Clinton's Teflon Coat

By Hao-Nhien Q. Vu

Clinton has Nixon to thank. The way for Clinton to survive his various sex scandals (not to mention the little white lies he told along the way) was cleared by Richard Nixon.

Clinton survived the same way Nixon was revived. The once-disgraced president centered his successful campaign for rehabilitation on one single fact -- that he did his job as President. Clinton survived because the American people has been convinced that a President should only be judged by how he did his job.

It is also a sign of the time--that the American people no longer looks upon the President as a trusted leader, but merely a manager of discrete issues. We are no longer electing the President of the nation, leader of the free world. We're electing the chief executive officer of the U.S. economy.

It wasn't always this way. As recently as just one Presidency ago, John Tower lost a nomination for Secretary of Defense because he was alleged to drink too much. His nomination was not saved by saying that he could still do his job.

Now, a President who looked straight at the camera to falsely deny his extramarital affair is receiving the highest job approval rating in his life. Truthfulness just doesn't seem to be an issue anymore. Superman would have been laughed right out of Metropolis with his line, "If I can't trust the President of the United States, who can I trust?"

James Carville was the first to recognize this new reality. During the 1992 campaign, while George Bush and his staff kept pushing the incumbent President's honesty and leadership qualities, James Carville pointed out that the only thing that mattered was how a President did his job. "It's the economy, stupid!" went the slogan.

Who needs leadership, when we've got an economy to run?

Indeed, there is no analogy more apt than to the business world. A male CEO can cheat on his wife daily, and the shareholders will ignore his sins, as long as he is doing his job and preserving shareholder values. And, unless he is sexually harassing someone under his command, employees, customers, vendors, and everyone else will ignore his sins too. Even if he were looking at the security analysts straight in the eyes and falsely deny his affairs, and they knew it, he would still be forgiven.

That is how the debate over the Clintonian dalliances has been.

And the way was cleared by Nixon. Oh, so what if he secretly taped all his conversations? Didn't he go to China, control the arms race, and get the U.S. out of Vietnam? So what if he has the morals of a street gangster, he was damn smart with foreign policy! And let's not forget that he created the Environmental Protection Agency and signed the Clean Water Act into law! And isn't it true that he hired the best Cabinet and sub-Cabinet members who grew into top policy-makers under Presidents Reagan and Bush?

If you want morality, you get Carter. If you want integrity, you may get stuck with Dole. But, if you want the job done, by golly, you would want Nixon and Clinton.

Now what's wrong with that? If you are of a libertarian bent and think that the government should stay out of moral issues, you may think that it's perfectly fine to have a president with no moral character but who does his job.

Not so. Even if the government were to stay out of an individual's moral choices, and even though most things the government does is amoral, many other things that the government does are supposed to reflect what is supposed to be our common moral grounds. Anti-discrimination laws reflect our common judgment that discrimination is wrong. To go back even further, the Thirteenth Amendment was passed because we, as a nation, thought that slavery was wrong.

To be more precise, President Lincoln was able to sign the Emancipation Proclamation and get the Thirteenth Amendment passed, because he was able to convince the nation that those laws were morally necessary, that even though half of the country didn't think so, slavery really was wrong. And the people believed him, because of the strength of his arguments certainly, but also because of his moral standing. When a moral man tells you that something is the right thing, you are more likely to vote for it, than if Nixon or Clinton tells you.

And that's the problem in a nutshell. Clinton has been unable to lead this nation on the moral front. His race relations initiatives fell through because his leadership won't stick. It is easy to say that discrimination is wrong -- anyone can say that. But the real race issues of the day require moral judgment. Affirmative action (or reverse discrimination) is one such issue. So is public education for children of illegal aliens. And this President is in no position to provide guidance.

Contrary to popular assertions, therefore, Clinton's personal moral lapses have hurt the governance of our country. That is unfortunate. But it is also a natural consequence of the resurrection of Richard M. Nixon. We want a President who can do the job, and we get one who cannot do anything else right except his job. It certainly is ironic that James Carville himself thinks that the President is not really running the economy, but the bond market is.