e-mail us


Weak leaders no match for tough times

For too many months now, Americans have been subjected to remonstrations of uninformed spinmeisters, presidential aides whose primary task, as far as we can see, has been to defend the president against reports, allegedly unwarranted, of inappropriate or -- dare we say it? -- immoral behavior.

Now the spinmeisters know, and we know, that the emperor, all too literally, had no clothes. The man we elected to fill the highest office in the land and, symbolically, in the world, has used it as a platform from which to test our gullibility.

And then, in a brief, embarrassing televised speech, following months of self-serving evasiveness and outright lies, he added further insult by asking us to believe that his offensive actions were a private matter, between himself and his family.

Never mind that the “inappropriate behavior” he too late acknowledged took place at the nation’s preeminent place of business, the Oval Office -- an arena for which President Ronald Reagan had such respect that he refused to so much as take off his suitcoat.

Never mind that Clinton’s aides are saddled with staggering legal bills.

Never mind that the intense focus on Clinton’s misbehavior, driven by his frequent failure to simply tell the truth, so narrowed our world, and his, that when the fog began to clear, what emerged was a world in disarray.

While U.S. leaders and ordinary citizens were caught in the whirl of this tawdry tale, India was building bombs, terrorists were plotting attacks on U.S. embassies, Saddam Hussein had so successfully confounded the work of U.N. weapons inspectors that the longest-serving American on the inspection team quit in disgust and a financial crisis in Asia had imperiled the U.S. economy. Now, in Russia, collapse of the ruble threatens economic disaster. In the post-Cold War world, where economic problems somewhere quickly turn into economic problems everywhere, global depression looms.

If ever we needed good leaders ...

Yet leadership crises are the order of the day. Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi is unable to steer a stalemated parliament toward needed economic reform, and German Prime Minister Helmut Kohl is on the brink of political defeat. Boris Yeltsin, debilitated by drinking and medical problems, lacks the political muscle to even get a new prime minister in place, let alone to pull his country back from the brink. Even in Moscow, Clinton is dogged by reporters asking not about international policy and economics, but about his unapology to the nation.

The problem with Clinton’s response suggesting “a private matter,” apart from the fact that it encapsulates the American ethic of individualism at its shortsighted worst, is reflected in the cartoons heralding his meeting with Yeltsin.

Crutches, life support systems, laughing (lame) ducks are symbols of the painfully obvious: Two men given the power to achieve much good have misused it. Now severely hobbled, they are bonded by weakness rather than by strength. The possibility of resignation or impeachment hangs over both men.

Clinton may protest about family privacy, but the implications of his diminished moral authority reverberate globally.

We can’t change the past. Clinton has done what he has done. But we can demand more in future leaders. We can reflect seriously as members of a national community on what we settle for, and get, versus what we might demand.

We are enviably in a position to choose who will lead us, and we can ask for more than Ivy League degrees, intelligence and a generous heart. We have all that in Clinton, and it is not enough.

We need people of strong character with focused, disciplined minds, men and women who seek out the best counsel, who are undistracted by personal troubles they have brought on themselves and who stand unmoved by popularity polls when hard choices must be made.

We might reflect, too, on the hard words of Pope John Paul II about our culture -- its individualism, materialism and destructive competition. Is there something about us that makes us unable to demand better -- perhaps because we demand too little integrity of ourselves?

While we have often criticized John Paul in these pages for rigidity in dealing with internal church matters, he is unquestionably a world leader of the highest integrity -- a sign that such is not impossible to find.

Meanwhile, there is no need to indulge in pessimism. Our Christian tradition affords a view, unparalleled in history, of human potential.

Often, sad to say, it is bad times that bring out the best in people. So, rather than pessimism, we can hope that the best arrives before bad times turn to worse -- and set about preparing ourselves as individuals and as a nation so that we will recognize potentially good leadership when it comes.

National Catholic Reporter, September 11, 1998