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When private lives happen to public people.

The nation is wasting an inordinate amount of time, money, and energy on Monicagate and other alleged dalliances. Concerned that Americans are being distracted from the real business of politics, culture columnist Patrick McCormick says people might learn a thing or two from recent shifts in the church's understanding of sin.

I had a nightmare the other night that Bill Clinton was on the Jerry Springer show. He had been invited there to speak about peace in Northern Ireland and the Middle East, education reform, and his initiative on race, but he found himself sandbagged when Springer revealed that Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky, and Kathleen Willey would be joining Clinton for an episode titled "All the President's Women." As a result, Clinton spent the next hour answering accusations and dodging punches thrown by an increasingly hostile audience. There were call-in questions from Ken Starr, Hillary, and Chelsea, and the show ended with a tearfully repentant Clinton accompanying Willie Nelson and Julio Iglesias in a melancholy rendition of "To All the Girls I've Loved Before." It looked like an awful experience for the president. It felt a lot worse to me.

Back in the real world the next morning I noticed at the supermarket checkout counter that Clinton and his entourage were plastered on the covers of all the tabloids; their exploits, accusations, and denials replacing the normal diet of Liz Taylor news, Elvis sightings, and Martian babies. I bought a roll of antacids and a bottle of aspirin. Channel surfing that evening I was pelted by stories about rumored White House imbroglios on Larry King Live, Hard Copy, Geraldo Live!, Inside Edition, and Extra!

Unfortunately there wasn't much relief on any of the network news shows. In their own ponderous ways Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, and Peter Jennings were just as obsessed with this "he said-she said" story. I took some more aspirin and went to bed early wishing we still had O.J. to kick around.

Character counts

Independent Counsel Ken Starr and his backers argue that "we the people" need to care about this story because Clinton's "character" is a matter of political importance. So too the folks in the networks' news rooms seem to believe they are providing a real public service in covering this sordid tale, fulfilling their duties as tough investigative reporters, and defending our constitutional "right" to know what goes on in the various bedrooms (or pantries) of the White House. Where, I wonder, was this free and feisty press during Desert Storm or the invasion of Panama?

Maybe they're right, maybe not, but I suspect that the real truth behind all this concern about Clinton's supposed sexual dalliances is that if there is anything in life more interesting than other people's sex lives, it is the sex lives of celebrities. No matter what Starr and the defenders of a free press argue, the tales of Flowers, Jones, Lewinsky, and Willey (appearing soon, no doubt, in a major motion picture starring Meryl Streep, Sharon Stone, Alicia Silverstone, and Meg Ryan) are getting top billing because they are salacious gossip, and because they sell lots of copy--hard or otherwise.

It's not that we don't need to have public conversations about the character of our leaders and public servants. We certainly do, though perhaps not as much as we need to have sustained conversations about their policies and platforms. (Wasn't it more of a scandal when Candidate Bob Dole argued in 1996 that the contents of the Republican platform really weren't that important?) A well-ordered democracy requires reasonably honorable and competent men and women in the public life--to accept less leads to chaos, to expect more sets us up for demagogues. Character does count.

Junk news

The trouble, however, is that these "public" conversations about character and politics are taking place in the "private" entertainment sector of commercial journalism, where newspapers and networks compete for audience shares and profits by trying to make their product more attractive and "consumer-friendly." As a result, we usually end up reading or talking about whatever publishers or producers think will sell a lot of copies or advertising. And the result, as anyone who has witnessed the tabloidization of the news over the past two decades can tell you, is that it's not just "junk news" shows that are increasingly filled with scandal, gossip, and fluff.

As the major networks and news magazines have been forced into an increasingly competitive market, their stories have gotten shorter, sillier, and sexier. At least in part we're spending more time talking about sex because media owners know that will increase their profits.

So when it's suggested that these tales of sexual scandals are all about character, that may well be true, but they may not be so much about Clinton's character as about the character of our national conversations, our free press, or even our democracy. After all, what would you say about a society spending this much ink and effort on the sexual adventures of its celebrities?

What does it say about us when so much of our public conversation is about the private, confessional concerns of other people? Even more, what are we to make of a White House press corps and political pundits who seem so shocked and angered by the sexual indiscretions of our politicians? Or amazed that someone would lie about such actions? Do Americans really have the puritanical expectation that those elected to public office will be more immune to sexual temptations than the rest of us?

It is one thing to think that such actions are wrong and to hope our public figures won't scandalize us by their behavior. It is quite another to believe these things never take place, that the Clintons really are the Cleavers, or that their sexual troubles are the biggest news in town.

Driven to distraction

If, as some have argued, these stories are of any real political importance, it is probably because they are displacing other stories we ought and need to be talking about. Every column or report on Monicagate represents a choice to postpone or cancel a conversation about welfare reform, the global environment, or race relations. We like gossip because it's entertaining, but that usually means it's also distracting.

We go to see sexy movies about the presidency like Wag the Dog, Primary Colors, and The American President because we want to escape from the humdrum and difficulties of our day-to-day lives. Fair enough, but that's not supposed to be the function of the evening news.

