How Scandal Could Change U.s. And Global Politics Demystifying The Presidency Might Not Be Such A Bad Idea.

Posted: January 27, 1998

Many commentators have expressed doubt, or at least shock, that Bill Clinton would behave in the risky way he has supposedly behaved. They don't think that someone with that much to lose for himself, for his party, and for his nation would have been likely to engage in an affair in the White House with such a young woman.

Other commentators have expressed concern about what will happen to the ``office of the presidency'' in the current scandal. This office of the presidency stuff was also a theme of the Watergate scandal.

Both of these approaches, it seems to me, are mired in a bizarre and impossible conception of the relation of public office to individual human lives.

I wonder whether you have ever been in the state of mind where having sex was the most important imaginable thing, where nothing else really seemed to matter. I have been in that state.

Or I wonder whether you have ever needed something that, from the outside, looked irrational or self-destructive: booze, drugs, stuff you couldn't afford, chocolate, whatever. I've been there too in a variety of ways.

I am not saying that these are good things. Indeed, such compulsions have brought me unspeakable misery as well as various pleasures. But to want such things obsessively is a very common human condition. And the President of the United States, although the words make him sound like an abstraction or a function or a role, is a human being. That he wants things or needs things that, all in all, we think he shouldn't, should not even surprise us for a moment.

Imagine really being compelled toward something or wanting it desperately. Now imagine trying to convince yourself that you don't really want it, on the grounds that you are the leader of the free world or for that matter the president of the PTA or whatever. Good luck to you.

I am not minimizing the problem here. I think that, if the Lewinsky story is true, it is tantamount to sexual harassment because the power difference between them is so immense. As Melissa Dribben wrote recently in The Inquirer, sometimes it is unforgivable even to ask. I also have a suspicion - and obviously this is speculation - that there might literally be dozens of women with similar stories to tell about Clinton. If that is true, he might be sitting on, paying off, being blackmailed by, a whole bunch of people. And that would be an extremely bad situation.

But what I am saying is: Clinton is not an abstraction. He is a particular human being. We can't possibly expect him to be anything else.

But we do. First of all, we live in a media-saturated politics which is devoted to one thing above all: detaching surface from reality. No politician can have had a real life in this environment. I'd like to see a politician who said: ``I have committed adultery. I've smoked dope. I've acted like an idiot at parties. I'm out here trying to be a good human being. But I am a human being.''

We would instantly disqualify a candidate like that on the grounds that he was a real person rather than the fraud we demand. What we want is some kind of mannequin or stiff or actor that can be propped up behind a microphone to murmur empty cliches.

And the reason we want that is that we're in utter ontological confusion. People who are senators, or governors, or presidents are particular human beings; they are not functions or roles or offices. There is no such thing as the office of the presidency: that's just a way people like Nixon try to pretend not be human but to be pure functions, abstractions that could not possibly sin.

What this scandal could conceivably do to an empty concept like the office of the presidency is beyond me. The only thing it could do, it seems to me, is to demystify it. That would be a very good thing. What we are being shown is that the office of the presidency at any given time is an actually existing sin-ridden human being like the rest of us.

That would be a hopeful development if it meant that the next president could acknowledge his or her humanity instead of pretending to be some kind of surreal combination of a saint and a movie star. We don't need flawless or inhuman leaders; we need human leaders with a wide range of real human experiences. We need to grow up.

Crispin Sartwell teaches philosophy at Penn State Harrisburg. His most recent book is Obscenity, Anarchy,

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