Nothing disappointed me more about the Monica Lewinsky story than Bill Clinton’s explanation as to why he did it, confessing to Dan Rather that he committed adultery “because he could.”
I have heard many unfaithful husbands try and finesse their indiscretions. Some complain they weren’t getting sex from their wives. Others offer the tired refrain that their wives didn’t “understand them,” as if having sex with other women would suddenly make their wives understand. Still others complain of having suffered professional setbacks that made them susceptible to the ego gratification offered by the attentions of younger women.
But I have never heard a man state matter-of-factly that he cheated on his wife because he could. Had Clinton said he had cheated because he and Hilary went through a rough patch, or because he found himself intoxicated with the power of the presidency, I would have been sympathetic. Men make mistakes.
Had he even said that he found himself unable to resist the fawning attention of a buxom young woman, I could have been understanding. Men can be frail. But cheating on your wife simply because you could is a deeply frightening admission, even if it deserves credit for honesty, since it is indicative of a total absence of moral restraint.
Indeed, what do the words even mean? Does a man pick up a gun and shoot a stranger “because he can”? Does a woman shoplift a dress just because she won’t get caught? If the police aren’t around, do we all become criminals? When it comes to adultery, isn’t the hope that a man refrains from cheating on his wife, even if he won’t get caught because he either fears God, loves his wife, or simply wants to do the right thing?
Is Bill Clinton saying that none of these were even considered as he slowly slid into the arms of another woman? Is he saying that unlike the rest of us flawed mortals who at least regret our mistakes, he doesn’t even suffer from pangs of conscience?
In the past, I have argued that Clinton should be judged by his public record rather than his private shortcomings. The fact is many leaders of consequence – including FDR and JFK – were not faithful to their wives. When the Lewinsky scandal broke, I even debated Gennifer Flowers on television where I made the point that Clinton’s personal failures were not greatly disappointing to me since I looked toward religious leaders, rather than politicians, for inspiration anyway.
But Clinton’s admission on “60 Minutes” has changed my mind and I now believe that the Lewinsky scandal is an unfortunate window into his troubled conscience.
Bill Clinton is the product of the ’60’s generation, consisting of tens of millions of young people who seemed to believe authentically in love and goodness, but whose intentions did not amount, in the end, to a hill of beans. Virtually all of the great ’60’s initiatives petered out with little or nothing to show for them.
For all the talk about universal love and global peace, most of that generation’s idealism was jettisoned just as soon as they entered the workforce. Even Bill Clinton ended up dismantling the welfare state once he became president, which went against the grain of the socialist idealism of his youth.
Why didn’t any of that idealism last? Because it was rooted in emotions rather than action. It was founded on a bedrock of feelings rather than morality. The ’60’s generation rejected the morals of their parents and created a world of good and bad that accorded with personal sensibilities rather than absolute standards of right and wrong.
They talked about love, but not in the context of marriage or family. Love became free love, a convenient euphemism for sexual indulgence. They decried the “excesses” of the American military in Vietnam, but not the evils of communism. Their poster girl, Jane Fonda, traveled to Hanoi to condemn her own country and, by doing so, became unwittingly complicit in the grotesque human-rights violations of that hideous regime.
But while right and wrong are eternal, emotions are fleeting. The ’60’s generation discovered when they got older that it was more convenient to make money than to save the whales, so they dumped their romanticized view of the world and moved to suburbia. It was left to moralists like Ronald Reagan and other men and women whose idealism was rooted in biblical notions of good and evil to continue fighting the Cold War until its triumphant completion.
And herein lies the tragedy of gifted individuals like Bill Clinton who came of age in the ’60s. Having rejected religious morality, they never internalized the idea of right and wrong and moral restraint. So when a mistress presented herself, they could choose infidelity with an “Ah, what the heck” nihilism, choosing adultery in much the same way that others choose to buy radial tires … “because they can.”
Indeed, throughout his presidency Clinton was identified as the man who felt our pain, thereby perpetuating the ’60’s mentality of emotions being more important than actions. True to form, Clinton did nothing to save the Africans of Rwanda from genocide. But he did later apologize, since he felt bad about having failed to intervene.
How tragic that in the United States today the word “liberal” has become a pejorative which even liberals run from, as did John Kerry when a liberal advocacy group identified him as America’s most liberal senator. Liberals today call themselves “progressives” so as not to be stamped with the mark of Cain.
How sad that liberalism – which once stood for such virtuous goals as global human rights, the dignity of the human person, a woman’s right to vote and protecting children from exploitation – has now been so thoroughly discredited. Liberalism declined because it abandoned time-honored ideals of right and wrong.
It was liberals who ended up ironically siding with the regime of Saddam Hussein by arguing that the world’s foremost tyrant should not be removed from power. Which does not mean that they didn’t “feel” the pain of Iraqis, just that they weren’t prepared to fight for their liberation. It is liberals today who defend the grotesque misogyny of the culture’s sexual exploitation of women as “female empowerment.”
But then, liberals long ago ceased fighting for the dignity of women in the belief that women being used to sell beer in their underwear somehow proves the advance of feminism. And it is liberals who long ago stopped fighting for the rights of children as kids were turned into nothing but a market to whom thongs and condoms could be sold. Indeed, it is conservatives who today fight for all the things that liberals once championed.
I am not – and never will be – a Clinton hater. I was proud that President Bush once again demonstrated his credentials as a gentleman when he praised Bill Clinton last week upon the unveiling of Clinton’s official White House portrait. Rather, my feelings toward Bill Clinton will always be a lamentation on squandered potential.
What if this supremely talented man had been raised in a generation for whom right and wrong dictated the first order of action? Then, instead of giving al-Qaida a pass for so many years because of his generation’s essential discomfort with militarism, he would have sent troops to defeat the Taliban as they beat women with whips in the street. And instead of pursuing illusory pleasures in an illicit relationship with a woman who was not worthy of him, he would have sought those same pleasures with the extremely able woman who is his wife.