by Sharon Hayes
Centre for the Study of Ethics, Queensland University of Technology
As the United States president, Bill Clinton, faces humiliation and possible impeachment for sexual misconduct, both the media and the public are lasciviously lapping up the details in what appears to be the most publicised case of sexual harassment in the history of the modern world. The clambering for copies of prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s document, containing explicit details of sexual encounters between Clinton and ex-White House intern Monica Lewinsky, is nothing short of phenomenal. What this says about the public and the media ought to give us pause, but all this publicity also makes it clear that the issues at stake here are not concerned with political misconduct in the usual sense. Neither are Clinton’s opponents truly concerned with whether his conduct has shown a disregard of the code of ethics surrounding public office. Rather, what appears to be the major issue underlying the shock and disgust shown by the media and public towards Clinton is his failure to be discreet.
Ethical codes directing the behaviour of public servants reflect the importance of role in carrying out public duties. When a civil servant leaves her home for work in the mornings, she automatically dons the hat of public office. What that office requires of her is that she put aside her personal values and beliefs – at least to a certain extent – and attempt to act on those values and beliefs warranted by an officer in service to the public. Those values might include, among other things, acting without favour in the allocation of rewards and resources, performing one’s duties to the letter of the law, and always acting in the interests of the taxpayers, so far as that is possible. Thus, an ethical civil servant does not use or abuse public resources for her own benefit; she does not act against the laws that bind her in her office, and she does not seek to benefit one group over another without the explicit consent of the taxpayers, represented as they are by the elected officials of the day.
Clinton did not break any of these codes by having sexual relations with Lewinsky – although his admission of making some misleading statements in the Paula Jones case might be questioned here. Perhaps he did prevaricate a little – or rather, misrepresent the facts, which isn’t quite the same thing – and this slip has been the focus of Kenneth Starr’s amazingly dedicated smear campaign against the president. But he did not sexually harass Lewinsky, he did not act against the interests of the American public in his liaisons with her, and he did not use his office to gain favours for the woman who has brought so much shame upon him. Starr’s argument that Clinton ought to be impeached because he lied to the court in the Jones case is a sham, based as it is upon such a borderline and trivial infringement of legal codes. Rather, Starr’s indictment of the president is supported and elevated by the excruciating detail of his report on the sexual acts committed in the oval office by the leader of the free world.
Starr’s report has gained so much media coverage because of that detail, and because of his – and the Republican Party’s – continued verbal harassment of Clinton about the issue. One would think that presidents had never had affairs while in office. Given that several past presidents, according to public opinion, engaged in similarly “inappropriate behaviour” with women other than their wives -- behaviour that only seems to have added to their popularity since coming to light -- it is surprising that Clinton’s indiscretions are being regarded with such loathing. Starr’s report contains much that is unnecessary to his central claim that Clinton lied under oath. What it does contain is enough explicit sexual language to raise the ire of even the most progressive and dedicated of Democrats. The president has been humiliated a hundred times over through this case, and his lack of discretion has shamed him around the globe. But are humiliation and personal indiscretion unethical acts? I suggest that they are not. What Clinton did with Lewinsky did nothing to harm or adversely influence the carrying out of his duties as president, nor did his liaison interfere with his public duties and responsibilities. It was a stupid act, but not an unethical or illegal one.
Indeed, even hard line feminists such as Betty Friedan are supporting Clinton against his enemies. In a statement made at a seminar on the women's movement in Washington D.C. recently, Friedan claimed that Clinton's affair was a "private matter" between the president and first lady. Lewinsky "came onto" the president, she argued, the affair was consensual, and therefore merely a "bad instance of private sexual behaviour". But this liberal sexual morality is not shared by all feminists. Patricia Ireland, president of the U.S. organisation, the National Association of Women, argues that the case has assumed such a high profile because there has been a fundamental shift in public opinion about what constitutes acceptable workplace behaviour. However, public opinion polls show that Clinton's popularity is on the rise again, with a sixty-four percent approval rating being recorded by at least one pollster. If America's consciousness is shifting, it's certainly not towards a greater understanding of the finer points of sexual politics in the workplace.
However, in spite of his increased ratings, Clinton's shame remains as a thorn in the side of the American public and the rest of the world. The fact of the matter is that people would rather not see such affairs thrown up so closely in their face. Rather, they would think of their leader as a virtuous person, easily capable of assuming the heavy and important responsibilities placed upon him. It has been an affront to the American public that Clinton’s sometime disregard for family values has been so loudly flouted. But we would do well to remember who is doing the flouting. It has been Clinton’s opponents -- mostly, Starr and the Republican Party -- who have wrought this upon us, and with this in mind I suggest that it is they who ought to bear the brunt of our disgust and abhorrence, rather than their victim.