The Party of Standards

Last week, it could almost have been the ’90’s all over again. There he was — President Clinton discussing once again what he did and didn’t do with Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office, how he felt afterwards, what his wife said to him, on and on ad nauseam. But that wasn’t all. The whiff of a new sexual scandal was in the air, as it was reported that Jack Ryan, Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Illinois, had taken his ex-wife to sex clubs during their marriage, and purportedly urged her to engage in various acts with him there. Not much remains to be discussed about the whole sordid Clinton-Lewinsky, Clinton-Flowers, Clinton-Jones, Clinton-Willey, Clinton-Broaddrick saga. Heaven knows that we are as tired of it as Ken Starr must have been (recall that he didn’t even want to investigate the Lewinsky matter, having attempted to turn it over to another independent counsel — a request that Janet Reno refused). Nor is there much to say about the now-defunct campaign of a seemingly promising candidate from Illinois with an alleged personal taste for exhibitionism. No, the most illuminating part of juxtaposing the Democratic sex scandals of Bill Clinton with the Republican one of Jack Ryan is the contrasting reactions of the politicians’ partisans. Clinton had an excellent week. Once again he was lionized, idolized and admired by Democrats and the mainstream press alike — beginning with Dan Rather on Sunday, ending with Larry King on Friday, with a stop in at Oprah on Tuesday. Challenges to the former president’s assertions, and even pointed questioning about some of the statements in his autobiography, were virtually nonexistent. Crowds formed to purchase the book, perhaps more as an expression of personal solidarity with Clinton than from a burning desire to devour all 957 pages of the voluminous tome. And with his wife and daughter, Clinton arrived in a blaze of celebrity to preside over a glitzy Manhattan party attended by the left-of-center glitterati. Jack Ryan’s week was infinitely less pleasant. Even as he reeled from the disclosures about his personal sexual proclivities, former Illinois governor Jim Edgar and state Republican Party chairman Judy Baar Topinka were letting it be known that they had been deceived by him. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, likewise from Illinois, cancelled the D.C. fundraiser that he had planned for Ryan. Despite Ryan’s initial determination to stay in the race, by week’s end, it was over. And when the news of Ryan’s departure was announced, Dennis Hastert forthrightly stated, “Jack Ryan made the right decision.” What a stark contrast to the Democrats’ reaction when Bill Clinton’s perjury about his sexual escapades led to his impeachment! Democrats organized a post-impeachment rally for Clinton on the White House lawn, where Vice President Al Gore opined that Clinton would “go down in the history books as one of our greatest presidents.” Virtually every Democrat, with the exception of Joe Lieberman, minimized and excused Clinton’s conduct, reserving their real wrath for the Republicans who objected to it. This despite the fact that Clinton not only had been orally serviced by an intern in the Oval Office (at least once while on the phone with a congressman discussing foreign policy), but had lied, first under oath, and then to his entire Cabinet and the nation about it. That history certainly places Jack Ryan’s alleged interest in public sex with his then-wife in context. If Republicans had wanted to wage a defense of Ryan, there were grounds upon which to do so. He was, after all, not engaging in any extramarital affair; he and his ex-wife had wanted this damaging information to remain sealed for the sake of their son; and the entire matter was revealed only as a result of the insistent efforts of the Chicago media to gain access to the material in a private divorce file about activities that occurred well before Ryan was in public life. But Republicans were right to insist that Ryan step down, even though it means that they are effectively conceding the race for the U.S. Senate seat. They were right to be embarrassed when it was revealed that Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich had been having an affair with an Agriculture Committee staffer (whom he later married), or when Speaker-designate Bob Livingstone admitted to extramarital affairs before resigning from the House of Representatives. And they were right to ask Bill Clinton to resign back in 1998. The reason is simple. It’s not too much to ask that our elected officials — whom we pay with our tax dollars, and whom we trust to have the prudence and good judgment to make wise decisions on our behalf — have clear moral standards that will guide their personal, as well as professional, behavior. Nor is it too much to expect that those standards will be the fairly traditional, monogamous ones to which millions of normal, hardworking Americans adhere, through an informal social consensus derived from our common religious heritage. After all, our rulers are not overlords. The Founding Fathers didn’t create a system with a ruling class free to set and then live by its own elite rules, brazenly resorting to deceit when they disregard community standards. They envisioned our leaders as ordinary men and women who would reflect the views and morals of the citizenry they represented. And living by these standards is just part of what public officials give in exchange for the power and prestige that their public offices offer them. While Americans are entitled to privacy in the conduct of their sexual lives, the same politicians who voluntarily surrender a large measure of privacy in their financial affairs and personal lives likewise must recognize that their sexual secrets may become part of the record upon which voters judge them. In the Clinton era and thereafter, Democrats have seemed to greet the news of Republican sex scandals with glee. Apparently, they believe that it constitutes hypocrisy for Republicans to hold any views on proper sexual behavior while any Republicans exist who flout these standards. But it’s worth remembering the maxim of French philosopher Francois de la Rouchefoucauld: “Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.” No, the Republican Party isn’t perfect, and its members don’t always live up to the highest standards of conduct. But at least they recognize that there are — or should be –standards of conduct that are worthy of aspiration. And that’s just one more reason that, despite its manifold shortcomings, the Republican Party is not only “old” — it’s “grand,” too.