More Than Character Matters

by Nina Mcadoo | 5/11/94 5:00am

In his column in The New York Times a couple of weeks ago,Russell Baker summed up quite well how the press of late has been reluctant to seize upon real issues and instead has indulged in feeding frenzies on whatever the trash of the day happens to be.

Particularly in the case of the Clintons, he contended in "The Politics of Hate," the attacks have been quite vituperative and very often below the belt, both literally and figuratively.

Bill Clinton's sexual life should not be a matter of public discourse; nor should any President's, for that matter.

At any rate, plenty of presidents have indulged in extramarital affairs, including none other than Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whom many have deemed a great president. John F. Kennedy, too, was known to have trouble keeping his fly zipped. Even George Bush was rumored to have had an affair.

But if it does not affect how a president does his job, why should the public have to know? If Bill and Hillary Clinton have reached a reconciliation about whatever marital troubles they may have had, who is the press to open old wounds?

Sexual impropriety and marital infidelity are serious charges, of course -- no one is suggesting we should take them lightly. But presidents, like all of us, tend to have very messy personal lives. This doesn't necessarily mean that we should document them in the daily paper, nor should we assume that indiscretions render them incompetent and unfit for office.

It is striking that the moment we scrutinize a president for personal and psychological flaws is the same historical moment we are burying Richard Nixon. It is very ironic that Clinton, of all people, someone who vehemently opposed the Vietnam War, took part in the revisionist history which reared its ugly head in the wake of Nixon's death.

After all, isn't Nixon the man to whom we owe the tarnished presidency? He is the very man after whom the "Imperial Presidency" was named, who helped contribute to the warped dynamic that characterizes the coverage of the presidency today.

On the one hand, the media takes part in the rampant cynicism prevalent among the American public and combs each president for scandalous dirt. On the other, it is all too easily molded by "great manipulators" like Ronald Reagan, who are fortunate enough to run a tight White House (at least in terms of keeping the President in public favor), and make the American public feel good about itself.

This contrast shows in the prominent reporting of Whitewater, which pales in comparison to the Iran-Contra affair, in terms of both money and national security.

In this scenario, people like Clinton inevitably lose.

Clinton apparently has a number of personal skeletons in his closet; he didn't pick the best White House team in terms of withstanding the daily scrutiny of the White House Press Corps; and he has brought up a lot of big issues which recent presidents have felt content to gloss over oh-so-lightly.

Namely, the Clinton Administration has forced us to confront such issues as gays in the military, the economic role of America in the post-Cold War world -- namely, NAFTA -- welfare and last but not least, health care. The media, and arguably, the American public, have been putting off these issues for too long, in favor of such things as financial and sexual scandals.

It is about time the press, prominent commentators and the like lay off the personal Clinton, and talk about the professional Clinton. If they are so distressed by the direction in which he is trying to take this country, let them try to offer some alternatives instead of a flat-out "no" to anything he or the First Lady does.

If the American public cannot begin to deal with real issues, it will only spell disaster for the U.S. role in a complex world in the wake of the Cold War. Some may say "character matters," especially when it comes to the president. Perhaps this is true, but let's not allow questions of "character" to get in the way of solving America's more concrete and pressing problems.