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.


Ask yourself this: Why did Clinton feel a need to lie about his affair with Monica Lewinsky? The usual reason for keeping an affair secret -- that it might jeopardize one's marriage-manifestly did not apply: The first lady has reminded us all this month that the president need not fear her. The affair did not break any law. Adultery is at most a misdemeanor in the District of Columbia. At no greater theoretical risk than a small fine, the president could have had every willing female intern in the White House -- in Washington! -- snaking in a giant conga line around the Executive Mansion waiting her turn to service him. So why bother with perjury?


The answer may lie in another historical parallel, this one rather more recent: the White House Travel Office firing. Once again, Bill Clinton had every legal right to do as he did: dismiss employees who served at his pleasure in order to transfer their work to a friend and supporter. Patronage is an American tradition as old as the first Democratic president, Andrew Jackson. And yet, the Clintons lied -- and the first lady may have perjured herself -- in order to hide the truth that their administration had done something it was perfectly free to do. The common element to both the Lewinsky and travel-office stories is Tartuffery. The Clintons are, it appears, people prepared to commit all manner of wrong to protect their public image of righteousness.


Defenders of the president have lately fallen back on the excuse that perjury about sex is somehow different from other kinds of perjury. Katha Pollitt writes in last week's issue of the Nation, "I don't even care that he may have fibbed in his deposition to Jones's lawyers, or asked Lewinsky to back him up, because they had no right to ask about consensual sex in the first place." Susan Estrich has been busily arguing the same point on television: Everybody lies about sex, you see, and so it's perfectly okay for the president to do it too.


This is, when you think about it, a very strange argument. The president's apologists want us to believe that what counts is public virtue not private virtue; and they also want us to believe that Clinton's lies to protect his Oval Office sex sessions are somehow more innocent than Eisenhower's lies to protect the secrecy of the U-2 missions or FDR's lies to accelerate America's entry into World War II. But from the point of view of public virtue, lies to cover up a personal indulgence are the least defensible sort of lie. Presidential lying, whether under oath or not, rips apart the bonds of trust between governed and governors. It is always and everywhere a bad and dangerous thing. As bad as it is, however, sometimes high reasons of state exist that make lying unavoidable, as Eisenhower and Roosevelt believed they did. But lying to cover up a sex scandal is not lying for reasons of state; it is lying for crass personal gain. Of all the forms of presidential lying, that is the most contemptible, not the most pardonable.


If Bill Clinton were the man his friends want us to think him -- an essentially honest public servant with an unfortunate but ultimately irrelevant sexual weakness -- he would have handled all his sex scandals in a completely different way. He would, if caught, have forthrightly argued that his sexual behavior had nothing to do with the job he could do as president. But he would have respected the integrity of the legal process: He would have scorned to lie, and he would never have dreamed of orchestrating a scheme of perjury and obstruction of justice. He would, like Hamilton, have accepted exposure as an adulterer rather than tolerate the smallest blot on his official integrity.


Instead, Clinton has repudiated one of his most sacred public obligations -- to see that justice is faithfully done in the federal courts -- in order to protect his reputation as a husband and father. Clinton did not have to lie to protect his freedom to have extramarital sex; he could have had the courage of his libertine convictions. But he lacked that courage, and so he lied and encouraged others to lie, both under oath and before television cameras.


In the current scandal there is at least this small potential for good: It reminds us that a man who has acquired the habit of lying at home is unlikely to be entirely horrified at the thought of lying to a judge, a jury, a voter. It reminds us that while private virtue and public virtue are indeed different, they are not so remote from each other as the president's defenders would like us to think. Hamilton may have shown us that it is possible to be a bad husband and an incorruptible politician. But he was an extraordinary man. Bill Clinton is something much more common: a man who is dishonest through and through.




David Frum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.