and Religious Right.

But during that same period he asked Dick Morris to do a quick poll. Would the public forgive an adulterous affair? And would the public forgive perjury? Morris’ results were yes for adultery, but no for perjury. So Clinton said, "We’re just going to have to win this." Faced with perhaps the most important personal decision of his presidency, Clinton trusted his pollster rather than his pastors.

Should we really be surprised? Clinton’s poll-driven presidency is governed by a commitment to indulge the public’s political desires. This is a leader who doesn’t take a step without first taking a poll or convening a focus group. His State of the Union speeches offer not compelling visions and attainable goals, but sound-bite language and mini-programs to accommodate the latest polling data. Some leaders have the moral and political authority to shape and even change public opinion. But for that, a moral compass is needed. We knew Bill Clinton didn’t have any real guiding moral compass long before we met Monica Lewinsky. What is lacking is a moral compass pointing toward where we, as a society, should be heading, other than to the next election.

Politicians today try to govern by perpetual campaigns rather than campaigning for the right to govern. The president has perfected this style. But in so doing, the overriding principle becomes satisfying 51 percent of the voters rather than serving a compelling moral and political vision for our society. He may be the best political campaigner the nation has seen in some time, but Bill Clinton also now stands as one of our poorest political leaders.

THIRD, STYLE IS NOT more important than substance. The president is the ultimate master of style, and it is truly remarkable how he gets away with such a lack of substance. Turning the job of president into the role of the nation’s foremost talk-show host, Clinton also turns political life into a soap opera. Perhaps most remarkable is the way Democrats, liberals, and progressives keep saying that Clinton is a good president even if he could be a better man. But it’s more style than substance.

Here is a president who destroyed the nation’s social safety net, laying aside good welfare reform—again for poll results—and thus putting millions of poor children at great risk. Here is the most pro-corporation Democrat president of this century, one of the worst ethical offenders in campaign financing, and the chief executive who balanced the budget mostly by cuts in entitlements to lower-income people. Now he wants to increase military spending by $110 billion and is leading the way to institute a national missile defense system. In the meantime, he persists in policies in Iraq that each month are killing 6,000 children under the age of 5.

If a Republican president had done such things, there would have been a Democratic outcry, but with a Democrat in charge, hardly a peep is heard. In the face of this track record, Clinton maintains a liberal language and cultural style and, for most liberals, that seems to be enough. Being comfortable in black churches, and even appointing a record number of minorities and women to government posts, is simply not enough to make up for selling his soul to Wall Street while devastating the underclass. Strangely, being attacked by right-wing conservatives for adulterous sex and lying about it has somehow made liberals even more defensive of Clinton.

Fourth, sexual ethics are important. Monica Lewinsky says that she and Bill Clinton were "sexual soul-mates." When Barbara Walters bravely pressed Monica on whether she ever asked herself if sex with the president might be wrong, or if she ever thought about his wife and daughter, the California valley girl seemed puzzled. "Not really," she replied. That moment was one of the most alarming ones in this whole crisis. Affluent, suburban, and successful, this young woman had been given virtually no moral formation in the area of sexuality, and she is not alone today.

This torturous national episode has, without a doubt, served to legitimate a culture of sexual amorality. Christians simply cannot accept a sexual ethic that is merely "recreational" instead of "covenantal." That value-free sexual ethic has devastating consequences for a society, especially for the young and most brutally for the poor. A cab driver recently told one of us that Clinton’s only sin was in getting caught. Said he, "Maybe there are some guys that are faithful to their wives, but I don’t know any." Clinton didn’t create the nation’s declining sexual ethics, but the events of the last year have served to reveal them and help legitimate them. It is yet another example of how Bill Clinton has diminished us.

We doubt whether the nation has learned these lessons from this crisis. We fear that the opposite lessons have been further entrenched. If that is true, the damage we have suffered will far outlast Bill Clinton’s waning political career. But if we could take stock and see what has happened to us, the moment could still become redemptive.

JIM WALLIS is editor-in-chief of Sojourners. WESLEY GRANBERG-MICHAELSON is general secretary of the Reformed Church in America.

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