Sex, Lies, and Presidential Leadership: Interpretations of the Office.
In this context, the plethora of arguments surrounding the events of the Monica Lewinsky affair and Clinton's resulting impeachment trial provide us with valuable material through which we can begin to understand the varying definitions of what the presidency is and how it should operate (Baas and Thomas 1999; Miller 1999). This is a particularly useful case for the rhetorical battle was waged not over the facts behind the accusations but over their meaning and relationship to a constitutionally mandated, historically established standard of behavior ("high crimes and misdemeanors"). Arguments from the trial transcripts and reports in various media outlets provide perspective on the competing definitions of presidential power and the president's role in the national polity. In other words, the arguments about the immediate fate of President Clinton reveal more than political predilections. They also reveal deeply embedded definitions of presidential power, its limitations, and the proper function of the presidency in the contemporary political system (Olson and Goodnight 1994).
We make no claim that the examples presented here are either systematic or exhaustive. We examined arguments made by the major Washington players in the Lewinsky scandal and subsequent impeachment proceedings, editorials and letters to the editor in a wide variety of national and regional newspapers, the major news magazines, and other published sources. What we present here is a distillation of comments on Clinton that reflect a certain set of views about the nature and meaning of the presidency. The persuasive attempts that are presented here are not all equally relevant to all Americans. For those--apparently the majority--for whom the scandal was "about a zealous prosecutor who had spent many of their tax dollars doing the dirty work of the far right wing of the Republican party" (Miller 1999, p. 728), the question of Clinton's behavior was less relevant than for those who supported his removal.
In addition, Clinton's supporters, as defenders of the status quo, had less need to make public arguments advocating that position (Olson and Goodnight 1994, 251). Moreover, even when Clinton's defenders were moved to make arguments and were focused on the president rather than the special prosecutor, they were not inclined to defend that behavior (Miller 1999, 722). A similar analysis of the special prosecutor would probably appear similarly biased, although in a different direction (see, e.g., Bookman 1998; Dionne 1998; Sharp 1998). In addition, the media were themselves overwhelmingly critical of the president (Miller 1999, 724). Thus, this analysis appears more critical than supportive of Clinton, a poor reflection of the bulk of public opinion throughout the scandal. But we are not trying here to capture the public's opinions of the scandal but of the presidency through the lens of the scandal.
Many, if not all, of these positions may stem from political expediency and/or self-interest rather than from consistent and well thought out political theories. This is not important to this analysis. What is important is that the particular definitions are supported in the polity as reasonable ways of understanding the institution. As Kathryn M. Olson and G. Thomas Goodnight (1994) argue, the analysis of social controversy can "open horizons for critical inquiry" as well as offer a lens into public persuasion (p. 249). In this particular case, interlocutors had either to attack the status quo (justify impeachment and/or removal) or to defend it. In either case, the argument hinged on the rhetor's definition of the presidency as an institution. This article focuses on those definitions and the persuasive leverage that they commanded (or failed to command).
This is an important endeavor because it is through practical public debates and controversies that we define the parameters of the presidency. This is evident in the arguments of "King Andrew" in the nineteenth century and through the fears of an "imperial presidency" in more recent years. The office is defined through a concrete rhetorical praxis.
Our analysis proceeds in three parts. We first discuss the nature of presidential power and leadership as it has been generally understood, with an emphasis on its fluid nature. We then turn to the arguments concerning Clinton's political fate as specific examples of the various definitions of presidential power. We conclude with a discussion of the implications of the analysis.
Interpreting the Presidency
The precise nature of presidential power has been ever complicated and controversial. Scholarly attempts to understand that power have been equally complicated. In its earliest manifestations, academic approaches to the task of understanding executive power centered on legalistic interpretations, focusing on the variety of presidential roles (Corwin 1957; Rossiter 1960). Richard Neustadt (1960) famously expanded that understanding of the presidency to include the informal aspects of presidential power, placing personal skill and persuasion at the forefront of the presidential attributes. This, in turn, led scholars to focus on the influence of presidential character on the conduct of presidential roles (Barber 1977; Buchanan 1978; Stuckey 1997; Tetlock 1988). Both these roles and the persuasive nature of the institution endow it with symbolic power, rendering the office, in Rossiter's well-known phrase, "a breeding ground of indestructible myth." While the mythic grandeur of the "textbook presidency" (Cronin 1980) has been diminished in the last several decades, the power of the presidency as a national symbol remains.
This has led to a focus on past presidents and their legacies, especially those of Franklin Roosevelt (Leuchtenburg 1983) and on what his example and those of his successors imply for the various roles the president has played, or should play, in the national political system (Jones 1994). Whether it means defining the presidency as "imperial" (Schlesinger 1973) or as "imperiled" (Nelson 1990), as based in the Constitution or in the practices of persuasion, scholars and pundits alike base their evaluations of a particular president on some notion of what the office ought to be, how the institution ought to function.
This dynamic is always clearest in times of national conflict regarding the actions of a specific president. Arguments about Franklin Delano Roosevelt's (FDR) "right" to administer New Deal programs and to play a large legislative role in so doing, about Truman's "right" to seize the steel mills, about Eisenhower's prolonged inaction in Little Rock, about Kennedy's behavior regarding the Soviet Union, about Johnson's conduct of the war in Vietnam, about Nixon's use of governmental machinery to achieve political ends, about Carter's feckless handling of Congress, about Reagan's actions in Nicaragua, about Bush's inability to "get it," and about Clinton's personal and financial conduct--all have at their root questions about how the office ought to be held and whether the president in question is fulfilling his role(s) in an acceptable way.
