Sex, Lies, and Presidential Leadership: Interpretations of the Office

Article excerpt

Presidential leadership is, by definition, ambiguous. From the founding to the present, presidential leadership has been defined, expanded, and limited through practice rather than theory. The presidency as an institution means whatever the president, Congress, the courts, the media, and the American people at any given point in history agree that it means. The processes of arriving at that agreement--which is never complete and is always a matter of debate--are a complex series of negotiations, which involve legislation, judicial decisions, media frames, and public opinion.

In this context, the plethora of arguments surrounding the events of the Monica Lewinsky affair and Clinton's resulting impeachment trial provide us with valuable material through which we can begin to understand the varying definitions of what the presidency is and how it should operate (Baas and Thomas 1999; Miller 1999). This is a particularly useful case for the rhetorical battle was waged not over the facts behind the accusations but over their meaning and relationship to a constitutionally mandated, historically established standard of behavior ("high crimes and misdemeanors"). Arguments from the trial transcripts and reports in various media outlets provide perspective on the competing definitions of presidential power and the president's role in the national polity. In other words, the arguments about the immediate fate of President Clinton reveal more than political predilections. They also reveal deeply embedded definitions of presidential power, its limitations, and the proper function of the presidency in the contemporary political system (Olson and Goodnight 1994).

We make no claim that the examples presented here are either systematic or exhaustive. We examined arguments made by the major Washington players in the Lewinsky scandal and subsequent impeachment proceedings, editorials and letters to the editor in a wide variety of national and regional newspapers, the major news magazines, and other published sources. What we present here is a distillation of comments on Clinton that reflect a certain set of views about the nature and meaning of the presidency. The persuasive attempts that are presented here are not all equally relevant to all Americans. For those--apparently the majority--for whom the scandal was "about a zealous prosecutor who had spent many of their tax dollars doing the dirty work of the far right wing of the Republican party" (Miller 1999, p. 728), the question of Clinton's behavior was less relevant than for those who supported his removal.

In addition, Clinton's supporters, as defenders of the status quo, had less need to make public arguments advocating that position (Olson and Goodnight 1994, 251). Moreover, even when Clinton's defenders were moved to make arguments and were focused on the president rather than the special prosecutor, they were not inclined to defend that behavior (Miller 1999, 722). A similar analysis of the special prosecutor would probably appear similarly biased, although in a different direction (see, e.g., Bookman 1998; Dionne 1998; Sharp 1998). In addition, the media were themselves overwhelmingly critical of the president (Miller 1999, 724). Thus, this analysis appears more critical than supportive of Clinton, a poor reflection of the bulk of public opinion throughout the scandal. But we are not trying here to capture the public's opinions of the scandal but of the presidency through the lens of the scandal.

Many, if not all, of these positions may stem from political expediency and/or self-interest rather than from consistent and well thought out political theories. This is not important to this analysis. What is important is that the particular definitions are supported in the polity as reasonable ways of understanding the institution. As Kathryn M. Olson and G. Thomas Goodnight (1994) argue, the analysis of social controversy can "open horizons for critical inquiry" as well as offer a lens into public persuasion (p. …