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Speaking Publicly on What Many Say Is Private Matter

Most Americans believe that President Clinton has misbehaved sexually, polls tell us. But many really don’t care. And they’re tired of it being investigated.

Specifically, an ABC poll reported last week that a large majority of people--61%--believe this president “has engaged in a pattern of sexual misconduct.” Yet less than a majority--48%--consider such misconduct to be “important.” And a CNN/USA Today poll found that 67% want all probing into these sexual allegations to “stop now.”

Strictly speaking, independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr is not investigating Clinton’s sex life. He’s trying to find out whether the president lied under oath or asked others--such as Monica Lewinsky--to lie. But this is a fine point probably lost on the millions who keep protesting that a president’s sexual escapades are his own business.

To me, that’s the most intriguing aspect of all this. Not whether Bill Clinton is a compulsive, sexual glutton--which I assume--but whether Americans think it is any of their business. So what if a president does have sex with an intern, does paw a woman in the White House, does act like some immature boy whose libido has run amok? Whose business is it anyway?

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I put that question to the four major candidates for governor, not because the responses would tell us anything about their priorities or policies or potential effectiveness. I asked thinking their answers might say something about themselves personally--their attitudes about privacy, maybe even values. Also, frankly, I raised it because Republican Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren already had.

A president’s personal character is everybody’s business, Lungren insists.

It’s basically nobody’s business except the first family’s, responds Democratic Rep. Jane Harman.

The two male Democratic candidates--airline exec Al Checchi and Lt. Gov. Gray Davis? They wouldn’t touch it. Too skittish.

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Harman and Lungren were refreshingly frank.

The congresswoman adamantly asserted that presidential sex--as long as it’s legal--is strictly a private matter.

How about sex with a young White House intern? Would that be the public’s business?

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“No,” she replied unhesitatingly. “I think it’s the public’s business how someone performs a public job. I judge a public leader by his or her public performance. . . .

“Consensual adult behavior that doesn’t violate any laws and doesn’t impair somebody’s performance on the job is no one’s business.”

How about if a woman is groped and fondled by a president, as Kathleen Willey claims? Does the public have a right to know about boorish behavior? Maybe sexual harassment?

“Sexual harassment has no place in the Oval Office or any office in America,” Harman said. “No one’s above the law.”

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And boorish behavior, something between consent and harassment?

“I don’t know how to judge that. I don’t think any of us are pure. . . .

“You know, our foreign allies are laughing at us. They think it’s astounding the amount of time being spent on this.”

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In Lungren’s view, a president cannot be “the moral force for change in the world” if he regards his own morality as irrelevant.

“The president not only is the nation’s chief executive, he stands as a symbol of what is best in American society--or at least he has in the past,” Lungren told me last week.

Moreover, he added: ‘If somebody is untrustworthy in one major element of his life, is he likely to be untrustworthy in another? It at least sounds a loud alarm. . . .

“I mean, I don’t understand this. It just blows me away that people think it’s not important. Lord knows we are in desperate need of positive role models for young people, particularly young males.”

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But what does the public have a right to know?

Lungren cited the hypocrisy test: People have a right to know whether an elected official really is the same person he portrayed himself to be as a candidate.

“If we represent ourselves as embracing traditional American values and we do not, then the people have a right to know that,” Lungren said. “I don’t think Bill Clinton ran for office saying, ‘I’m a philanderer. I don’t believe in my wedding vows. I shouldn’t have to keep my hands off White House interns.’ ”

No. But I suspect most Americans had a pretty good fix on the guy. And they decided to trust him with their pocketbooks.

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Still, I agree with Lungren about who’s business this is. Free flowing information fuels democracy. Information that some people may feel is not important, others will consider vital. They shouldn’t be denied that information just because some don’t care.


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