From this small series of examples, three things are clear. First, the parameters of presidential power are fluid, and the definitions of that power change over time. Eisenhower faced very different constraints and enjoyed different opportunities than did Taft, for instance. Second, these debates are rarely very nuanced and do not take into account the institutional and political constraints that every president faces. The public arguments made in these cases almost never include the complexities of governing. In criticizing Kennedy's "weakness" vis-a-vis the USSR, for instance, public debates rarely if ever noted the fragility of his governing coalition. Third, the intensity of debate about the appropriateness of a given action is in direct relationship to the perceived character of the president. An action taken by Reagan would be perceived very differently from an identical action taken by Nixon.
The presidency is the locus of (often hotly) contested definitions of national institutions, national ambitions, and national character (Barringer 1998b). The presidency functions as a synecdoche for the nation, and the president's actions often assume a symbolic as well as an instrumental importance (Stuckey and Antczak 1998). Members of the national polity consequently have a stake in these actions, for we are all reflected in, as well as represented by, the inhabitant of the presidency.
In a different context, Doris Graber (1982, 2) noted that, "The president's relations with the public are important to him in three major contexts: They affect his personal political survival; they are crucial to his ability to do his job well; and they are important for establishing his historical image." Our six categories, derived from the arguments that dominated public discourse during the Lewinsky scandal, reflect the rhetorical imperatives of these aspects of the president's relationship with the public. First, a president's political survival depends on his ability to connect with the American people and to present an image of leadership that they will want to follow. The roles of "father figure" and "visionary" reflect that ability. Second, his ability to do his job well resonates in the roles of "head of government" and "policymaker." Third, his historical image is related to his ability to capture and articulate the prevailing political ethos. His roles as "national symbol" and "architect of national identity" are measures of that ability.
Some of these roles overlap, some are mutually exclusive, and some operate alone. In focusing on these roles as they reflect presidential imperatives through the arguments during a public controversy when the definitions of the office are themselves the matter of dispute rather than of a consensus, we can deepen our understanding of how the presidency is being perceived in the contemporary public sphere (see Olson and Goodnight 1994, 252-53).
We can learn a good deal about the public understanding of the presidency by examining the arguments for or against presidential action in any given controversial case. We suspect that the various definitions of presidential power will remain fairly constant over time, although the parameters of those definitions will change as the polity changes. For instance, the idea that the president is "the moral leader" of the nation will run through much if not all of American history, but what sorts of conduct are considered problematic at any given time will change with the political and popular cultures (Langston 1995; Waterman, Wright, and St. Clair 1999, 153).
The next section of the article details six definitions that emerged from our analysis of the events arising from the Lewinsky scandal. These categories are not simply a typology, as this is not a content analysis, and we are not presenting "data" as such. These categories emerged in the context of public arguments concerning the impeachment and removal of the president. As with all sets of categories, the classification presented here is not the only interpretive possibility. Rather, we are attempting to get a handle on the multidimensional nature of presidential character (Miller 1999, 728). We believe that this taxonomy accurately reflects the persuasive definitions that various rhetors felt would have rhetorical traction with their audience. To paraphrase Kenneth Burke (1966, 45), these analytical choices select, deflect, and reflect our current conceptions of the office.
Defining the Presidency Through Scandal
From the evidence of the debate over the appropriate response to the Clinton/ Lewinsky scandal, six main definitions of the presidency, and thus six main ways of judging the conduct of any given president, emerge. The president is our father figure; he protects and guides us. He is our visionary; he dreams for us. He is our head of government; he acts for us. He is our policymaker; he legislates for us. He is the architect of our national identity; he defines us. He is our national role model; he exemplifies us. Elaborations on these definitions and examples from the case of Bill Clinton follow.
Personal Political Survival
As Graber (1982) notes, personal political survival does not depend solely on personality (p. 2). Nonetheless, a president's "ability to establish rapport is crucial." The roles of "father figure" and "visionary" provide rhetorical leverage as presidents attempt to create and maintain that rapport.
Father figure. This definition is one that has been present since the earliest days of the republic, when George Washington was known as the "Father of the Country." It implies that the president has a role as the national parent, who will guide us, watch over us, and care for us. It is in this role that the president comforts us in times of national crisis (FDR's rhetoric during the depression), consoles us in times of national grief (Reagan's Challenger eulogy), and directs us in times of national confusion (Johnson's civil rights address). So powerful is this element of the presidency that Clinton consultant Dick Morris suggested using it as the basis of the White House communication strategy following the 1994 midterm election debacle (Waterman, Wright, and St. Clair 1999, 64).
There are nurturing implications as well as paternalistic ones to this definition, but presidents who violate this expectation can sometimes be considered guilty of the basest sort of betrayal and create the bitterest sort of anger as a result (Floyd 1999; Morrow 1999; Nissen 1999). Pinning her anti-Clinton argument on the persuasive history of this idea, Margaret Carlson (1998, 49), for instance, writing in Time, stated that "if the charges turn out to be true, he should be ashamed to show his face, much less brag that he is going about `business as usual.' None of the rest of us can. We feel his shame" (p. 49). It is the shame of a child discovering that its parents are flawed and fallible humans rather than the superheros of imagination. It is a shame that must be blamed on the parents and that is difficult to forgive. It is a shame that makes the child wonder at how the parents can go on as if nothing has happened, as if the world had not in fact shattered. To feel that sort of shame about the actions of a president is to understand the presidency as a national parent: "It's a sad situation--you're supposed to look up to your president" (Price 1999).
