WASHINGTON – I recall the moment when the press finally turned against Bill Clinton.
In 1998, I was a junior writer at U.S. News & World Report, then (for the children in the audience) an actual, physical weekly magazine, useful for pressing leaves or as packing material. When the word came that there was a blue dress stained with actual, physical, genetic evidence, it was the consensus of veteran journalists along the hallway that Clinton was gone, gone, gone, through either resignation or impeachment. Clinton had, as A.M. Rosenthal of The New York Times later wrote, “gambled the moral, political and historic reputation of the presidency – showing what he thought of the office and himself.”
But Clinton saved himself though a remarkable display of brazen, combative defiance against his accusers and the media. There must be some ancient Greek word for this tragically impressive human attribute. It might be translated “shameless fortitude,” or maybe “sleazy grit.” Whatever it is called, Americans in large numbers found it persuasive, particularly when compared with the alternative.
Yet the practical effect of Clinton’s political victory, in a phrase of the time, was to “define deviancy down.” He had changed the boundaries of the ethically acceptable – in the character we expect from a president and in the behavior of powerful men toward young women in their employ. In the end, Clinton stood; standards fell.
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This attribute of backbone in a dubious cause – in a very different moral context – has been on full display in Hillary Clinton’s presidential launch. Everybody knows that there are no secrets in the age of Snowden, and that transparency is now a requirement for the political class. But Clinton conducts public business on a private server, destroys 30,000 emails of her choosing and provides the rest in boxes of unsearchable paper records. Everyone knows that social media and the 24-hour news cycle create an insatiable demand for content, which presidential campaigns must strive to fill. Clinton grants media access in frothy little dollops even as large controversies unfold.
This is creating a crisis of relevance for members of the traveling press, who are either compromised by complicity or moved to rebellion. But so far, it seems to be working marvelously for the candidate herself. While a majority of Americans do not judge her to be “honest and trustworthy,” she is essentially unchallenged for the nomination of her party and leads in all the head-to-heads with Republicans. Who needs a reputation for honesty and trustworthiness anyway? Foreign money is a matter that should be left between a politician and her donors. What Clinton does in the privacy of her server room is her own business.
In the five weeks since Clinton announced her candidacy, she has had a normal politician’s lifetime quota of scandals. During a brief recent press availability, questions covered foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation, ties to a former aide under investigation, the pace of disclosure of her already purged State Department emails, and speaking fees that put her (as conservative columnist Byron York tweeted) in the 1 percent on a single harvest day in Silicon Valley. “I want those emails out,” she told reporters, having made it technically difficult. “I’m proud of the work [the Clinton Foundation] has done,” which is relevant only in an argument that ends justify means. Bland and bold. I’ve done what I’ve done. Get used to it.
Democrats are presented with a political question: Does Hillary Clinton really have the political skills to pull this off? Her husband was a master of projecting likability, remorse and good intent. She is plausible as a president but mediocre as a candidate. Her silence is often an improvement on her availability. As new controversies come – and that is close to a political certainty – will her polling hold? I have heard significant Democratic donors wonder about this aloud.
But if Clinton succeeds, it would expand the boundaries of the permissible. It would again define deviancy down. Americans would have rewarded, or at least ignored, defiant secrecy and the destruction of documents. Future presidential candidates and campaign advisers would take note. Americans would have rewarded a skate along the ethical boundaries of money and influence. Future donors would see a green light, no matter what candidate Clinton says about campaign finance reform.
A democracy becomes the image of the virtues it rewards. Clinton is tough, disciplined and knowledgeable. Who needs honesty, trustworthiness and transparency?
Clinton stands; standards fall.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.