It's hard to sort out the Clinton scandals. Did Monica Lewinsky ask Webb Hubbell to buy Vernon Jordan a dress? Did Bruce Babbitt win a Tyson's chicken at an Indian casino? Did he bet with Chinese money? And what's all this about Oral Roberts?
To understand the ethics mess, skip the latest scoops. The real explanation came out some 1,400 years ago, when Pope Gregory the Great identified the Seven Deadly Sins. Gregory's list furnishes a concise guide to basic principles of contemporary politics: pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust.
Pride. Chaucer wrote that pride is the "general root of all evils." In politics, this root runs deep. Candidates exaggerate their own virtues, sometimes believing what they say. Once in office, they surround themselves with fawning staffs. Washington is to ego as Iowa is to corn: a place where abundant fertilizer promotes amazing growth.
Pride creates its own ethical logic. "I'm good," thinks the politician, "and since good people don't do bad things, then whatever I do is OK." During his "no controlling legal authority" press conference, Al Gore said: "I'm proud of what I did. I do not feel like I did anything wrong, much less illegal. I am proud to have done everything I possibly could to help support the re-election of this president and to help move his agenda forward." The agenda justifies the means.
Pride is the original sin of public policy. The "anointed," as Thomas Sowell calls them, believe that they know what's best for everybody else--hence such monstrosities as the Clinton health plan. They also think that they can divine long-range trends in economics, international relations, and even weather--hence Gore's crusade against global warming.
Prideful politicians think that they can get away with anything. When their policies fail or their misdeeds become public, they shift the blame or deny that anything has gone wrong. Sometimes these responses fail, as Presidents Johnson and Nixon discovered. Sometimes they work, which is why President Clinton survived his first term.
Envy. What do average Washingtonians want? Better job titles, bigger offices, richer perks, and more one-on-one contact with the powerful. Staffers refer to the last item as "face time." (Perhaps certain politicians offer "designated-body-part time.")
Inevitably, what everyone wants is what somebody else already has. In the White House, such envy helps explain why aides vie to catch the president's eye and fulfill his desires (including the noncarnal ones). The jostling for position includes even the lowliest ranks. According to press reports, intern Monica Lewinsky had a "coveted blue pass," which enabled her to enter the West Wing at will, while her peers labored elsewhere. No wonder some of them seemed quite eager to trash her reputation.
There is plenty of envy in the private world, but it's especially acute in politics because tangible accomplishments are so scarce. When you can't measure your achievements by the number of computers manufactured or customers served, you rate your position by the number of really cool meetings you get to attend.
Anger. Envy begets wrath. Since so much of political life hinges upon petty things, Washingtonians are hypersensitive to slights, snubs, and insults. They might not always remember the size of the national debt, but they do remember the time someone kept them waiting outside a conference room (and for how long). The ultimate example was Richard Nixon, who ended his political career as a congealed blob of resentment.
In a city of vendettas, leaks are a weapon of choice. Such leaks often come from disgruntled staffers and ex-staffers, whose ranks are legion. (Have you ever met a Washingtonian who was gruntled?) Last year, former White House aide Linda Tripp told Paula Jones's lawyers that President Clinton had made a pass at another woman. Clinton lawyer Robert Bennett then accused her of lying. Reportedly, her anger at Bennett spurred her to tape Lewinsky's phone calls.
Leaks and attacks have a profound effect on Bill and Hillary Clinton. In Affairs of State (See "A Thin Line Between Love and Hate," August/September 1997), historian Gil Troy describes their reaction: "The Clintons united in rage. Theirs was the angriest administration since Richard Nixon's." Angry people make dumb mistakes, but the Clintons have usually harnessed their anger to politically useful purposes. When Hillary Clinton complained of a "vast, right-wing conspiracy," she was venting her feelings while simultaneously providing a cue to reporters who were predisposed to believe in such things.
More often, it's Clinton's opponents who lose their heads. Consider the volcanic conservatives who prematurely called for his impeachment. Their reaction was understandable, since Clinton's slickness infuriates them. But from the standpoint of GOP political strategy, a successful effort to oust Clinton would backfire, since it would give Gore the incumbency advantage in the next presidential election.
As Nixon said as he left the White House: "Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them--and then you destroy yourself." He should know.
Sloth. Contrary to the popular myth that Washington keeps bankers' hours, people in the political community put in long days. Physical sloth is not their problem. Instead, many suffer from intellectual sloth, which sets in when they fail to rethink their assumptions. The D'Amato hearings on Whitewater and the Thompson hearings on campaign finance both embodied this kind of sloth. Each time, Republicans were expecting Watergate in reverse, where noble Republicans could take down a tainted Democratic president. Each time, they flopped.