It is because of this understanding of the presidency that the fact that Clinton lied to his wife and child became so important to those who argued for his impeachment and removal. If he can lie to his wife and child, the argument goes, we cannot trust him either. Thus, his wife's standing in the polls skyrocketed, the nation's heart went out to Chelsea, and pundits analyzed (and overanalyzed) the photos of the Clinton's leaving on a family vacation, each holding one of their daughter's hands, as they walked to the waiting helicopter (Kinsley 1998/1999, 134-35). According to those who used this definition as a basis for arguing against Clinton, we pitied and defended Hillary and Chelsea because we literally put ourselves in their places. We identified with them and saw their humiliation as our own. As the New York Times put it in an August 1998 editorial:
The American President is a person who sometimes must ask people in the ranks to die for the country. The President is a person who asks people close around him to serve the government for less money than their talents would bring elsewhere. The President sometimes requires that people out in the country sacrifice their dollars or their convenience for national goals. All he is asked to provide in return is trustworthiness, loyalty and judgment. These concentric circles of the national family simply want the President to have enough character not to abuse their devotion. (Betrayal and embarrassment 1998, A30)
Thus, the president could plausibly be argued to have "an obligation to his family and to his nation" (Allegations of consequence 1998) and the confluence of the two is complete.
Clinton's supporters often argued that this aspect of the presidential persona was not an appropriate measure of presidential performance: "We don't care about President Clinton's sex life, said the callers.... We care that the nation is in good shape" (Waterman, Wright, and St. Clair 1999, 132). For these people, the president's "sexual exploits" did not "inhibit his ability to conduct the duties of his office" (McCutcheon 1998; see also "Outside the beltway" 1991; Harris 1998), and they argued that he "has been sincerely trying to do his best for the country" (Means 1998). Thus, even many of those who found Clinton's behavior reprehensible did not see it as also impeachable.
For some critics of the president, however, it is the image of the presidency as our father figure that makes the question, "How do we explain this to our children?" so very difficult. And it is not surprising that this question played a fairly prominent role in the coverage of the scandal (Carlson 1998; Ferguson 1998). As adults, we can place the president's behavior in perspective (Handy 1999), they argued, but we are all appalled at the effect this will have on the next generation. As Steve Chabot (R-OH) said, "We've got to do it for the children" (Gibbs and Duffy 1998, 25). To properly teach our children, wrongdoing must be punished, fallibility must be acknowledged. Any failure to either acknowledge the gravity of the act or to punish it appropriately would be tantamount to poor parenting. A lapse in the national parent is already obvious; those hoping to unseat the president claimed that failure to punish Clinton compounds that lapse and spreads it to all of the nation's children.
Children were used on the other side of the debate as well. As Margaret Carlson (1998/1999) argued,
Clinton isn't above the law, but he should be above doing what he did. Livingston's resignation and the impeachment of Clinton teach children exactly the wrong lesson: that other people's deepest secrets can be plundered for political gain. Clinton is weak, not evil. He violated the Commandments, not the Constitution, and should be solemnly censored for it. (P. 94)
Whatever the answer(s), the question(s) revolving around what our children are being taught by this series of events indicate the rhetorical power some rhetors saw in this definition of the presidency.
Visionary. Presidents dream for us. They tell us where we are headed, they enunciate our national goals. It is this aspect of presidential authority that is most often associated with "leadership," for it is in this capacity that the president moves us, constitutes us as a political community capable of acting together, and motivates us to do so. A president without dreams (George Bush's "vision thing") is a president who is seen as "merely managing" the government, not leading the nation.
Character is vital here, for the president must be understood as a leader worth following, which is nearly always understood in personal terms. We do not follow ideas; we follow people who embody ideas. Kennedy's youth and famous "vigor" added credence to his "New Frontier" and his goal of putting a man on the moon, while Reagan's age and history as an ardent opponent of communism brought added resonance to his plea, "Mr. Gorbachev, bring down that wall," for he lived in a day before the wall and could envision a day without it.
For many of those who considered character the crux of the presidency, the scandal damaged the Clinton presidency almost beyond measure, for in this context, "It's the lies and the tampering, stupid!" (Harbert 1999, A26). As early as February 2, 1998, a Time/CNN poll "found half of Americans saying he [Clinton] lacks the moral character to be president, and should be impeached if the charges prove true" (Gibbs 1998, 22). As Chuck Hagel (R-NE) put it, "After stripping away the underbrush of legal technicalities and nuance, I find that the President abused his sacred power by lying and obstructing justice" (Notebook 1999, 21).
For some of Clinton's critics, this definition had persuasive power because what is at stake is the sanctity of the president's powers and the preservation of that sanctity, which takes absolute precedence over the preservation of a particular president. By this standard, any scandalous behavior, any act that tarnishes the office, must be punished by impeachment and removal. As one New Jersey resident said, "When I look at Clinton, I don't see a president. I see a manipulator, a conniver, a liar" (Broder 1999, A21).
