Their Morals and Ours

Never miss an opportunity to steal a headline from Leon Trotsky, that’s what I say. Mark Schmitt, meanwhile, has wise words on the subject that he attributes to Hendrik Hertzberg:

[T]he idea that stuck with me, and that has seemed hugely relevant through all the Clinton melodrama and into the Bush era, is that there is a symbiotic relationship between the weakening of the boundaries of private life, and the denigrating of the public sphere. The more we made the private public, the more we would erode the idea of the public sphere as a separate one with its own moral obligations. The more the boundary is smudged, the more private virtues substitute for public duties, and private vices are allowed to distort and twist the public debate about health care or taxation, the more illegitimate and merely a matter of individual preference will the larger moral choices we make as a society seem.

This is obviously a helpful insight into Bill Clinton, especially coming at the moment when he seems to have almost given up, and allowed so many of his television interviews to be devoted more to his private shame than his public record, rather than holding firm as he did in 1998. But it is also key to the understanding of George W. Bush’s bizarre glorification of private morality. “I will restore honor and integrity to the White House” meant absolutely nothing more than that he would refrain from screwing the interns, for which we are expected to give thanks.

I’ve been thinking about this topic lately and I think you’ll see a proper essay on it from me in the not-too-distant future, but one point I’ve been thinking about is this. There’s a very real sense in which the ideals of private morality — of being a good husband, father, and friend, say — is strictly incompatible with the demands that public morality places on our high officials. It’s always treated as a joke when people say they’re leaving the government in order to “spend more time with my family” but there’s really nothing funny about it. The senior staff in the White House, in the cabinet departments, and in the congress really don’t get to spend much time with their families, at least not if they’re doing their jobs right. And unlike very busy people in the private sector, working hard doesn’t even serve the goal of enriching the family. When it’s done right, it’s a person’s conscious decision to sacrifice his private obligations to family in pursuit of the public interest.

This probably means that people with high political ambitions aren’t great marriage candidates. But it also means that people whose highest aspiration is to properly discharge their private duties isn’t a very good candidate for high office. Bill Clinton often claims that the hardest, most important, job he ever had was that of father. This is a nice “feel good” line — it makes us feel like Clinton is in touch with the values of common decency that most of us hold dear. But in his case it’s also patently false. A big part of what made him a better President of the United States than George W. Bush is that he thought being President of the United States was the hardest, most important job he ever had. That’s the sort of person you want to have as president. You almost certainly wouldn’t want to be his wife or his daughter. It seems that in a sense he had so many “friends” that he must not have had any real friends. And yet he really and truly wanted to — and did — focus on trying his best to do a good job discharging his office. He wasn’t 100% successful at this, any more than anyone is 100% successful at discharging their private obligations, but he was pretty clearly trying in a way that the current occupant of the White House is not.