Underlying the controversy over the legal rights and wrongs of the Whitewater controversy that is swirling around the Clinton presidency is a more fundamental political struggle over character, values and the allegiance of the middle class.
President Clinton’s supporters blame reckless journalists and sore-loser Republicans for much of the Whitewater furor. “Republicans have lost some of their old reliable issues,” such as welfare and crime, says Democratic National Chairman David Wilhelm. “So in order to slow the President down and stop the progress, they’ve latched on to Whitewater.”
But some analysts contend that Clinton brought the problem on himself by stressing traditional middle-class values during his campaign and his presidency even though the evidence suggests that he and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton have not always conformed to those standards. The First Lady recently felt compelled to address criticism of her own conduct in an unprecedented televised press conference that lasted more than an hour but nevertheless, critics maintain, left some questions unanswered.
The Whitewater allegations--that the Clintons enjoyed improper financial benefits from their investment in an Arkansas resort because of Clinton’s position as governor--are only part of the equation.
Whitewater aside, last month brought a White House admission that the Clintons had failed to report taxable profit on a commodities market deal. And the President continues to be dogged by reports that Arkansas state troopers ferried him to assignations with women while he was governor. As a result, Clinton’s presidency now presents an ironic and, some believe, ominous contrast.
“Clinton has probably suffered more from character issues than any modern President,” says Everett Carll Ladd, director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research. “Yet it’s hard to find a President who in his public utterances has pushed more of the buttons on character and values than he has.”
At nearly every opportunity, Clinton presents himself as the champion of middle-class people “who play by the rules,” a phrase right out of his pollster’s lexicon. As a self-proclaimed “different kind of Democrat,” he frequently uses religious assemblages as forums, stresses religious themes and deplores how far national life has strayed from the influence of the Almighty.
“I think God wants us to sit down and talk to one another and see what values we share and see how we can put them inside the millions and millions of Americans who are living in chaos,” Clinton told fellow Yale Law School alumni last fall.
Clemson University political scientist Charles Dunn, editor of the anthology “American Political Theology,” says of Clinton: “He may well be the greatest practitioner of civil religion and of public theology of any President we’ve ever had.”
William J. Bennett, author of the best-selling “The Book of Virtues” and a potential Republican rival of Clinton’s for the presidency in 1996, says: “He very much wants to be a leader in moral terms. He thinks of the pantheon of great American presidents and wants to be in their company and knows that moral leadership is part of that.
“As he is drawn to it, he speaks of it,” Bennett says. And he warns: “As he speaks of it, he will be judged.”
On occasion Clinton seems to contradict himself with his own words. Feb. 3, addressing inner-city junior high school students here, the President made a moving plea for sexual restraint and family values, stressing that sex is not “sport” but a “solemn responsibility.”
But five days later, addressing auto workers in Shreveport, La., Clinton recalled owning a pickup truck that he carpeted with Astroturf in the bed. Amid laughter from the audience, Clinton added: “You don’t want to know why, but I did.”
Ten days after that he tried to explain away the prurient implication of that remark. “I carried my luggage back there. It wasn’t for what everybody thought it was for when I made the comment, I can tell you that.”
Clinton’s supporters say that his frequently stated concern for values, far from being a cynical attempt to manipulate the electorate, reflects deeply held beliefs dating to his Southern Baptist childhood. Besides, they argue, nearly all the complaints about Clinton’s behavior stem from his years in Arkansas and are not relevant to his presidency.
“What we tried to do and what Clinton tried to do with us was articulate values which were the underpinning of a public agenda,” says Al From, head of the Democratic Leadership Council, the centrist group that Clinton used as a springboard for his presidential candidacy. “I think he’s changed the agenda dramatically in the way he’s conducted his office. I’m not going to talk about his personal conduct.”
Clinton’s critics contend that whether or not his professions about values are sincere, his failure to practice what he preaches undercuts his moral authority as chief executive. And they contend that since he became President he has been notably evasive and lacking in candor in responses to allegations about his past behavior.
“In the long run, this country is going to find that it’s in a lot of trouble because there are people in the White House who are untrustworthy and unreliable,” says Thomas Reeves, a historian at the University of Wisconsin at Parkside and a biographer of President John F. Kennedy.
The controversy over character and values has taken on significance that extends beyond its political effect on the Clinton presidency because Americans now seem more than usually cynical about politics and anxious about the state of morality.
“Are you concerned about basic values--what they are and whether we heed them?” retiring Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun recently asked a friend in a note published in the Washington Post. “Are you concerned about your country. . . ? Are you concerned that many of those to whom we ought to be able to look up appear now to have feet of clay?”