Some of those who argued against Clinton then sought rhetorical traction in the idea that presidential action cannot be distinguished from personal action, and a president is separated from the rest of us by his ability to put the country's interests before his own. They argued that Clinton was singularly lacking in this regard, being guilty of what one editorial referred to as "crass selfishness" (No grounds to impeach 1998, 18A). In calling for Clinton's resignation, the New York Times cited as evidence that he had failed in his duties,
not because he is unquestionably guilty of any specific criminal offense, though he may well be. Not because of his sexual behavior, as disgraceful as it is. And not solely because of Starr's report, which is far from an impartial judgment. He should resign because he has resolutely failed--and continues to fail--the most fundamental test of any President: to put the nation's interests first. (Testing of a president 1998, A23; see also S. Kaplan 1998; Resignation the only responsible option 1998; Rising to the occasion 1998; USA Today 1998b)
For these critics, the president's dreams for the nation must be perceived as being in service of the nation, not in the service of a narrow self-interest. A failure there is a failure of the visionary role.
These critics hoped that this failure would be seen as singularly important, for as Henry Hyde asserted, "America is hungry for people who believe in something" (Sherman and Foskett 1999), and it is the president who is the custodian of our national beliefs. Many agreed with the Seattle Times that "without moral authority, the president cannot lead," and with the Albuquerque Journal that this president was "morally unfit to continue in office" (Barringer 1998a).
Some of Clinton's defenders argued that his personal behavior did not affect this role and denied the connection between vision and morality that his critics asserted.
Paul Begala, the president's counselor, said, "There's a popular myth that he survived New Hampshire or that he survived today because of his political talent, which is manifest. My view is that he is surviving, then and today, because of his ideas." (Mathis 1999, A2)
Other supporters of the president stood by him because he had stood by them previously; he had offered a vision that included and encompassed them. Toni Morrison, for instance, who famously named Clinton "America's first black president," exemplified the willingness of many people to offer support where it had been offered to them and to see in Clinton's troubles a reflection of their own. Thus, the persuasive traction of this role depended on how "vision" was understood: whether it could be embodied or had to be articulated.
Doing the Job Well
As Graber (1982) indicates, this aspect of the president's relationship with the public has a powerful connection to his ability to enact policy (p. 2). Here, both his role as "head of government" and as "policymaker" are important elements of his success.
Head of government. This definition has both foreign and domestic components. They share a reliance on the formal nature of the president's duties. In emphasizing the formal role of the president, for instance, prosecutor Kenneth Starr and the House managers of the impeachment trial always referred to Clinton as "the president," never by name (McLoughlin 1999), thus placing the emphasis on the public, as opposed to the private aspects of the office. Starr, in fact, based the majority of his argumentation on the centrality of the president's formal role, claiming that throughout, the president's behavior was "inconsistent with the general statutory duty of all executive-branch employees to cooperate with criminal investigations. It is also inconsistent with the president's duty to faithfully execute the laws" (McLoughlin 1999, 7). Furthermore, he argued that the distinction the president's defenders were making between public and private behavior did not apply:
Justice Story ... stated in his famous "Commentaries" that there is not a syllable in the Constitution which confines impeachment to official acts. With all respect, an absolute and inflexible requirement of a connection to official duties appears, fairly viewed, to be an incorrect interpretation of the Constitution. (McLoughlin 1999, 18-19)
Starr is thus arguing that any and all of a president's actions are official actions and are liable to official judgments and, when warranted, official sanctions. The president is the head of government at all times; he has no private life, and everything he does is part of that formal role.
The foreign-affairs aspect of this definition is largely a legacy of the cold war and contains elements of the "father figure." The president is primarily responsible for foreign policy, and given a world in which nuclear weapons are prevalent, it his task to "keep us safe." In the words of historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (1999), "Congressional government made little difference when the U.S. was a bit player on the world stage. But the very nature of the problems facing 21st century American Presidents call for strong executive leadership" (p. 44). Whether this means keeping the world safe for democracy or simply keeping our national interest protected, proponents of this role argued that the president's main task is to facilitate relationships with foreign leaders, to protect our international economic interests, and to ensure the safety of our citizens. Clinton's attackers saw in his behavior a fatal undermining of his ability to accomplish these tasks; his defenders saw his behavior in this instance as irrelevant to his ability to function in this capacity.
This is one role in which morality takes on an interesting twist, for it is likely to be seen as a weakness. Consider, for example, the criticism of Jimmy Carter as "too moral" to be a good foreign policy leader. In the realm of foreign policy, it is crucial that our allies be able to trust us, but that any potential opponents be unsure of our actions. A "good" foreign policy president is widely considered to be one who can practice just the right amount of duplicity to accomplish his tasks, but such duplicity must always be justified by moral ends. Examples include Eisenhower's planned duplicity concerning China (Greenstein 1982) and Nixon's (1978) claim that he wanted the North Vietnamese to believe him "a madman" to facilitate the peace process.
There are two components of this foreign-affairs aspect of this definition: the roles of commander in chief and chief diplomat. In basing his argument on the formal role of the presidency, Starr would naturally turn to members of an organization that relies heavily on the principles of rank and hierarchy. He brought to the House several such witnesses, the first of whom was Admiral Bud Edney, who testified that
trust and confidence must exist up and down the chain of command.... Leadership by example must come from the top. It must be consistent with the highest standards, and it must be visible for all to see. "Do as I say and not as I do" won't hack it in our military. This country is firmly entrenched in the principle of civilian leadership of our military, and the authority of the president of the United States. Therefore, I believe those who hold that leadership position, to be credible, should meet the same standards. America and her Armed Forces have always stood on the side of right and human decency. You do not throw these core values away, in the process of defending them. You also do not lower the bar of ethical standards and integrity when individuals fail to live up to them. We must continue to remove those who fall short. (McLoughlin 1999, 57)
In other words, he was claiming that neither our military at home nor our allies abroad can trust this president (Alexander 1998). If the United States is to have any international credibility or any morale among its military at home, the argument goes, impeachment is a necessity. As one critical Boston journalist put it in recapping an argument from The Economist,
His defenders can't admit that Clinton committed any legal violation because, in that case, to excuse him would place the president in a different position from average Americans, who presumably must pay for their crimes. And the merest hint of sovereign immunity is deeply antithetical to the American spirit, going back to the Revolution. (Canellos 1998, D1)
Clinton's defenders, on the other hand, did not see any necessary connection between private morality and public trust. In arguments that displayed a more nuanced understanding of national history than that offered by Clinton's opponents, his defenders asserted that public trust is engendered by public morality, not by private conduct.
