2/20/2001 12:00:00 AM - Mona Charen
"Two senators announced bipartisan legislation Tuesday designed to build schoolchildren's character by teaching them about respect and responsibility." -- Associated Press.
"Controversy Casts Shadow on Clinton's Party Role; Democrats Squirm at Damage Done in White House exit." -- The Washington Post
Bill Clinton has just made a significant contribution to the nation's moral hygiene by taking his leave of the spotlight. But even the response to his last-minute abuses of power and base criminality (stealing the White House furnishings) suggests how very far we have to go in repairing the damage. Following the Clinton debacle, the United States is, in moral terms, like the USS Cole, limping home.
In this latest episode, as in so many of the scandals that defined the Clinton presidency, the worst part was not so much the crimes and abuses committed by the president and his entire administration -- though they were appalling enough -- but his success in persuading most Americans that this is par for the course.
The Gallup organization asked Americans: "Which comes closer to your view of Bill Clinton's actions in his last week in office, including the pardons he granted and the gifts he took with him. Do you think Clinton's actions were worse than what other presidents have done, or most other presidents have done similar or worse things when leaving office?" Forty-five percent thought Clinton's actions were worse, but 50 percent thought other presidents had done similar or worse things! (Perhaps Dolly Madison was actually intending to take that Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington for herself!)
So it went for the Elian Gonzalez raid, the cash for favors, the bombing of Sudan, the various sex scandals and the rest -- even including a very persuasive allegation of aggressive sexual harassment in the Oval Office (the Willey case) and a credible accusation rape 20 years before. At every turn, the American people seemed to accept the Clinton spin that "everybody does it." On those grounds, or for other reasons, they declined to hold the Clintons accountable.
And yet, majorities of Americans continue to tell pollsters that moral decline is the greatest problem facing the country. Isn't this a bit like complaining that your child is spoiled while at the same time refusing to impose discipline on him?
As bad as Bill Clinton is, he was not a dictator. He could not have achieved re-election or withstood impeachment without the support of the American people. Many made the argument during the Clinton years that presidents are not moral leaders -- but of course, the best ones are. And, in fact, so are the worst -- just in the wrong direction. If the nation had thrown Clinton off like a bad virus in 1998, who can doubt that the message would have been: We deserve better. We are
As it is, we'll now consider ourselves lucky if the next president doesn't walk off with the silver. (Actually, George W. Bush gives every indication of being a highly honorable person, but that's a subject for another column.)
In districts around the nation and in the U.S. congress (see headline above), you find efforts to add "character education" to school curricula. In Mississippi, students are now obliged to address teachers as "sir" or "ma'am." Even in liberal Wisconsin, a measure has been introduced to require that students address teachers as Mr., Miss, Mrs. or Ms.
If you thought such elemental respect was commonplace, you haven't visited a public school recently. Character Counts, a coalition of businesses, educators and entertainers, promotes a character-building program centered on the virtues of trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship.
These efforts, commendable as they are, will amount to little if children continue to see that there is no penalty for falling short of these virtues. If you teach children that "cheaters never prosper," it ought to be true.