Character and the Presidency

By Bresler, Robert J. | USA TODAY, March 1994 | Go to article overview

Character and the Presidency


Bresler, Robert J., USA TODAY


When the charges of Pres. Clinton's sexual misconduct surfaced, they once again raised the question of whether a president can separate his private life from his public role. Liberal columnist Richard Cohen of the Washington Post wrote soon after the allegations became public that the American people "have learned to compartmentalize - separate the private from the public except where the two overlap." He argued that heroic figures such as Oskar Schindler and Martin Luther King, Jr., led personal lives that were far from exemplary and that John F. Kennedy's presidency should not be judged by his sexual indiscretions.

Cohen makes a clever distinction that ignores the moral and spiritual crisis of contemporary America and the President's responsibility. In his brilliant speech in November, 1993, to the assembly of black ministers, Clinton asserted our collective duty to lead our children out of the moral morass into which they have been plunged.

Clinton seemed to grasp that our character as a people was at risk and that the most vulnerable victims of this decline are the children. In every aspect of life, we see people exercising their freedom without a sense of responsibility: lawyers encouraging clients to sue for frivolous claims; movie producers making films that luxuriate in promiscuity and violence; teacher unions focusing on their own job benefits and giving only lip service to the needs of pupils; parents with money overlooking what their children are doing in their spare time as long as they get decent grades; universities and colleges emphasizing obscure research and grant procurement, rather than the intellectual life of their students; and contemporary popular music becoming a hymn to sadism, masochism, and misogyny. We should not be surprised that the cultural heroes of the young are those we used to see in our nightmares. We are creating a legacy of divorce, drug usage, and illegitimacy. Our culture and those who profit from it are making unremitting war on the innocence of children.

Consequently, violence among the young is at epidemic proportions. Boys get girls pregnant and care little for the consequences; illegitimacy rates among whites are the equal of those among blacks in the late 1960s, when Daniel Moynihan declared the crisis of the black family; and the performance of American high school students continues to lag behind those in other industrialized nations.

"We stumble," Samuel Johnson wrote, "not because the true principles of action are not known but because for a time, they are not remembered." We raised ourselves from barbarism by subjecting our appetite and desires to moral guidance, the rule of law, and a concern for others.

In Robert Altman's 1993 film, "Short Cuts," based upon the short stories of Raymond Carver, we see a graphic portrayal of the uprooted nature of American life. Set in Los Angeles, the movie depicts a group of disconnected individuals driven by their own desires and indifferent to family responsibilities and mutual obligations.

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