The other aspect of this definition involves domestic security, and here the president's role as chief law enforcement officer parallels his role as commander in chief. Law enforcement agencies are the other state-sanctioned organizations that rely on formal roles and hierarchical principles. Because of the nature of the accusations facing Clinton, it is also the aspect of the president's role where his behavior had perhaps the most rhetorical leverage. As Henry Hyde put it:
We must decide if a president, the chief law-enforcement officer of the land, the person who appoints the attorney general, the person who nominates the every federal judge, the person who nominates to the Supreme Court and the only person with a constitutional responsibility to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, can lie under oath repeatedly and maintain it is not a breach of trust sufficient for impeachment. (McLoughlin 1999, 168; see also 212-13, 217, 259; Rosenberg 1999)
These arguments did not proceed without rebuttal, however. There were those, Harvard lawyer Alan Dershowitz among them, who argued that these claims amounted to trivializing the rule of law by blurring distinctions among and between the different types of perjury (McLoughlin 1999, 64). More common, however, were those who emphasized the distinction between the president's private conduct and his public roles, which they tended to restrict to policy arenas (McLoughlin 1999, 70), arguing with William Weld, former Republican governor of Massachusetts, that whatever the president's offenses, "They are not offenses against the system of government. They don't imperil our structure of government" (McLoughlin 1999, 96). This position relies on understanding the president as the nation's chief policymaker.
Policymaker. This is probably the most recent of the definitions and is a relatively isolated one. If this definition is accepted, not only is the president's private conduct utterly irrelevant but so is most of his public conduct. In short, the president is there to facilitate the passage of legislation and the formation of policy. As long as his policies are seen as benefitting the nation, or key elements of his national constituency, nothing else really matters. As one writer said, "People vote Dow Jones, not Paula Jones" (Crowe 1998, 17A).
There is some evidence that a good many people find persuasive power in this role; it was a frequent argument used by the president's defenders, who claimed that while the president had, in the words of former Senator Dale Bumpers (D-AR), acted in ways best characterized as "indefensible, outrageous, unforgivable, shameless" (McLoughlin 1999, 320), these actions did not "rise to the level of impeachment," for as Richard Bryan (D-NV) put it, "The President's conduct is boorish, indefensible, even reprehensible. It does not threaten the republic" (Notebook 1999, 21). In his White House memoir, for example, George Stephanopoulos (1999) says that "although he humiliated himself, dishonored his presidency, and deserved to be punished, Clinton did not abuse his presidential power in a way that justified impeachment. His crimes were more about the man than the office" (p. 440). Time summarized this position most clearly: "This President is a hound dog, but that's not an impeachable offense" (Gibbs and Duffy 1998, 25). The most extreme instance of this argument comes, ironically enough, from the president's chief pollster, Dick Morris (1999). No stranger to scandal himself, Morris states that "America will not tolerate the removal of a president for purely personal conduct, no matter how laden with subsequent and resulting perjury, obstruction of justice, or witness tampering" (p. xxxii).
The definition of president as chief policymaker was also used by those advocating the president's removal, some of whom argued that "if Clinton cared deeply about the nation and the fate of his own programs, he would hand the keys to vice-president Al Gore, who might be able to push some of those proposals ... through Congress" (Clinton tarnishes legacy 1998, 10A).
This separation of the personal from the presidential, the private from the public, served the immediate end of defending the president from impeachment or advocating his removal. It also may reveal an increasingly common understanding of the presidency as a formal institution that is not primarily about character but that is primarily about results, which are understood as policy. As two astute analysts put it:
It might reasonably be argued ... that one of the reasons Clinton maintained steady job approval ratings throughout the scandals, hearings, and trials of 1998 was his ability, on a purely discursive level, to manifest effective job performance through his engagement with policy matters. As he was fond of saying throughout the Lewinsky matter, his goal was simply to "get back to work" on the things that matter most to the American people. (Parry-Giles and Parry-Giles, forthcoming)
This characterization of the presidency directly conflicts with the more symbolic understandings of the president as father figure and national role model, for it assumes that the president has practically no public life, and that his positions on policy are all that are important. The president is, in this understanding, primarily, if not exclusively, the chief executive. His other, more ceremonial and ephemeral roles are definitely subordinate to this one.
There is evidence that a good number of Americans endorse this understanding, for throughout the scandal, "about two-thirds of Americans told pollsters that they thought their president dishonest and untrustworthy at the same time two-thirds of Americans said they approved his job performance" (McLoughlin 1999, xi). But it is not necessary for this definition to exist in isolation. It is possible to imagine, for instance, that presidential wrongdoing that involved misappropriation of funds or a clear case of abuse of power would conflict with the requirements of this definition and would then bring elements of the other definitions into play.
