Clinton's Character

Of my suggestion that it's a little convenient for liberals to play the character card in the case of Rudy Giuliani when they tended to dismiss it where Bill Clinton was concerned, Matt writes:

But look, here, by the time the extent of Bill Clinton marital issues came to light in 1998, the man had been President of the United States for more than a few years, so it was hardly necessary to go searching around for hints and clues as to whether or not one would approve of his conduct in office. Indeed, my sense is that conservatives mostly regarded Clinton's misconduct in this regard as a kind of synecdoche (or maybe metonymy -- sorry, Mr. Glassman!) for an failed presidency. Most Americans, by contrast, viewed Clinton's presidency as reasonably successful and his conduct vis-a-vis his wife, children, and Monica Lewinsky therefore not-especially-relevant to their judgments.

Um ... the extent of Bill Clinton's marital issues only came to light in 1998? My sense is that the only people who were all that surprised by the Monica Lewinsky scandal were Clintonista liberals who'd managed to convince themselves that everything we knew about Clinton's years as an Arkansas hound dog had been invented by David Brock. Everyone else knew who Clinton was in 1992, and definitely knew by the time 1996 rolled around, and both times Democrats dismissed the character argument as irrelevant, and adopted the European principle that private lives shouldn't matter in politics - precisely the principle that Emily Bazelon wants to throw overboard where Rudy is concerned.

Now as I said, I'm by no means convinced that the GOP was right that Clinton's character should have disqualified him from the Presidency, and I'm certainly not convinced that Bazelon is right about Rudy now; it seems like too complicated a puzzle to admit to definite answers. You could argue, for instance, that Clinton's character shouldn't have mattered to his job performance, and the fact that it did is all the Republicans' fault, since they took their argument about Clinton's peccadiloes damaging his effectiveness as President and made it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Myself, I incline toward John Derbyshire's recent take on the matter:

Clinton’s greatest sin — this has been said before, but not often enough — was not resigning when the scandals began to occupy large parts of his time and energy. That was the sin of pride; and the key question is whether that aspect of the man’s personality is connected with his philandering. I suspect that it is: The pride of surviving the assaults of one’s enemies, even at heavy cost to the public duties one is supposed to be performing, seems to me not far removed psychologically from the pride of having one’s way with pretty women, even at heavy cost to one’s own marriage. I don’t know how I could prove this, though, and so I leave this as an open question.

Or put another way: A philandering President can be a good President, and the country might have been better off had Clinton occupied the Oval Office in an era when his sexual dalliances would have been swept under the rug. But occupying it when he did, in an era of sexual harassment lawsuits, a prurient media, and an opposition desperate to bring him down, he needed to be willing to resign if caught abusing his power in the way he did - and his unwillingness to do so was a greater flaw than the original lechery, though perhaps, as Derb says, the two went hand in hand.

Sometimes I like to imagine that had Clinton resigned, we would have had six years of President Gore, followed by the election of Jeb Bush - the right Bush - in '04 by a nation tired of Democrat rule and ready for a smart Republican in the White House. But that's what we call wishful thinking.