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Clinton/Starr turmoil needs ethics of care


One woman’s comment on the Internet seems to sum up America’s position on Monicagate: “I haven’t changed my mind about Clinton,” the posting reads. “Bill Clinton is just one more self-serving man. President Clinton, on the other hand, is a good president.”

The comment states the situation well, but it does not resolve the big question: Is he really a good president? Is there a relationship between public and private morality and, if so, what does it have to do with being president of the United States?

Don’t answer too quickly.

First, some clarifications. What happened between President William Jefferson Clinton and Monica Lewinsky in dark halls of the White House and the alcoves of the Oval Office was at best tawdry, sleazy and cheap. It tarnished the man, lampooned the office and desecrated the place. It may be forgiven, of course, but it cannot be justified.

Secondly, the character of Monica Lewinsky herself has very little to do with the situation. Say what you want about her thong underwear, the principle still is that the quality of any communication depends on the character of the person in the higher position. If executives use sex as a tool of hire, however willing the secretary, the ethical quality of the relationship still rests in most part on the shoulders of the executive.

And if that executive is the president of the United States, who is supposed to be able to control himself enough to make rational decisions about the use of nuclear weapons, for instance, the loss of emotional control in such an adolescent manner is even more critical. Clearly, Bill Clinton -- President Clinton -- has a great deal of soul-searching to do, a great deal of responsibility to take.

At the same time, it is not really clear if any of it matters for the country itself. What connection, if any, exists between public and private morality? History provides little help in arriving at the answer. Alexander the Great created an empire and died at an early age from the results of syphilis. Roosevelt saved the country from depression, all the while supporting a mistress. Richard Nixon was apparently a Puritan saint but came close to destroying the democratic process.

Perhaps the even more difficult question is whether or not Kenneth Starr’s own sins -- specious evidence-gathering, information leaks and pornographic reporting -- on behalf of public morality may not themselves be as egregious as Clinton’s private personal flaws. For the first time in history, a special prosecutor named to pursue one question of justice seems to have made a professional career of investigating the president. Clinton has been investigated for almost his entire term in office. Is this moral zeal, professional dedication or political hounding? And is any of it relevant to what it means to be president of the United States? It is a bizarre situation.

Is Monicagate deplorable? Indeed it is. Is it scandalous? Without doubt. Are the lies that surround it reasons for impeachment? In the day of special prosecutors and in the light of times to come, the question may be a crucial one. And yet, in some ways, it hardly matters. So much damage has already been done that it’s hard to imagine that anything can save the credibility of this president.

What this situation calls for, from a moral point of view, is a clear distinction between what we can call an “ethics of rights” and an “ethics of care.” An ethics of rights -- the making of judgments on the basis of law -- will not necessarily determine what is really most moral, most developmental of the whole spiritual fabric of the country. Only an ethics of care, judgments made on the basis of our duty to each particular individual in every specific instance, can do that.

First, Clinton himself must cease to assert only his rights and neglecting to care about the impact of his actions. Then, we ourselves need to care about Clinton as a person rather than simply seek a careless justice. We must care about Monica Lewinsky as a young woman betrayed by the holder of the highest office in the land. And we must care to preserve the best values of the society itself, mercy as well as justice.

Maybe the country’s drift toward fascism in its desperate attempt to punish sin is every bit as much a violation of rights, an abandonment of care, as serious a problem as Clinton’s personal moral pathologies. Maybe overlooking one problem in our fascination with the other will, in the long light of history, turn out to be the most serious sleaze of all.

Within an ethics of rights, Bill Clinton can continue to function as an effective politician. His private behavior need not inhibit this process. But it is only within an ethics of care that the aspirations of the republic for moral leadership can be achieved. Being willing to acknowledge the appropriateness of public censure and to seek forgiveness for his private actions is the first step toward recognizing that.

An ethics of care is desirable, not only for good government, but for good souls as well.

Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, author and lecturer, lives in Erie, Pa.

National Catholic Reporter, October 9, 1998