I had just ventured into the Caribbean with ninety Crisis readers when the Clinton sex scandal hit the headlines. Even at a far distance, it was clear that the story was steering the media discussion into vulgar waters. I hoped my nine year old daughter would avoid hearing about Oval Office assignations, stained dresses, and the like. But, upon my return, I had barely set down my bags when Hannah asked me if I had heard about the “sex between the president and his secretary.”
Our culture has robbed our children of their childhood, and all the impeachment proceedings in the world will not return their innocence. One thing that a happy childhood requires is confidence in the trustworthiness of adults. I can’t recall a time when I thought my mother and father, my pastor, my teacher, and my president wouldn’t be able to fulfill their grown-up responsibilities to myself, my Church, my class, or my country.
A recent survey of college freshmen traces their growing indifference to classwork to the fact that nearly 50% of them come from broken families. College-age students who experience their parents’ failure to keep their most important promises are hardly going to trust the adults who control the first place they reside after leaving home—the college campus. Why should they listen to the “wisdom” of a generation that brought them unprecedented rates of abortion, divorce, and illegitimacy?
My daughter did not hear the news from the television but from her fellow third graders at our parish school. I treaded as lightly as I could, asking what she thought about the story. She, thankfully, has only the vaguest ideas about sex. Hannah then asked a question that startled me: “What does sex have to do with his being president?” Already her nine year old mind is infected by that pernicious distinction, popularized decades ago by Governor Mario Cuomo, between private sexual behavior and public leadership. Little did I know that the playground has already become a breeding ground for cynicism and bad politics.
In my daughter’s reaction, I was facing the head and tail of the moral breakdown we are presently witnessing in such stark detail. Culture, it must be agreed, is like the air we breathe. Because it pervades our senses, there is no way of avoiding its influence. No matter how you close the windows and doors of your home to media, its messages will seep in. The polluted air has reached my daughter’s playground— deep inside of her the seeds of distrust toward adult authority had been sown. Who knows how deeply they will take root? And simultaneously she is being imbued with the lie that a person’s private conduct makes no difference to the execution of their public responsibilities. It’s this lie, alive in our culture of death, that has shaped the character of Bill Clinton and encouraged the moral softness in all of us.
The downfall of Bill Clinton’s presidency cumulatively reflects all the breakdowns in leadership—in families, schools, churches—over the past fifty years, the years of his life. He is undoubtedly the president cast in the dominant cultural mode, and for that, he deserves both our prayers and our sympathy.
Rather than being an occasion for partisan rejoicing, this scandal should be our definitive wake-up call, a moment for national repentance. For the president to move beyond his denials would be a great opportunity for spiritual renewal of the nation: It could mark the end of an era already neck deep, and nearly drowning, in betrayal. Where the president leads, many would undoubted follow. Is it too much to imagine a repentant Bill Clinton at the head of some future Promise Keepers rally?
But the president received no encouragement in this direction, as far as we know. In fact, on the Sunday after the scandal broke, the Clintons attended a Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., where they heard the pastor intone a message of love and forgiveness based upon 1 Corinthians 13. The pastor offered forgiveness in advance of any admission of sin. The first couple reported feeling “comforted.” Comfort confirms the status quo, it helps to set character in concrete. One can only guess at St. Paul’s reaction to his ecomium to love being use as a spiritual analgesic.
Cheap comfort, shorn of admission of sin and repentance of wrongdoing, only exacerbates the drift toward cynicism that has marked American public life in the past three decades. Much has been made of the apathy of youth in our nation. We can expect little more of them, however, when our highest office holders use their privilege as a means for exploitation, making our playgrounds buzz with vulgar talk of infidelity.