COMMENTARY: Are Americans corrupt?

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c. 1998 Religion News Service

(Andrew M. Greeley is a Roman Catholic priest, best-selling novelist and a sociologist at the University of Chicago National Opinion Research Center. Check out his home page at or contact him via e-mail at agreel(at)

UNDATED _ Our moral betters are telling the rest of us we are corrupt and, perhaps, degenerate because we continue to support President Clinton despite allegations he committed adultery in the White House.

Such worthies as Sens. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., and Trent Lott, R-Miss., as well national virtue scold William Bennett, deplore the lack of moral outrage in the American public.

Only a corrupt people, they seem to be saying, could possibly increase their support for the president each time Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s crew leaks a new allegation to the national media.

Their argument is that adultery disqualifies a man to be president because it reveals a”flaw”in”character”precluding responsible leadership. It is an interesting argument.

But before accepting it, one would want to know whether adultery before election also reveals a disqualifying flaw of character or whether the abandonment of a spouse for a much younger”trophy wife”_ behavior in which some Republican leaders have engaged _ is also a character”flaw.” Which is worse _ to abandon a wife or to be unfaithful to her? Ask the onetime Mrs. Dole or Mrs. Gingrich or Mrs. Gramm.

If one searches for the logic behind the argument about character it seems to be that a man who has committed adultery cannot be an leader.

Again, one has to ask at what levels of society does this rule apply? Is it only applicable to presidents? Should it apply to senators and representatives? Should it apply to all cabinet members or only the major ones? What about governors, mayors, school superintendents?

The obvious lesson of human experience is that men and women may fail tragically in their personal relationships and yet be highly effective in their public responsibilities.

In the current controversy, this truth seems all too evident to 80 percent of the American people _ if not to the self-righteous moralists among us.

Another classic example at the presidential level was John F. Kennedy. Recent research suggests Kennedy frolicked with prostitutes in the White House swimming pool. Yet anyone who has read through the long transcripts of the White House tapes of the Cuban missile crisis realizes he was the only one in the discussions who steadfastly resisted demands _ from Congress and the military _ he bomb the Russian sites, kill Russian soldiers, and run the risk of a third world war.

Kennedy does not seem to have been a good man personally, though perhaps we should not judge lest we be judged. But if it had not been for his cool restraint, millions of us might have been incinerated.

There may be a slight correlation between personal virtue and public effectiveness, but Americans are much wiser than the knee-jerk moralists when they remain skeptical about the strength of the correlation.

The public is saying once again what Clinton adviser Jim Carville said during the 1992 presidential campaign:”It’s the economy, stupid.” In the meantime, let the Republicans in Congress seek to impeach Clinton _ and shoot the bottom out of the stock market in which so much of the American middle class has invested. Impose your morality on the country _ and then look for new jobs when the next election rolls around.


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