The Magazine

SEX, LIES, AND PUBLIC VIRTUE

Feb 23, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 23 • By DAVID FRUM
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RECENTLY AL HUNT, the Washington executive editor of the Wall Street Journal, published another in his series of columns in defense of President Clinton. Slyly, Hunt omitted any mention of the president. Instead, he drew a contrast between two Republicans: Senator John McCain, a heroic prisoner of war in Vietnam who busted up his first marriage by womanizing, and Steve Forbes, an exemplary husband and father, but a man untested in battle. Character, Hunt concluded, is manifested by one's public virtues and not by one's private morality.


It's an interesting point, if one less helpful to Bill Clinton than perhaps it was meant to be: This president is no John McCain. Still, Hunt's premise is a valid one. It's possible for men to be gallant, upright, and public- spirited and yet terribly flawed in their private lives. George Washington was boring, Abraham Lincoln shirked church, Ulysses S. Grant drank, and Ronald Reagan neglected his children. Those weaknesses were recognized even at the time; and yet Americans admired all four men regardless. And despite the national reputation for prudishness, Americans have shown equal realism about sexual misconduct: Martin Luther King Jr.'s promiscuous private life has not detracted from the country's respect for his noble public life. Americans understand perfectly well that public virtue and private virtue do not always march hand in hand, and most of us if pressed to choose would probably agree that it's more important for a man in public life to possess the former than the latter.


But this is actually beside the point. The story of Bill Clinton is not a story of public virtue and private weakness. It is the story of a man who has consistently betrayed his public duties in order to give a false appearance of private virtue.


A historical parallel throws some clarifying light on Bill Clinton's true nature. It is the story of the American Republic's first sex scandal: the Maria Reynolds affair. In 1791, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, married and the father of four children, engaged in an adulterous love affair with a woman named Maria Reynolds. Reynolds's husband, James, acquiesced in the affair -- but demanded that Hamilton pay hush money to keep it quiet. The Reynoldses extracted several hundred dollars in blackmail from Hamilton (an impressive sum in those days) before the affair ended in the summer of 1792. The two Reynoldses then expanded their criminal careers, this time trying to defraud the U.S. Treasury. When they were caught, they attempted to escape prosecution by offering Hamilton's political opponents proof that the secretary was involved in their scheme: the record of the money he had given them. The only way Hamilton could exculpate himself from false charges of corruption was by confessing his illicit love affair to the three congressmen investigating. The congressmen believed him and promised silence. But in 1797, Hamilton's secret was exploded: A Jeffersonian newspaper editor published the Reynoldses' story and accused Hamilton in print of financial fraud. Hamilton was now faced with a stark Al Hunt-like dilemma. Congress knew the truth, so he was safe from prosecution. What was at stake was his reputation. He had to choose: Which mattered more -- a reputation for private virtue or a reputation for public probity? For Hamilton, there could never be a doubt. He immediately published a pamphlet confessing the affair in excruciating detail and vindicating his unspotted reputation as a public official.


Skip forward two hundred years. At his deposition in the Paula Jones case, Bill Clinton faced a dilemma remarkably similar to Alexander Hamilton's. When he was asked about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, he could tell the truth -- and confess a sexual transgression. Or he could opt to perjure himself -- and betray his responsibilities as the chief law-enforcement officer of the United States. He chose to lie; and not only to lie, but to orchestrate an elaborate scheme of evidence-suppression, witness-tampering, and obstruction of justice. The Al Hunt defense of the president that Clinton's private morals may be deficient, but that he takes his public obligations seriously -- has it all backward: In fact, Bill Clinton is willing to violate any and all of his public obligations in order to fool the public into thinking him personally a good and decent man.