William Jefferson Clinton and the
Symbolic Dimensions of the
American Presidency: Issues of
Character and Public Trust
Robert E. Denton, Jr.
Presidents do more than initiate policy. They inspire and motivate a nation. In my opinion, the president is and should be a role model, in every way and for all citizens. The office reflects the collective values, hopes, and aspirations of the nation. Presidents are more than managers or administrators. They are leaders.
The Monica Lewinsky scandal, as it unfolded, was not “just about sex.” It was about public and private lies, breaches of public trust and confidence, and, quite simply, criminal behavior. The episode is just one of several in the life of Bill Clinton that is about judgment, public trust, illegal conduct, and the role model of the highest public elected official in the world.
Certainly in the last twenty-five years we have seen a transformation or a transition in terms of the roles and functions of the American presidency, not so much from a constitutional perspective, but from a cultural/ sociological one. The focus of this essay is on the presidency as a social institution, as it interacts with the public and the public with the institution.
Public expectations and perceptions are created through presidents’ rhetoric, use of symbols, rituals, and sense of history. In essence, the office is created, sustained, and permeated through interaction comprised of campaigns, socialization, history, and myth. From a public perspective, the presidency is a very different office since the Nixon era. Watergate led to a fundamental reappraisal of the beliefs about the presidency and its