Topic: Government & Politics

Bill, Bill, Bill…
(6/27/2004)

Every ethicist dreads the name of Bill Clinton. A straightforward analysis of the most undeniable facts will still get you tarred by his legion of defenders as an ideological assassin. You must watch in horror as otherwise rational and philosophically astute people suddenly resort to the hoariest of ethical rationalizations to justify or excuse every nuanced parsing, every brilliant deceit, every self-serving re-packaging of the facts. So we try to avoid the topic of President Clinton, but boy, he makes it tough, and in the wake of his new autobiography, impossible.

So let's get it over with.

Clinton was holding forth on Oprah, for the first time properly contrasting his mishandling of the Monica Lewinsky affair with Grover Cleveland's famous acceptance of responsibility for an out of wedlock child when he first ran for president in 1888. But true to form, Mr. Clinton was unable to play it straight.

"He admitted it, and the people forgave him," he explained. "But there weren't people ready to put him in jail for it."

Slick, but deceptive. Nobody wanted to or could have put Clinton or anyone else in jail for an extra-marital affair, even one that met his own administration's heralded definition of sexual harassment. Clinton's prosecution was based on lying under oath, which would have put old Grover in quite a pickle too if the famously truthful Buffalo native had ever considered such a thing. It is true that Clinton's strategy throughout his ordeal was to argue as if his transgression was a too libertine life-style. And it was a deceitful strategy. He knew, and those who were paying attention knew, that the issue was a President, who swears to uphold the laws, willfully and unapologetically breaking a very basic one while in office. Sex wasn't the offense. It was the defense.

The real comparison with Cleveland should focus on Clinton's Gennifer Flowers problem while he, like Cleveland in '88, was seeking the presidency for the first time. He denied her allegations of an extra-marital affair under exactly the same kind of attacks that Cleveland had been subjected too. Grover 'fessed up. Clinton lied. We often forget that Bill, in the same Paula Jones trial testimony that got him in trouble, agreed under oath that he had indeed had a relationship with Ms. Flowers. So Bill failed the Grover standard here as well.

Finally, Oprah asked Bill why he lied to the American people. His answer: that it might have resulted in his being removed from office, and then "the bad guys" would have won.

This means, by extension, that being a "good guy" means lying to avoid the consequences of your own conduct, and demonizing your enemies to justify deceiving those to whom you've pledged your trust. Just listening to Clinton is enough muddle anybody's sense of ethics. He's a walking, talking, ethics scrambler.

It's going to be a long summer in the ethics business.

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