The Clinton Crisis and the Double Standard for Presidents

Article excerpt

This article makes four points:

1. By demanding that politicians, and particularly presidents, be more traditionally moral in private behavior than either private sector leaders or average citizens, the American media has applied a double standard to presidents.

2. The presidential double standard undercuts the distinction between public and private life and support for the participatory concept of the citizen president.

3. In periods of rapid change in social norms, the double standard-driven gap in expectations for presidents and private sector leaders grows.

4. The changing role of the media has exacerbated the negative consequences of the presidential double standard for Clinton.

A double standard of more rigorous and traditional behavior is applied to politicians and particularly to presidents, compared to private sector leaders and average citizens. Several elements must be present for a double standard to exist. The population is separated into two separate and distinct groups: the powerful and preferred and the less powerful and less preferred. In the political double standard, the two distinct groups are private business leaders and public officials. Private business leaders are the powerful, preferred group. The values of capitalism--individualism, property, contracts, and profits--have been dominant in American culture since the founding of the nation and, indeed, are incorporated in the U.S. Constitution. Private business leaders, especially the economic elite heading up major corporations, decide what will be produced, how it will be produced, how much will be produced, how much it will cost, how many people will be employed, who will be employed, and what their wages will be.(1) They also retain the right to the accumulation of unlimited wealth.

Public officials are the less powerful, less preferred group. While governmental authority is broad sweeping in scope, it is fragmented among many levels of government and many officials, each with checks and balances on others so that no single official is individually all powerful. Political power is greatly constrained by constitutional and legal limitations as well as public opinion. The capacity of public officials and the institutions in which they operate to govern effectively is constantly questioned.(2) Clinton's capabilities and legacy are questioned repeatedly, for example, despite his ability to move social issues including the rights of gays, health reform now addressed as HMO reform, social security funding, and family leave to the national agenda; his successes in trade policy and in lowering the deficit from a high of $220 billion during the Reagan years toward balance; a booming economy; and comparatively smooth transition to a postcold war era.

The emphasis in American culture on private sector profits and the accumulation of wealth causes private business leaders to be esteemed and public officials to be devalued. Business leaders are assumed to be upstanding citizens; politicians are assumed to be crooks. Contributing to the development of a political double standard in earlier years were ethnic and social-class differences between the WASP patricians who managed major corporations and the newly arrived ethnic groups that used urban political machines as conduits to power and the protection of group members. Clinton represents to some extent this class difference. Raised mostly by a single mother whose second marriage was troubled, Clinton lacked the high social standing from birth other presidents, especially Bush and FDR, have enjoyed. Despite his early academic success and association with Georgetown and Yale Universities through achievement, he did not make money before entering politics at a very young age but rather relied on his wife to be the main breadwinner for the family. Clinton's lowly beginnings and lack of personal wealth have contributed to his double-standard stereotype. …