Sex, Lies, and a President's Leadership

Doug McManaman
October, 2002
Reproduced with Permission

"What Bill Clinton does in his own private life is his business. He's still a good president, despite his sexual adventures." These words, or words to that effect, were at the heart of liberal apologetics, employed in defense of the former president at the time of the Lewinsky/Clinton scandal in 1998. Such sentiments were widespread at the time, and they say a great deal about our understanding of what constitutes the essence of political leadership. Interestingly enough, though, this very line has become part of the adolescent storehouse of ready-made lines that many young people today quickly retrieve and trumpet whenever the subject is brought up for discussion. Such a line on their lips is testimony to just how far a leader's influence can spread -- for this line of defense has spread not only to another country, but to a younger generation.

There is no doubt that Bill Clinton is a very intelligent human being. My students, though, universally agree that intelligence and bad moral character can exist in one and the same person. It is indeed possible for a person to be a brilliant computer programer, but a morally bad person. For the same reason, a person can be a skilled shoemaker, but morally corrupt. The same goes for the carpenter, the film producer, the mechanic, and the interior designer, to name a few.

Shoemakers and computer programmers, as far as I know, are not required to have police background checks before they are hired. But teachers do require a criminal records check before they are hired. The reason for this is that there are some areas where the separation between the quality of one's work and the quality of one's character is simply not feasible. How many parents would be comfortable with the argument that a person carrying on a sexual relationship with her students can at the same time be a good teacher? Indeed, it is possible for a person to be an effective teacher in so far as she is able to communicate ideas well and effectively employ the latest methods in pedagogy. But what parent would argue that it does not matter what happens in the teacher's personal life, as long as she can teach children how to read, write, add and subtract? To parents, it matters a great deal, and rightly so.

The difference between computer programing and teaching is that teaching is a leadership position; computer programing is not. And so the difference between being a good teacher and being a good computer programmer is that a good teacher is necessarily a good leader, whereas a good computer programer is not necessarily so. He might very well be a leader in his community, but as computer programer, he is not a leader. A shoemaker, as shoemaker, is not a leader. A mechanic, as mechanic, is not a leader. But to teach children is to lead them. A teacher, as teacher, is a leader.

Leadership is more than a function, while repairing automobiles is primarily a function. Teaching is much more than writing on the board, assigning homework, and marking tests. Every parent would agree with this, because leadership is much more than a job to be done, and parents readily understand this, at least implicitly. A leader is a person others look up to, a person that others look to follow after, a person we pattern our lives against. He or she is a source of inspiration and a source of emulation. We don't imitate moral principles, rather, we imitate persons who live and embody those principles.

Were we to learn that a local principal or teacher was involved in tax fraud or running a prostitution ring, few of us, if any, would step forward to defend his job by arguing that despite his dishonesty or exploitation of women, he or she can still be a good principal, or good teacher. Such a person is not a leader, but a deceiver. A principal, for example, is more than a person who puts together schedules, runs staff meetings, makes occasional announcements over the P.A., and speaks at assemblies. He is a leader, and like a teacher, he leads by word and example, not by word alone. When example does not match up with our words, we are quickly dismissed as frauds, hypocrites, that is, persons unworthy of emulation.

Hence, the moral life of a leader is relevant, which is why the moral life of a teacher or principal is relevant to the parents of the children entrusted to them. I know of a teacher who "shushed" his students as they were about to inform the cashier that he had undercharged him for a box of expensive golf balls that he was in the process of buying. The students who witnessed this learned a lesson for life, a lesson not about integrity and honesty. It was a lesson that every parent hopes his or her children will be spared. But these young men were not spared, and neither were the young people of the Western world who in 1998 were old enough to understand who Bill Clinton was and what he stood for.

