Now that the Clinton impeachment has moved from action alert to archives, journalists are rushing to get in the first draft of history. The conventional wisdom, easy but cheesy, is that public acceptance of Clinton immorality-a response that allows him to stay in office despite impeachment-shows Americans making thoughtful distinctions between public and private realms.
The standard analysis suggests that if conservatives or Christians want a president who does not commit adultery by the Oval Office, they are looking for leaders who are "ideal human beings." (And those are very hard to find.) The corollary is that when leaders do mess up, conservatives or Christians are wrong to be "judging them harshly for inevitable human failings." (Everyone does it, right?)
To go against the conventional wisdom makes me feel like the absent-minded fellow who was driving down the freeway when his car phone rang. Answering, he heard his wife's voice urgently warning him, "Chris, I just heard on the news that there's a car going the wrong way on 280. Please be careful!" To which Chris replied, "It's not just one car, honey, it's hundreds of them!"
Be that as it may, let me point out that neither of the standard propositions is true. Americans who read the Bible regularly learn that no one is sinless, but some repent of past sins and (through prayer and sanctification) develop at least a policy of containment concerning future sins. The history of the presidency shows that Mr. Clinton's failings are far from inevitable: Most presidents have not been adulterers, and only one-John F. Kennedy-was as reckless as the incumbent.
The crux of many press analyses is that Clinton-style compartmentalizing works: Private lives are irrelevant to government decision-making. Since a president who lies can still fly high, journalists should list the pieces of legislation he signs and ignore the problems he leaves for future Oval Office occupants.
The research I've done, however, indicates that compartmentalizing never worked in the past among those presidents whose private lives were troubled. Woodrow Wilson first lied to his wife and then lied to the United States, leading it into World War I shortly after campaigning for reelection on a platform of, "He kept us out of war." Warren G. Harding's corrupt personal life was a leading indicator of a corrupt administration.
But even with Bill Clinton, whose public displays of shamelessness amaze all, compartmentalizing has not worked. Grave doubts about the last bombing of Iraq emerged because it occurred just before the House was to consider impeachment. Mr. Clinton's penchant for making up stories enraged the Israeli government when he spoke about conversations with Israeli children that had never taken place. And what will happen if we have terrorist attacks, or even significant Y2K problems, and a president without honor tries to rally a frightened country by proclaiming that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself?
Besides, any compartmentalizing success Bill Clinton has had is not likely to come again. A century ago we had the Gay '90s; that term has a different meaning when used about the present, but we can certainly talk about the Happy '90s. The Clinton presidency has not been an immediate disaster because it has fallen in this easy intermission between the Cold War and the Terror Wars. Future presidents will be put to the test, and they will not pass it with moral strength tied behind their backs.
Journalism is only history's first draft, but pundits should know better than to assume that good times will always roll. The theory of Bill Clinton's harmlessness will be laid aside as soon as the bill for his carelessness becomes evident. What we are likely to see is not the triumph of compartmentalizing but a fin de siècle equivalent of one of the most thoughtful of films concerning the Civil War, Shenandoah (1965).
In it the father of six mostly grown sons, played by Jimmy Stewart, rules his farm with patriarchal fervor, decreeing that whatever happens in the war raging outside his property line is of no concern to him or his family. He finds out differently, but the education process costs lives, and only his moral integrity prevents further family disintegration.
If the post-impeachment-trial soundbite is, "Character doesn't matter," we all lose. Our next president needs to be a person of one piece, not two minds.