When Is Presidential Behavior Public and When Is It Private?

By Jamieson, Kathleen Hall; Aday, Sean | Presidential Studies Quarterly, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

When Is Presidential Behavior Public and When Is It Private?


Jamieson, Kathleen Hall, Aday, Sean, Presidential Studies Quarterly


On February 27, 1998, the Philadelphia Inquirer quoted a hospital administrator who runs a Republican professional women's group in Louisiana as saying,

   Well, let me tell you about my dearest friend. Her son has a rare heart
   disease, and at one time she had a $160,000 medical bill because she
   couldn't get health insurance. So we're talking about the sex scandal, and
   she tells me, "Because Clinton's in the White House, I can get the
   insurance now." That's all she call come up with! This is a person with a
   big IQ. I wanted to say to her, "What about the fact that because of
   Clinton, our moral foundation is built on sand?"

There is a similar sense of bewilderment in press accounts. U.S. News and World Report, for example, asked on its February 2 cover, "Is He Finished?" and showed a stern Clinton dwarfed by a grainy, smiling Lewinsky. In that issue, columnist Gloria Borger's disbelief is evident in her hypothetical explanation for the voters' continued approval of Clinton's presidency:

   Look at it this way: Hillary Clinton's ability to separate her own personal
   anguish from the political anger she feels is not unlike Bill Clinton's
   ability to persuade voters to separate his private life from his public
   character. Most voters now even accept this notion that somehow one side of
   the brain doesn't affect the other.(1)

Where pundits predicted that the allegations would undercut public confidence in his presidency, the opposite seemed to be the case. Clinton's approval ratings stayed above 60 percent through May. When a reporter questioned whether it was healthy for the public to feel that presidents' personal lives are not relevant, Clinton declined to answer the question.

What explains this disconnection between the assumptions of reporters and the polled responses of citizens? The answer is simple: the public makes a distinction between private and public character and between the personal and the presidential. So, for example, 80 percent of a national sample reported in late February(2) that "In judging Clinton, we should focus on how the country is doing and his policies, and not on his private life." Sixty-five percent agreed with the statement, "The public has become more realistic and accepts that political leaders should be judged on their job performance not their personal life."(3) Sixty-seven percent told the same pollsters that the president "should be able to withhold certain private matters," and a majority (59 percent) found it "understandable [that] he would not tell the truth about his sex life."(4) Even if one supposes that Clinton did have an affair, 66 percent believe that that is "his business and has nothing to do with this job."(5)

Even when pollsters explicitly ask about ethics, the public-private distinction holds up, with 59 percent saying that it is "possible for Clinton to be unethical in his personal life while maintaining integrity as president."(6)

Why the distinction between the personal and the presidential? In part it is because revelations about the sex lives of presidents from Franklin Roosevelt through John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson have lowered public expectations about marital fidelity in the White House. Eighty-eight percent report that "other presidents have had equally bad private lives."(7) Similarly, three out of four say, "Clinton's faults are no worse than other presidents."(8) Based in part on the conclusion that some of the nation's great presidents have led less than exemplary private lives, 84 percent now tell surveyors that "Someone can be a good president even if you disapprove of his personal life."(9)

Also, it is possible that at least the 24 percent who say they can imagine "circumstances where you'd commit adultery"(10) have concluded that those who live in glass houses should not throw stones. This conclusion is borne out by the finding that 51 percent think that Clinton's moral standards are the same as the average married man's, while 6 percent consider them higher. …

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