When President Clinton, in one of last week's frequent apologies for the Monica S. Lewinsky affair, said he wanted Americans to accept him as a model for their children, it marked an implicit retreat from what has been the White House's staunchest line of defense not only during the eight-month-long scandal but throughout Clinton's presidency.
This is the contention that the so-called character issue has little to do with presidential performance.
But even as politicians ponder the legal questions raised by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report to Congress, experts agree that the continuing controversy over Clinton's character will greatly influence his effectiveness for the rest of his tenure in office and will define his legacy.
The experts note that character has always been a major factor in presidential success and failure. And as politicians in both parties agree, Clinton's career has dramatized--perhaps more than any of his predecessors'--the salience of the character issue as a weapon that can inspire the electorate but also wreck a presidency.
Clinton himself tacitly acknowledged the bearing that personal behavior has on the nation's highest office at a fund-raiser in Orlando, Fla., last week when he recalled a little boy who earlier that day told him: "I want to grow up to be . . . a president like you."
Said Clinton: "I want to be able to conduct my life and my presidency so that all the parents of the country could feel good if their children were able to say that again."
A longtime Clinton supporter, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), expressed the political significance of the character issue in broader--and more pointed--terms, when he expanded on his highly critical and highly publicized Senate speech about Clinton and the consequences of the Lewinsky scandal.
"One of the great things the president has done for our country, and for our party, is that in his public statements and in the programs he's advocated, he has reconnected the Democratic Party to the mainstream of American values," Lieberman said. But he added: "This misconduct, behavior that is both immoral and untruthful, undercuts that."
Long before the Lewinsky affair provoked Lieberman to speak out, some Republicans pointed to what they viewed as a contradiction between Clinton's own conduct and his rhetoric about family values and traditional morals.
"He very much wants to be a leader in moral terms," said William J. Bennett, the former secretary of Education and author of the best-selling "The Book of Virtues," midway through Clinton's first term. "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."
An understanding of the political significance of character and the intertwined issue of values to Clinton's presidency begins with the 1988 presidential campaign when Republican George Bush's campaign against Democrat Michael S. Dukakis created what Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg called a "savage caricature" as the dominant image of the Democratic Party--short on patriotism and indifferent to the values of work and family.
Yet at the same time the country was supposedly caught up in a pervasive conservative mood, Greenberg noted, polls showed that voters favored an activist agenda for the government.
Greenberg, who became a key Clinton advisor, argued that to take advantage of this inclination, Democrats had to find a way to reach the middle-class voters who had left the party. This diagnosis set the stage for the "New Democrat" paradigm, which helped carry Clinton to the White House. Along with a bundle of policy proposals, the model relied heavily on Clinton stressing traditional values--such as individuals taking responsibility for their actions--to touch the emotions and win the hearts of the voters.
The problem with this strategy is that Clinton has had trouble living up to his part of it.
His 1992 candidacy was dogged by allegations of infidelity and draft evasion. In response, Clinton claimed these allegations were a false alarm, diverting attention away from the policy questions that confronted the country. His wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, provided enthusiastic and essential support to this line of argument.
"Is anything about our marriage important enough to the people of New Hampshire as whether or not they will have a chance to keep their own families together?" she asked the voters of the then-recession ridden Granite State.
It was a contention that would be echoed six years later when the Lewinsky affair first erupted. Until recently, the president's cohorts pointed to the booming economy and his favorable job approval ratings in the polls as far more relevant indices of Clinton's presidential performance than possible flaws in his character.
One longtime advisor, Paul Begala, argued that Clinton has stressed policy rather than personal qualities from the beginning of his national political career. "He didn't come out and say, 'Vote for me because I am pure.' He said, 'Vote for me because I have some good ideas,' " Begala said.
But that was not quite the case. Even as Clinton locked down his party's 1992 nomination, he emerged from the process as "damaged goods," as Greenberg later admitted. And to repair that damage, his advisors set out to change the public's view of Clinton himself. "We had decided that biography was critical," Greenberg said.
Clinton played the dominant role in this make-over. Whereas once he had complained that "too much of this election has been about me," now he could hardly get enough of himself into his speeches. At every turn he stressed his humble origins and the fortitude he displayed in rising above such handicaps. "My life is a testament to the fact that the American dream works," he said. "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."
Once in office, Clinton continued to stress such themes. He took every opportunity to present himself as the champion of middle-class people "who play by the rules," a phrase Clinton used no fewer than 70 times in his first year in the White House.
He also jumped at chances to use religious assemblages as forums and often deplored how far national life had 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 during his first term.
Now, as Clinton faces the severest test of his presidency, some of his supporters are hoping he may once again find a way to use his character as an asset. As his old ally Lieberman put it, they would like Clinton to be able "to accept personal responsibility, to rebuild public trust in his leadership . . . and to act to heal the wounds in our national character."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Similar to a grand jury, it is first up to the House Judiciary Committee to determine whether enough evidence exists to go forward with impeachment of a president. If a majority of the panel, which now has 21 Republicans and 16 Democrats, decides full proceedings are warranted, it would forward that recommendation to the full House. If a majority of the House approves the recommendation, it authorizes the committee to conduct a full impeachment inquiry, which could involve public hearings and last for months. If the panel subsequently votes to impeach the president, it also sends this recommendation to the full House. Approval by the majority in the full House would send the matter to the Senate, which would conduct a trial. A two-thirds vote of the Senate would be required to convict the president and remove him from office.