It turns out, in retrospect, to have been a most ironically timed meeting. The White House Communications Office had arranged for nine representatives of the religious press—nicely balanced as to denomination and theological inclination—to meet with the President on December 17. That happened to be the Friday of the weekend on which there emerged, courtesy of David Brock and The American Spectator, lurid reports from Arkansas state troopers concerning President Clinton’s alleged extracurricular sexual adventures during his time as Governor and President-elect, as well as tales of attempts, through threats or bribery, to ensure the troopers’ silence. Those reports, combined with renewed concerns over the Clintons’ connections with the Whitewater Development Corporation and with the disappearance of Whitewater and other files from the White House office of Vincent Foster, Jr. after his suicide, created a Yuletide crisis the seriousness of which, at this writing, is still unclear. At the very least, it will make this Christmas past one that will not likely make its way into the President’s White House scrapbook.
The members of the press at the meeting, of course, knew nothing of the imminent crisis. But Bill Clinton obviously did, and reflections on the fifty-minute session are inevitably colored by curiosity as to what difference, if any, the President’s knowledge made as to his comments and general demeanor. And the scandal itself, to the extent one credits it—and it takes a heroic denial of the plausible to dismiss it altogether—necessarily intrudes on one’s judgment of the President.
The subject of the meeting was crime and violence in America, an issue which the White House clearly thought it could turn to its advantage-it was the presidential theme of the week-and which allowed Clinton to highlight his “new Democrat” credentials. He hit all the right neoliberal notes. Government could do something about crime—the Brady bill, police build-ups, boot camps as alternative punishment—but these actions “from the outside in” could only reinforce the more important actions “from the inside out”: renewal, especially in inner-city minority neighborhoods, of structures of family and work, structures without which crime and the inextricably connected drug culture flourish. This project of community rebuilding, Clinton emphasized, will require a broad range of initiatives and programs, including presidential leadership, legislative innovation, moral uplift (the President particularly noted Jesse Jackson’s anti-crime drive among blacks), and, most important, reconstitution of the “intermediate institutions” of the community—the black church chief among them—whose decay is both symptom and cause of urban pathology.
The format of the meeting was something of a muddle. The President indicated at the outset that he looked forward to an exchange of views, and there was some of that for the first twenty minutes or so, but as the session wore on, the focus shifted increasingly to Clinton. It became clear that most of those present preferred drawing out the President to listening to each other’s views on the causes and cures of crime. What began as a discussion wound up as a presidential interview.
The subject matter shifted as well. Crime faded into the background, and religion, especially the significance of religion in the President’s life and thought, came to the fore. Some months earlier, Clinton had made a stir by drawing attention to Stephen Carter’s The Culture of Disbelief and indicating his support for the author’s argument that, at least among the nation’s secularized elites, adherence to the classic American doctrine of separation of church and state had degenerated into an implausible and ahistorical insistence on separation of religion from public life. The President repeated the point here and underlined his argument that the First Amendment focuses on freedom of (not from) religion by praising Congress for passing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The conversation turned personal when someone asked Clinton, a Southern Baptist, how he had been influenced by his education at Catholic (Jesuit) Georgetown University. The influence, Clinton replied, had been “profound.” He noted three particulars: the Catholic sense of the social mission of the Church, the distinctively Jesuit emphasis on intellectual rigor, and the centrality to Catholic piety of confession. The last point was the most intriguing—the more so in retrospect—and it was one to which Clinton returned repeatedly. His one reticence about speaking of religion in public, he said, was that he might be perceived as sanctimonious or holier-than-thou. But, he said on at least three occasions during the meeting, at the heart of Christian piety is the knowledge that we are all sinners, all in need of forgiveness, all presented with the possibility of starting over again. To speak as a Christian, he reiterated, is to speak as a self-confessed sinner.
Asked to discuss the effect of his Baptist faith on his life, Clinton spoke first of his youth. He referred to a painful childhood (while he did not specify, the reference to difficulties with his alcoholic stepfather was obvious), in which his faith gave him an essential sense of reassurance and value as a child of God. He recounted that in his twenties and beyond he had drifted away from the church, but had come back to serious religious observance in 1980, an observance, he made clear, that continues to this day. Without making any explicit personal Christian witness, the President indicated the importance of religious belief to his life. How, he wondered toward the end of the meeting, given life’s inescapable difficulties and our own frailties, can people get through life without faith?
What does one make of all this, particularly in light of the revelations—if true—that followed the meeting?
One notes, first of all, the feebleness of the White House’s later dismissals of the charges brought against the President, and their incompatibility with some of Clinton’s expressed views. Both Mrs. Clinton and the President himself said, in effect, that the truth or otherwise of the sexual charges brought against Clinton make no difference in the judgment of his stewardship. All that matters, they suggested, is his public record of achievement; his personal behavior is simply irrelevant to his presidency.
But the President knows better, and he indicated as much in the meeting. He spoke repeatedly of the importance of presidential leadership, including in the realm of values. Adults, he said, teach values to children whether they speak of them or not. The President knows well the power of the bully pulpit, and he can hardly ignore the example his own behavior provides to those in urban neighborhoods whose attachment to family values of commitment and fidelity he recognizes as necessary to his community restoration program.
Beyond that, there is the continuing enigma of the President’s personality and character. Visitors to the White House are reminded of his considerable gifts. Fred Barnes of The New Republic has said that he has never met anyone whose “getting-along” skills exceed Clinton’s, and, upon meeting the President, one is not inclined to disagree. The charm is undeniable. Clinton has a knack for putting people at their ease, and he impresses by not overtly attempting to impress. He speaks modestly, listens carefully when others speak, and engages visitors in genuine conversation. And not even Clinton’s worst enemy would deny his intelligence or powers of articulation.
Yet there are disturbing elements in the Clinton persona. His entire adult life, except for a very brief teaching stint, has been politics, and the cultivation of the qualities of self that go with politics. Indeed, his whole life since adolescence has been, as it were, a perpetual race for student body president. Virtually all who recall him, at any stage, remark his drive for popularity. One recalls such types: ever eager, ever ambitious, with a compulsive need to be not just liked but well-liked, friendly to all and intimate with almost none. The appearance of sincerity is all, and the best of them, like Clinton, manage to disarm the suspicion of those around them who are less popular that they lack a genuine center.
It is difficult to tell with Clinton. The sincerity is apparent, but sometimes one suspects a kind of serial sincerity. At any given moment and in whatever company, the President conveys the impression of the authentically sincere, however incompatible with each other particular moments and company might be. The one constant is the desire to ingratiate.
Such an appraisal may seem unfair, but it is difficult otherwise to make sense of much of the President’s behavior. His governing ideology is all over the place-now populist, now new Democrat, now standard collectivist liberal. He waxes as enthusiastic about homosexual rights as family values. So also, if in different measure, with his personal life. My guess is that no one sitting in the Cabinet Room on the morning of December 17 doubted the sincerity of the President’s expressions of piety, but by the following Monday at least some of us were left wondering how to reconcile such expressions with reports—so far not formally denied—of continuing and wildly irresponsible philandering. After confession, after all, comes repentance, with its accompanying call for amendment of life.
It seems oddly to be the case that in Bill Clinton, now approaching fifty, we have a President still in the making. One comes away from the White House wondering when, if at all, that work in progress might be brought to completion. And to what end.
James Nuechterlein is Editor of First Things.