“This week we celebrate the fact that character counts … Individual character involves honoring and embracing certain core ethical values: honesty, respect, responsibility … Parents must teach their children from the earliest age the difference between right and wrong. But we must all do our part.”
How ironic it is that this statement for the 1996 Character Counts Week was made by none other than William Jefferson Clinton, a man who is now in the midst of a character crisis of his own.
Clinton’s presidency has been shaped by scandal after scandal. But six years later and well into a second term, it seemed that Clinton had dodged all the bullets. Despite the barrage of allegations, Clinton has maintained an impressive 60 percent approval.
That changed last Wednesday. When the news of another possible affair became public, Clinton’s approval rating dove 10 points in less than a week.
Sorry Mr. President, but character does count.
Now it is possible that Clinton is telling the truth. Nothing may have happened between he and Monica Lewinsky. Even if something did go on, there have been other presidents who have been involved in similar escapades, and former presidents Cleveland and Jackson were involved in sexual allegations while they were in office. But for a man who has battled scandal constantly during his presidency, Clinton’s word is more than a little shaky.
Ever since the president emerged on the national scene, critics have drawn his character into question. Clinton was introduced to the American public six years ago Monday on a “60 Minutes” interview to answer allegations that he had an affair with Gennifer Flowers. From that introduction came the infamous quote that he “didn’t inhale,” followed by Travelgate, Filegate, Whitewater (where Jim McDougal, Clinton’s former business partner, and his wife, and former friend and Arkansas Governor Jim Guy Tucker were found guilty of fraud), Paula Jones sexual harrassment suit, coffees and current investigations into campaign fundraising.
With each allegation and scandal President Clinton, his supporters and his wife have accused a right-wing anti-Clinton machine for concocting each “false” allegation.
“Please let me work,” Clinton said at a press event last week. The event was staged to discuss the progress in the Near East, yet Yassar Arafat looked on calmly while reporters ignored his presence and grilled the president on his sexual life.
When a president has to spend much of his time trying to distance himself from personal problems then something is wrong. It can’t all be false.
Unlike past scandals, the excuse that the accusations are old news, a personal issue, or a partisan attack don’t seem to apply. And unlike problems in the past, Clinton’s usual supporters are not stepping forward.
According to the Salt Lake Tribune, there is resentment among his supporters over reports that Clinton has admitted to having an affair with Flowers. One supporter interviewed for the article said, “It appears that he just lied to the country for six years and had many of us lying (as well).”
It does matter that he may have had an affair while in office with a woman almost half his age. It does matter that he and his friend, Vernon Jordan, may have used their influence to get her a job at Revlon. It does matter if he told Lewinsky to deny under oath that she had an affair with him.
Presidential sources say Clinton is concerned with his place in history. Despite all the progress that has been made during his terms, he will be remembered more as the first president to be sued for sexual harrassment, for selling the Lincoln Bedroom for campaign contributions, and for having an alleged affair with a woman that is young enough to be his daughter, than for things like welfare reform or balancing the budget.
Historian Stephen Amrose said that trust is a crucial trait of presidential character, “and trust has to be based on whether he’s a man of his word, and his word is his bond.”
When the chief executive abandons his moral values and personal intergrity to elicit personal favors, what is left of his “character”? Nothing.