Character -- Clinton's character, that is -- is back. In a "confidential" memo to Republican members of Congress, GOP pollster Frank Luntz is urging them to break their silence and tell the American people: "Today, more than ever, children need to know that character counts. It's that simple, Mr. President. Character counts. And when character is lost, it's over."
Speaking Monday to GOPAC, the conservative political action committee he used to head, Newt Gingrich echoed this message: "There is no administration in American history with less moral authority than the Clinton/Gore administration." He then urged Democrats to "seriously reconsider the direction that this president is taking their party in. I believe to become the party of cover-up and corruption would be a devastating blow to this country's future. And I hope no Democrat will follow down that road."
It's a good thing that we're again engaging in a political conversation about character -- a conversation that for a long time seemed threatened with extinction. But it's also fair to ask: Why now?
There are two reasons why Gingrich chose this particular moment to emerge from his long hibernation. The first is that, as I have found out during my book tour, the easiest way these days to get applause from a Republican audience -- from Ridgewood, New Jersey, to Butte County, California -- is to call for Gingrich's ouster as the titular head of the GOP. The Republican base has never been more disenchanted with the Republican leadership.
The second reason has to do with the speaker's obsession with polling. When pollsters speak, the speaker listens. With typical pollster pomposity, the Luntz decree began by quoting Ecclesiastes: "To everything, there is a season." It concluded: "The season of silence must end." Why the season should change so abruptly now, or why total radio silence was ever a good strategy in the first place, the GOP Delphic Oracle either doesn't know or doesn't deign fit for mortal ears.
But messenger and circumstances aside, it is high time to address the issue of character head-on. First, though, let's make it quite clear what character does not mean. Character does not mean flawlessness, nor does it mean sexual purity. When Wang Dan, the recently freed Chinese dissident, spoke last week about "moral responsibility" and "moral guilt," he was not talking about sexual morality and sexual guilt. So, if the national conversation is to center on character, morality and values, let's use as a reference point the moral sense of Wang Dan rather than of Dan Quayle telling Tim Russert that he's never committed adultery.
"Is it to be the cherub or the tiger," Winston Churchill asked Graham Sutherland when he was about to sit for the portrait Lady Churchill later destroyed. In that short question he summed up a great truth: No human being is hewn out of a single block. And no one -- whether politician, philosopher or artist has ever been of a piece. It is an inescapable fact of history that the greatest men have been enigmatic composites of virtue and vice.
The problem with Clinton is not that he is flawed, but that he has created a corrosive and all-consuming environment of lies and cover-ups -- which has, not coincidentally, undermined his capacity to lead the nation.
The essence of good leadership is the ability to see the iceberg before it hits the ship of state. But Clinton has been far too busy in the bowels of the ship fueling its spin turbines to notice any problems that do not appear in his daily polling briefing. He never takes on a battle that he hasn't already won. He likes to apologize about slavery, but would he, 135 years ago, have signed the deeply unpopular Emancipation Proclamation?
Leadership is a risky business requiring wisdom, courage and fortitude -- all of which are attributes of character the current White House occupant conspicuously lacks. The capacity for sacrifice is another prerequisite of character and leadership, and it's hard to think of a word that has less relevance to the life and character of Bill Clinton.
President Lincoln responded to a complaint about General Grant's drunkenness by suggesting that the complainer find out what brand Grant drank and send a case to every one of the Union Army's generals. Grant knew how to win battles, and that has always been, and always will be, the essential quality of generalship.
Unless we act -- and act fast -- the essential quality of the modern presidency will be nothing but presiding over an economy in cruise control and taking care of big donors. And as to the means? Whatever it takes.
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