Character, a measure of personal behavior and visceral inclinations, and values, the emotion-laden signposts of bedrock beliefs, had been steadily growing in importance in presidential politics well before Clinton. The expansion of presidential power, the intrusive reach of the mass media and the widespread belief that Watergate and Vietnam were rooted in defects in presidential mores have all contributed to this effect.
Presidents and would-be presidents have benefited and suffered. Among the Democrats, Jimmy Carter’s “born-again” Christian values helped vault him from obscurity to the White House. On the other hand, the presidential ambitions of Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and former Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) collapsed because of presumed flaws in their character and values.
From Republican ranks, Ronald Reagan emerged as something of a values icon. The power of Reagan’s appeal was recorded in 1985 by Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg, now an influential Clinton adviser, in a landmark study of Michigan blue-collar workers who had switched to Reagan from the Democratic Party.
Though they disagreed with some of Reagan’s policies, his new disciples admired the President as “a John Wayne straight shooter” who had “the guts to stick to his guns.”
George Bush, although he lacked Reagan’s personal magnetism and strong convictions, was also able to score well in 1988 against Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis, then governor of Massachusetts, by taking advantage of Dukakis’ dweebishness and the Democratic Party’s reputation for permissiveness and protest.
As Democrats took stock of their party in the wake of their third successive presidential defeat, pollster Greenberg noted a significant contradiction. Though Americans had voted for the more conservative candidate, polling data showed strong voter sentiment for an activist government that would try to tackle the nation’s intractable social problems.
To tap into these liberal impulses, Greenberg argued in an article in American Prospect magazine, Democrats needed to win back the middle-class voters who had defected to the GOP at the beginning of the Reagan era.
“The middle class today perceives itself as ‘squeezed’ between the rich and the poor, neither of whom play by the rules but seek their rewards through shortcuts and special claims--tax breaks, windfalls and welfare,” Greenberg wrote. “Middle-class consciousness deplores the lack of ‘values’ today . . . , the failure to honor work and recognize limits.”
The Democratic Leadership Council, under Clinton and From, was thinking along the same lines. It designed its agenda, proclaimed in 1990, to affirm support for “the moral and cultural values that most Americans share.”
“We wanted to make it clear that Democrats believed in those values,” From explains.
With this commitment as the foundation of his promises to revive the sagging economy, Clinton’s presidential candidacy swiftly picked up middle-class support.
“He found one line of argument which allowed him to both attack the Republicans as the party of greed and privilege and protect himself from claims that Democrats just give away money to welfare cheats,” says Johns Hopkins political scientist Ben Ginsberg.
When his candidacy was threatened early in the campaign by allegations of marital infidelity and draft avoidance, Clinton dismissed the charges as irrelevant to the substantive concerns of the country.
“The people whose character and patriotism is really an issue in this election are those who would divert the attention of the people, who destroy the reputations of their opponents and divide the country we love,” he asserted.
Once he appeared to have overcome these problems about his past behavior, he returned to his themes of character and values in highly personal terms.
“My life is a testament to the fact that the American dream works . . . ,” he declared in one campaign speech. “I got to live by the rules that work in America, and I wound up here today running for President of the United States of America.”
At the Democratic National Convention he accepted the nomination “in the name of all those who do the work, pay the taxes, raise the kids and play by the rules,” a phrase he used no fewer than 70 times in his first year as President.
Now critics say that Clinton’s rhetorical allegiance to values and character has been buried under the allegations of improper financial gains from the Whitewater real estate investment.
Equally troublesome to the Clintons’ image, critics argue, is Hillary Clinton’s $99,000 profit on her $1,000 investment in the commodities markets. Ginsberg of Johns Hopkins contends that her profit does not square with the President’s regular denunciation during the campaign of “cheating and cutting corners the way Republicans and their friends do.”
Democratic Chairman Wilhelm says that the full facts have yet to be divulged. When all is known, he says, “I think people will balance whatever judgment they make against a career which she has spent fighting for the interests of children, reforming the education system of Arkansas and reforming the health care system of this country.”
Looking ahead to 1996, Republican strategist William Kristol says: “If Clinton can convince people he is doing the right thing in health care and other areas, I think that would outweigh a fair amount of character flaws. But to do that a President needs trust, because you can never prove your programs will work right away, and Clinton does not have anything like that trust.”
Whatever happens, his supporters see no end in sight for this scrutiny. Predicts campaign strategist James Carville: “If he is reelected, this will continue until Jan. 19 of the year 2001.”