If teaching is much more than a function, and if a teacher is thus a leader, how much more so a President or a Prime Minister of a country? How much more so the President of the most powerful nation on earth? A President is preeminently a leader. As such, he or she is someone we look towards as a source of inspiration, a source of emulation; for the entire nation is entrusted to his care. Because of this it is his or her grave responsibility to embody the highest moral standards. A good president is much more than someone who raises or lowers taxes and creates jobs. The eyes of all citizens are focused on him like they are focused on no one else. What we saw in Bill Clinton was an intelligent man, but not a wise man, much less a good man. We saw a president who engaged in a number of adulterous relationships, one of which was with a young girl old enough to be his daughter, and whom, on one occasion, he used in order to satisfy his venereal perversities by inserting a cigar into her vagina, and who under oath lied to the nation about the entire sexual ordeal (but later admitted to it), thus perjuring himself, a criminal offense which eventually got him disbarred by the Supreme Court of the United States. Every young person in the United States and Canada, not to mention the rest of the world, witnessed this perjury and learned of the details of his behaviour, which was defended by the Left with a line of defense that reduces leadership to a function. If anyone thinks that such witness will not adversely affect the future of our countries in ways we cannot begin to measure, he or she has a great deal to learn about the origins of learned behavior. Most young people have fully appropriated the Clinton defense. How can anyone think for even a moment that his actual behaviour will be without influence?

Justitia est ad alterum (Justice is directed toward the other man)

Man is a social animal, not an isolated entity. There is really no such thing as a private person. Man is a moral agent, and every moral choice he makes has a bearing on others. There is no part of him that is private. This does not mean that we cannot enjoy our privacy. It means that our moral choices always extend their influence beyond our individual selves.

Besides justice, all other virtues perfect the human person in those matters which are fitting to him in relation to himself. But it belongs to justice to direct man in his relations with others (Cf. ST II. Q. 57, a.1). Justice is the habit whereby a person renders to each one his due with constant and perpetual will (ST II II. Q. 58, a.1). Sexual behavior is never a purely individual affair, because it directly involves another person. Sexual behavior is therefore a matter of justice. For it involves other persons who have fundamental rights that demand to be observed, one of which is the right not to be used sexually as a means to an end. And so it is possible to be unjust sexually.

Adultery, for instance, is a violation of justice. It is a crime against marriage, and marriage is not a private affair, but a public affair. For the family is the fundamental unit of society. It has often been compared to the cell of a living organism. Unhealthy cells do not constitute a healthy body. That is why societies make laws regulating marriage. This is fitting because what happens in marriage directly affects society as a whole, just as what happens on the cellular level affects the health of the entire person. Adultery is an injustice to one's spouse and to one's children, and thus it is an injustice to the civil community as a whole. If adultery hurts families, it hurts the civil community. Divorce breaks hearts, and it costs tax payers billions of dollars. Clinton was a president who role modeled marital infidelity. As the leader of a country, the harm his infidelity caused was more widespread than the infidelity of any other adulterer in the country.

Fornication or pre-marital sex is also a violation of justice. It is the sexual use of another human being to whom one is not married. It is a failure of love not only with respect to the person with whom one is having sex, but it also fails to establish the context in which children, who may be generated as a result of the sexual act, have a right to be conceived, born, and reared. In this way fornication involves a disregard for the common good. Those who treat sex as an entirely private affair between two consenting adults tend to change their minds when children are unintentionally conceived and social assistance is required. Suddenly the consequences of their "private" behaviour have become a public affair.

But love does not use another, but loves the other for his or her own sake. Now, without getting into the complexities of sexual ethics, I think we can all agree that Monica Lewinski was not loved for her own sake, but merely for the sake of what she could provide the former president. He didn't love her. He used her. And no one seems to dispute this, not even the president himself. But to use another human being is to abuse another human being. No one likes to discover that he was used. Justice demands that we treat others the way we would like to be treated. It demands that we treat others in a way that respects their status as equal in dignity to ourselves. To treat someone as a means to an end, while treating oneself as an end, is to violate this requirement of justice.

Perjury, that is, lying under oath, is also a violation of justice.

Perjury is the crime of taking a false oath (q.v.). To the guilt of the sin of lying it adds an infraction of the virtue of religion. An oath properly taken is an act of worship because it implies that God as witness to the truth is omniscient and infallible. Hence the wickedness of invoking the Divine testimony to confirm an untruth is specially criminal (Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. "perjury").

Human beings have a right to the truth, and so we have a natural obligation to tell the truth, especially in a court of law, which is ordered towards restoring the order of justice. But one cannot restore justice without the truth, and if all of us have a right to justice, all of us have a right to be told the truth, especially in the context of the judicial system. To lie under oath is to commit a crime against the civil community, an act that undermines the common good.

President Clinton might be an intelligent man, but he was not a just man. It is because of this last point that I will argue that Clinton was not a good leader. And since a president is a leader, and since one cannot be a good president if one is not a good leader, William Jefferson Clinton was not a good president. It would have been better if an entire generation of young people had not been watching him and learning from his example.