This aspect of the presidency is largely an assessment of his relationship to the public (Graber 1982, 4). To succeed in this dimension, the president must capture the prevailing public ethos. His roles as "architect of national identity" and "national symbol/role model" are lenses into this ability.
Architect of national identity. This definition emphasizes presidential words. It is through presidential speech that we decide who we are, what it means to be Americans at any given point in time. These words do not have to be eloquent, for eloquence is rare, but they must be consistent, and to be convincing, they should be congruent with the nature of the times. To tell a people who they are and to get it wrong is to stamp oneself as "out of touch." To refuse to offer any definition at all is to define oneself as a poor leader. The president as visionary spells out a national dream. As architect of national identity he tells us how we are constituted and defined as a people through fulfilling our role in that dream and what sorts of actions are required to fulfill that role.
For this to be credible, it should come from a credible source. Character again becomes important, for the president must not simply talk credibly; he must be credible. For some of Clinton's critics, the question of adultery is far less important than the issue of presidential lying to hide that adultery. In this view, committing adultery damages the president's roles of father figure and national symbol; lying about it endangers his credibility. As David Schippers, a Democrat working for House Republicans as majority counsel, said in reference to Clinton's caveat about the meaning of the word is: "That single declaration ... reveals more about the character of the President than perhaps anything else in the record.... Can you imagine dealing with such a person on any important matter?" (Gibbs and Duffy 1998, 27; see also Gibbs, 1998/1999, 81). Not only does lying mar the president's credibility, Clinton's critics charged, but it casts doubt on the identity he has offered the nation as well. For if the president himself is corrupt, how can the nation not be corrupted by him?
Adherents of this definition of the presidency used disease metaphors to describe this corruption: "An elected official must be worthy and remain worthy of the public trust.... He is not worthy of the office. He should be cut out like a cancer so that our country can get well again" (B. Kaplan 1998, 18A). As the national body is represented by the president (see below), its health and the soundness of its identity depend on the soundness of the president. That health is represented in his words. If they cannot be trusted, neither can his definitions of the nation's meaning. Here, the president's opponents argued, the most damaging aspect of the president's behavior was, as in the example cited above, his tendency to quibble over the meaning of words. This "legal hairsplitting," while appropriate as a defense strategy in a court, was criticized by his opponents, who argued that it should have undermined his rhetorical authority in the court of public opinion.
Some of Clinton's defenders, most prominently feminists and African Americans, argued that the president's credibility was not endangered by his problems concerning the Lewinsky matter. Separating public from private, they found that his understanding of the national community, stressing as it did inclusion and equality, was not weakened--or was not weakened fatally--by actions that they saw as irrelevant to the enactment of national identity.
Others among his defenders argued that the charges against Clinton were a product of his policies, that his opponents were, in fact, attacking the president because of his advocacy of women's issues and civil rights. As one letter to the editor put it,
Apparently they [Republicans] are unwilling to listen to the voters when we say, "Stick to the issues, work out a vision for the future, and bring everybody on board." Instead, they seem far more interested in fine-tuning their Clinton-hating, race-baiting, gay-bashing tactics. A political party that seeks to gain power by denigrating the opposition is morally bankrupt. One day the GOP will wake up and realize that Americans want to be led, not divided. (Roundtree 1998, 18A)
Certainly the question of the consistency of feminists who defended the president after attacking other political actors led to some of the most vicious debating of the scandal. Feminism itself, rather than Clinton, seemed to be on trial (Deem 1999; Ellis 1998; Hogeland 1999), a fact that points to the centrality of the president as architect of national identity to key constituencies, especially those who seek inclusion in the national self.
National symbol/role model. It is important that the president's actions not be in too stark a contrast to the identity he seeks to define. Thus, a president who preaches racial reconciliation and who can be shown to engage in bigoted actions discredits both his argument and himself. A moralist like Jimmy Carter who engages in vindictive behavior, such as his "meanness" during the 1980 presidential campaign, weakens his rhetoric and thus his presidential authority.
In addition, the president stands for us; he exemplifies us. But we want him to exemplify the best that is in us, not the worst. He is therefore charged with the task of representing us while being superior--but not too superior--to any individual citizen. Clinton's defenders refused to allow his symbolic role to be reduced to the single set of actions involving Monica Lewinsky. Instead, they saw his presidency in a broader, more complex context. While acknowledging Clinton's characterological and thus symbolic flaw in this single instance, they still looked at a more comprehensive view of his tenure in office when judging his presidency and whether it should continue.
Clinton's opponents made much of the idea that our reaction to Clinton's moral lapse would serve as a barometer of our national morality. Henry Hyde (R-IL), chair of the House Judiciary Committee and one of the trial managers, put it this way,
This vote says something about us.... It answers the question, Just who are we, and what do we stand for? Is the President one of us, or is he a sovereign? We vote for our honor, which is the only thing we get to take with us to the grave. (Gibbs and Duffy 1998, 27)
Hyde is not alone in this understanding of the presidency. As one Time reporter put it,
The very first thing a new President does is put his hand on the Bible and promise to do what no other citizen can: defend the Constitution and the country--to the point of sending soldiers to die for them. He had better be better than the rest of us. (Gibbs 1998/1999, 80)
While this standard may be higher for the president than for the rest of us (McGrew 1998), it speaks to the symbolic importance of the presidency and the persuasive power Clinton's opponents found in their definition of the president as symbol. As House Judiciary Committee Member Lamar Smith (R-TX) said, "As to the uniqueness of the office the president holds, he is a person in a position of immense authority and influence. He influences the lives of millions of Americans. He sets an example for us all" (McLoughlin 1999, 141). House Manager George Gekas (R-PA) took this argument even further, saying that "we respect the office of the presidency. The presidency is we. The presidency is America. The presidency is the banner under which we all work and live and strive in this nation. We revere the presidency" (McLoughlin 1999, 270). Thus, when the Senate failed to convict the president, it was possible for some to believe that this was evidence that "Americans no longer recognize the nature of evil" (Roaquin 1999).