Part of the problem with all this fascination with sex in the White House is a failure to distinguish between the public and private realms of our lives. Generally, it seems to me, the sexual conduct of people is part of their private lives, and when we forget this and treat the sexual indiscretions or dalliances of our political figures and public servants as if they were concerns of the state it harms us in a couple of ways.

To begin with, if Bill Clinton has no right to privacy, then neither do any of the rest of us, and just how many among us have no personal or family secrets to keep from Larry King or the folks at 60 Minutes? How many of us could throw that first stone with impunity? Also, allowing chastity to become a character issue in politics could well turn election campaigns into even more puritanical--and hypocritical--mudslinging sideshows, and could scare off lots of valuable talent. Thomas Jefferson and Franklin D. Roosevelt may not have been saints, but both were great presidents.

Since sexual stories are so much juicier and more fascinating than speeches about programs and policies, they can all too easily distract us from the real business of politics, the business of making hard decisions about complex policies that will affect the lives of millions of people. You will always draw a bigger crowd talking about the president's libido than you would addressing environmental or educational issues, but these latter questions are actually the business of state, while the former is watercooler conversation.

Abuse of power

Yet this doesn't mean there are no important sexual stories, or that we don't ever need to be concerned about the sexual behavior of our public officials. In the last few years there have been a number of important stories having to do with the sexual conduct or misconduct of political figures and public servants. Tales about sexual harassment or abuse by former Sen. Robert Packwood or former Army Sgt. Maj. Gene McKinney needed to be brought out into the open, thoroughly investigated, and summarily dealt with. Likewise, reports of sexual harassment or rape by drill instructors at Ft. Leonard Wood and Aberdeen, Maryland, as well as the Navy's Tailhook scandal, are a legitimate and urgent public concern.

These cases, involving sexual predators abusing positions of trust, are a matter of public concern for a couple of reasons. First, the right to some privacy in our lives does not entitle us to abuse others with impunity, and we ought not to keep or honor secrets that allow abusers to continue to violate their victims. Blowing the whistle on a predator is the right thing to do.

Second, sexual predators are not engaged in "indiscretions" or "dalliances." Whether it's harassment, rape, or sexual abuse it is not about romance, but about the unjust exercise of power. As such it is fundamentally a political and civil question.

Third, public officials have been granted a position of authority so that they might help the engines of a democratic society run more smoothly. When they violate that trust by abusing their employees, constituents, or those persons entrusted to their care or governance, they are undermining the very nature of public authority. If a senator or soldier has a drinking or gambling problem, if they do not live up to our public standards of personal morality, that is one thing. But if they abuse the very authority needed to make public service effective, it is no longer a private matter. It is a violation of the common good authority is meant to serve.

Follow the church's lead

Admittedly the line between cases of indiscretion and abuse is not always crystal clear, and it may well be that we will need to continue to educate ourselves, our press, and our public servants on this distinction. After all, Sen. Packwood seemed to think he was innocent of any real injustice, and clearly some of the furor surrounding the Paula Jones case results from the fact that our understanding of exactly what constitutes harassment is still not firm. Nonetheless, it does seem that we do generally know the difference between sins like adultery and crimes like harassment and rape--even if we continue to need fine-tuning of this knowledge. It also seems that we need to remember this distinction and use it as a guide in making judgments about the relevance of sexual conduct by public officials.

In particular, I would suggest that in the area of sexual indiscretions by public figures we would be better off adopting a "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Such a policy would not keep us (or prosecutors or the press) from looking into charges of harassment, abuse, or rape, but it would prevent us from placing persons like former Air Force Lt. Kelly Flinn or President Clinton in positions where they might feel forced to lie to protect their privacy or good name. It would also keep us from asking possible candidates for the Joint Chiefs of Staff (like former Air Force General Joseph Ralston) about any extramarital affairs they may have had, or reporting on any racy videos Supreme Court justice nominees (like Robert Bork) may have rented at the local video outlet. That is surely information we don't need to have.

One of the great changes in Catholic morality after Vatican II was a shift in our understanding of sin. Before the council, the great majority of our conversations about sin focused on matters of personal--usually sexual--morality. The old manuals of moral theology paid disproportionate attention to our private sexual lives, as did far too many priests and penitents in the confessional box. Indeed, one 20th-century pontiff even argued that there was no such thing as a "venial" sexual sin. Still, in the past three decades Catholic moral thinking has moved a good distance away from this fixation and given increasing attention to questions of social justice, addressing issues like global poverty, racism, and the dangers of militarization.

Looking at this recent furor about Clinton's sexual affairs, I can't help but believe that we would do well to follow the church's lead in this matter, spending much more of our public debate criticizing our politicians' stance on welfare, education, and the environment, and a lot less talking about the sorts of things we could read about in the tabloids.

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By Patrick McCormick, an assistant professor of ethics at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Claretian Publications
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Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:salacious media coverage of Bill Clinton
Author:McCormick, Patrick
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Jul 1, 1998
Words:2254
Previous Article:Questioning Mark.
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