Before choosing its notorious "All the News That's Fit to Print," The New York Times had as its slogan, "It does not soil the breakfast cloth." That's because lots of late 19th-century newspapers soiled away with tales of vice.
Like many of you, I have mixed feelings about George W. Bush's performance in office, but let us now praise what's now being taken for granted: He has not soiled the Oval Office as his predecessor did—and that comes to mind because it's almost 10 years since Bill Clinton's admission on Aug. 17, 1998, that he had an "inappropriate" relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
Clinton was the most literal presidential soiler, but not the only one—and that's important because adultery is generally a leading indicator of faithlessness to the nation. Throughout the 20th century small betrayals in marriage generally led to larger betrayals, and leaders who broke a large vow to one person found it easy to break relatively small vows to millions.
Take Woodrow Wilson, please. He covered up so well his affair with a paid-off Mary Hulbert Peck that he was elected governor of New Jersey in 1910 and president in 1912, both times running as a candidate of private and public integrity. Adultery and its continued cover-up contributed to a theological transformation in Wilson: Once he liberated himself from one commandment, he began regarding that one about lying as a suggestion as well.
The new Wilson won reelection in 1916 with the effective slogan, "He kept us out of the war," while privately telling cabinet members, "I can't keep the country out of the war." One month after his second inauguration, Wilson led the United States into World War I. Soon after the war he had a major stroke that left him unable to exercise the duties of the presidency, but Wilson, his aides, and his second wife lied and claimed that he was able to work. They kept up the pretense throughout Wilson's last year and a half in office.
Or consider the case of Warren Harding, whose sexual cover-ups (he hid his affairs with Carrie Phillips and Nan Briton) were leading indicators of a corrupt administration. And let's look at Franklin Roosevelt, who covered up affairs with Lucy Mercer and Missy Le Hand, then used the same techniques to cover up affairs of state. (Turner Catledge of The New York Times told friends that Roosevelt's first instinct was always to lie; sometimes in midsentence he would switch to accuracy because he realized he could get away with the truth in that particular instance.)
John F. Kennedy's success in keeping unreported his record-setting flow of young women into Senate bedchambers and then the White House probably led him to think he could get away with other quasi-secret activities, such as the Bay of Pigs and numerous Castro assassination plots. On the other hand, his James Bond-style emotional detachment allowed him to be a cool Cold War poker player. He went to the brink of nuclear war without being moved by a normal man's sensitivities—and God was merciful in keeping us from disaster.
Amid charges and countercharges, we should keep in mind the need for journalists to scrutinize candidates' sexual flings. Faithfulness to a wife is no guarantee of faithfulness to the country; look at Richard Nixon. Nor does faithfulness guarantee a strong presidency: Jimmy Carter's anti-adultery bent accurately forecast an administration that was also open and aboveboard—but sometimes incompetent.
We need all the information we can get about candidates. The Founders established the Electoral College, instead of creating a direct democracy, because they wanted individual voters to choose electors whose character they knew—and those electors would then select a president whose character they knew. Today, we depend on media representatives to tell us the truth, even when it means exposing a candidate playing footsie with falsehood.
I had hoped that President Bush would bat .300, which means failure seven out of 10 times in Washington's tough league: His average has probably been less than that. Misjudgments, missed opportunities, and acceptance of faulty intelligence reports in a world of deception are understandable but hazardous to a nation's health. Even so, that's not the same as soiling the Oval Office with lies and worse.