It is in this definition of the presidency that the question, "What does it say about us as a country if we let him get away with this?" becomes paramount. The judgment made about Clinton thus becomes a judgment on our national morality. Certainly, according to Peter King (R-NY), Republicans saw the issue as "a moral test.... By voting against impeachment, are they supporting this immoral behavior, saying it's O.K. for the President to lie and have sex with an intern in the White House?" (Gibbs and Duffy 1998, 28). Joanna Adams, senior pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, concurred, saying, "So the issue is not simply the character of the president. The issue is the character of the American public" (Readers' round table 1998, 1G). Thus, a vote on whether misconduct "rises to the level of impeachment" becomes neither a legal nor a political matter but a moral matter, one in which the moral health of the polity is itself at stake. One letter to the New York Times argued that
Mr. Clinton represents all that is faulty with today's society.... I am sad for America and the American people. But does the President's lack of duty, honor and moral well-being not reflect our own incapacity as a people? Keeping the President in office only seals that incapacity for future generations to endure. (Hillhouse 1998, A26)
Adherents to this view are among those who argued in the wake of the trial that they were "unable to feel pride in having Clinton as our President" (Van Deusen 1999), that his political style was tantamount to "an indictment of the pathetic U.S. electorate" (Renaldo 1999), and that "we are already left with the sad legacy of a Presidency that has selfishly encouraged the public to adopt its progressive form of moral relativity" (Scanlan 1998).
This argumentative tendency is particularly clear among conservatives (Gibbs 1999, 36; Lacayo 1998/1999, 107), the comments of William Bennett (1999) being only the most prominent example. If this understanding of the presidency is accepted, then the president becomes the moral barometer of the nation. It is this view of politics that caused the resignation of House Member and Speaker designee, Bob Livingston, and is the one that many hoped would lead to the resignation of the president himself (Walsh 1998).
Collapsing together all of these arguments--the president represents us, he is us, and he serves us as a moral barometer--a writer for Time neatly summarized this perspective on the presidency from a conservative point of view:
Immaturity and infatuation make you vulnerable, even if you aren't aware of it, and decent people in positions of power do not exploit the vulnerable for kicks. Here the logic of common morality is inexorable, and the conclusion is harsh: if the President had sex with her, he is not a decent man; he will be understood as such; and his public life will be over. (Ferguson 1998, 60)
That this particular writer was wrong is not important; nor does his error provide evidence that this understanding of the presidency is irrelevant. It is, rather, evidence that the political world is perhaps more complicated than this writer understood (Kinsley 1998/1999, 134). Many people were simply unable to comprehend the president as "evil" nor were they in favor of what they then viewed as disproportionate punishment. Instead, Clinton's supporters seemed comfortable with the idea that "it's not that the president isn't being punished for his recklessness, self-indulgence, and insouciance. His presidency has been severely damaged, as will be his place in history" (Drew 1998, A37). Moreover, many people were willing to leave the matter "between him, his wife, and their God" (Wardrop 1998) and were unwilling to place their judgment of his private life into the public sphere.
Clinton's morality was not judged in a vacuum; it was judged compared with that of his nemesis, Kenneth Starr, and within the context of what people expect from their politicians and of themselves.
This analysis reveals six different ways of understanding the institution of the presidency, all of which are present and vital in the minds of the public, members of the media, and inhabitants of our national policy-making institutions. While they were analyzed separately here, it seems plausible that they work in combination. Each implies a different way of understanding the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, and each carries with it different sets of ideological and political baggage that entail different sorts of consequences for the president. Understanding these categories also helps us to understand presidential leadership as it is popularly understood.
Given the understanding of the president as a national father figure, the president's critics argued that Clinton's actions amount to a national betrayal. He should be shamed and punished. If the president is the national visionary, his opponents argued, his vision has either been corrupted, and is thus invalidated, or as his supporters saw things, it has been the subject of unfair attacks and has been vindicated. If the president is our national role model, then according to those in favor of his removal, our unwillingness to remove him and our failure to do so is an indication of a lack of morality pervading the polity. If he is the head of our government, then his critics could claim that he has no private life, and his every action is subject to the closest surveillance. On the other hand, as his supporters argued, if all we want is for him to guide our policy, not our national life, then he has a broad spectrum of activities that are appropriately labeled "private," and his "public" life is narrowly defined.
In the post--cold war context of our contemporary politics, a president may no longer need to be a hero. At the very least, some of the urgency behind the national need for presidential heroism has dissipated, for in the absence of pure "evil" or a monstrous international threat, we do not need a president to embody pure "good." Definitions based on the president as an unambiguously moral leader have clearly lost much of their persuasive traction.
It is no coincidence that the debate about the boundary between the president's public and private lives became a debate between his formal role as head of government and as chief policymaker. Impeachment and trial are formal events, which are embedded in national institutions and are conducted through formal, bureaucratic language. All of these elements lead to a tendency to stress the more formal aspects of the presidency, regardless of partisan affiliation or political predilection.
