Men are fitted for civil liberty,” Edmund Burke once wrote, “in exact proportion to their capacity to place chains upon their own appetites. . . . It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free; their passions form their fetters.” This pithy reflection, although penned at the height of French revolutionary excess, captures the essential practical truth of political life at all times and places—nowhere more so than in a democratic regime, where the character of a people bears a reciprocal relation to the virtues and vices of their chosen leaders.
Consider, for example, what the character of George Washington or that of Abraham Lincoln tells us about the character of the people they led, or the ways in which the strength and valor of the English people during World War II were “represented” in the manly virtues exhibited by Winston Churchill. In similar fashion, we may reflect upon the condition of contemporary American political culture by considering the crisis now enveloping the current occupant of the White House.
In what, precisely, does this crisis consist? For all the wretched excess of tabloid television, this is one occasion when what seems to be the story is the story. The president stands accused of having had frequent sexual relations with a twenty-one year old White House intern and then lying about it, not only to the American people but, it is said, under oath. It is further alleged that in order to conceal this deception, he and diverse others participated in a conspiracy to obstruct justice. Very serious stuff, that, and if true, it is enough to get a president impeached.
As to lying, there appears to be near-unanimous opinion that that is something a president ought not to do. On the other hand, there are those who think that even lying is OK. Monica Lewinsky’s mother, for example, is reported to have said of her daughter, “So she lied and told someone else to lie. What’s the big deal?” Among those who feel strongly about lying, however, are some who believe that private vice bears no relation to public virtue, especially in matters sexual. As long as sexual encounters are consensual, so the argument goes, it is nobody’s business but that of the persons involved. This enduring childish legacy of the sexual revolution is blissfully indifferent to the relationship between character and politics. The necessary implication is that the primary business of government ought to be limited to determining who gets what, when, and how. Or, as the aphorism favored by the Clinton campaign cynically declared, “It’s the economy, stupid.”
While politics cannot be indifferent to the distribution of goods and services, no government worthy of the name can be reduced to the mere administration of things. There is a higher order of purposes toward which its activities are properly directed, which is why all but the most jaded of souls must pause in contemplation of the allegations against Mr. Clinton. The virtues and vices he displays in private must play themselves out, indeed are already playing themselves out, upon the stage of our national life. One need only consider the ongoing dust-up with Iraq. When a president proposes to place the lives of American citizens at risk in military engagement, even hardened cynics must pay unusually close attention to his words and deeds—and to the character from which they emanate.
Mr. Clinton, whose political career began when he dodged the draft and then deceived the public about his behavior, has precious little standing to press ahead with military ventures to begin with. His weakness in this regard is in every respect compounded by his refusal to talk to anyone except his lawyers about the Lewinsky matter. How long this rope-a-dope defense can last is anyone’s guess, but it is precisely the sort of behavior we associate with those who have something shameful to hide.
These most recent allegations, of course, are only the latest in a long series of charges that have hovered, from the beginning, like a brooding atmospheric omnipresence over Mr. Clinton’s career. Whether the president is formally impeached or not, with each passing day it seems increasingly likely that his place in history will be notable more for his private preoccupations than for his conduct of public business. A man preoccupied with the reveries of his last sexual encounter or with anticipation of his next conquest, having demonstrated his incapacity to control himself, also reveals his incapacity to direct affairs of state. The question for the American people is whether they will recognize this reality—in short, whether they will allow themselves to be seduced like one of Mr. Clinton’s long, long list of alleged sexual partners.