This does not mean, however, that the president's ability and authority to act as our national interpreter has been diminished. Clinton's survival actually indicates that despite the voluminous literature on the decline of the presidency, its power remains impressive. Indeed, it is Clinton's support of the idea of the president as national policymaker ("I just want to get back to work for the American people") that became one of the most more powerful definitions of the current presidential role--witness the importance of policy to the present national campaign. In this sense, Americans may be indicating a certain political maturity, having outgrown the need to treat presidents in idealized terms. Perhaps, as Thomas S. Langston (1995) hopes, we are on the road to recovery in our national dysfunctional relationship with the American presidency and its occupants.
There is, in fact, some evidence of this. Despite all of the grandiose language, and all of the political posturing, all of the discourse about out national identity and our personal honor, the American people remained steadfastly unwilling to see this debate in those terms. They seemed to be resolute in their attachment to the idea that only the president's policy life was relevant and that the media and Beltway insiders were imposing upon us a set of values that were not widely accepted. There are at least several possible explanations for this.
First, it is possible that Americans now see their president in exclusively policy-oriented terms. It is notable, for instance, that citizens were able to defend the president in these terms, citing his support for women and minorities as evidenced by the Family Medical Leave Act, his positions on child care, civil rights, and national health insurance. That people were both able and willing to place the scandal in the context of his overall presidency as viewed from a policy perspective was remarkable. It was, however, also limited. Not every citizen could or did place the scandal in that context, and many more paid attention to only the most pornographic details. It was not the policy implications, for instance, that made both the Starr Report and Lewinsky's memoir overnight best-sellers.
It is also possible that the American people simply perceived the process as unfair and that they were not willing to remove a president over what they considered to be an essentially partisan process marred by an overzealous prosecutor and questionable behavior on the part of other elected officials. This would mean that they agreed with Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD), who referred to Starr's actions regarding Monica Lewinsky as the clearest "demonstration of raw partisanship that I have ever seen" (Sherman and Foskett 1999). There is certainly evidence that there was widespread dissatisfaction with the processes of investigation, impeachment, and trial (CNN 1998; MSNBC 1998; Neuman 1998; USA Today 1998a), but there is little that connects that dissatisfaction with the outcome of that trial.
Third, it is possible that the national reluctance to prosecute Clinton is evidence that Americans have accepted the conservative agenda (Kinsley 1998/1999, 133). The unwillingness to use the power of "big government" in pursuit of what were perceived as essentially private matters may be read as widespread acceptance of limited government and a refusal to permit government intervention into private lives. If this is the case, it is no small irony that just as the liberal tendency to use the judicial system as a lever in the political system may have helped bring about this scandal (Toobin 1999), the conservative position on government would be the cause of the conservative defeat in Clinton's impeachment trial.
A fourth possibility is that we simply no longer expect the president to behave well, that too many presidents have disappointed us too many times, and we have lost our faith in our national political institutions. There is certainly plenty of evidence for apathy, ignorance, and cynicism toward the government. Americans reported being bored and annoyed by the constant coverage of the scandal, but ratings continued to rise. It seems at least possible that the presidency has been reduced to a spectacle of Jerry Springer proportions. It is amusing enough, but there is no need to take it seriously.
Another possibility, and one that directly contradicts the previous one, is that the outcome of "Monicagate" is a testament to the strength of our national institutions. As Nancy Gibbs (1999) of Time concluded,
A public content to ignore its government can take heart that its institutions are sturdy and forgiving: the presidency forgave a reckless President, the Congress survived a bout of cannibalism, the Constitution warded off anyone who tried to ransack it for any reason.... It turns out the Constitution wasn't built for speed. It was built to last. (P. 34)
The next presidential election will provide interesting evidence for or against these two conflicting possibilities, for in the arguments that define the election, there also will be arguments that define the presidency.
A final possibility is that the public has, in the last several decades, developed a nuanced understanding of presidential roles and is able to apply different criteria to different situations. This would imply that they understand that the president is our national father but that fatherhood is fraught with peril and that fathers are flawed. It would imply that the president's vision is not always focused and that he sees some things more clearly than others. It would imply that while the president defines us, his definitions are based on more than his actions. It would imply that Americans are still able to recognize evil but that they did not see it in this president. And it would imply that when the country is moving in a direction most Americans are comfortable with, they are not willing to punish the person putatively in charge.
This would also imply that Americans are far more thoughtful and far more cognizant of the presidency than any of the evidence would indicate. More likely than any one of these explanations is that all of them play some role in how we understand the presidency and this president. This probability, in turn, indicates that in visceral reactions to this president, there is much that is revealed about the presidency.
This research opens up an array of possibilities for academic endeavor, including comparative research on other scandals and the public, governmental, and media responses to them. Contrasting the categories generated here to those generated by responses to presidential war making, crises, elections, and other situations would also prove useful. Quantitative research into the public reactions and commitment to these various definitions would also add depth to our understanding of the various presidential roles and how they operate together and apart. Through such research, we can learn a great deal about the national understandings of the ambiguities of the office and how they have developed and changed over time.
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Mary E. Stuckey is an associate professor of communication and political science at Georgia State University. Her books include The President as Interpreter-in-Chief and Strategic Failures in the Modern Presidency.
Shannon Wabshall is a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Mississippi.
AUTHORS' NOTE: The authors thank Greg Annunziato for his help in gathering data and George Edwards and the anonymous reviewers for their help in improving the article.
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|Author:||STUCKEY, MARY E.; WABSHALL, SHANNON|
|Publication:||Presidential Studies Quarterly|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2000|
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