The Age of Indiscretions: Moral Credibility and Political Leadership

Just as the skies of Baghdad were illuminated by detonating cruise missles and America braced itself for the impeachment of the President, high drama has turned to melodrama and farce. Speaker-elect Bob Livingston’s forced admission of adultery has underlined the lack of moral credibility which evidently poses no barrier to high office in American government. Americans have every right to ask: Is there no one in Washington who can keep his pants on?

The new Republican leadership is now morally compromised and in no position to make a clear case for the inherent evil of the President’s own adultery, lies, and cover-up. The case for impeachment, strong as it is, must be made by a majority party now revealed to be led by an adulterer.

As a conservative, I am ready to argue that it is the liberals’ separation of character into distinct personal and public spheres that has produced the Clinton disaster. A generation of narcissistic baby-boomers has long argued that sexual activity between “consenting adults” is off limits for public concern, and that personal character is more political than moral. Thus, argue the liberals, the Clinton scandal is “only about sex,” as if that should end the matter.

But the willingness of the House Republican conference to dismiss adultery in its own leaders rightly calls conservatives on the carpet. This time it isn’t the liberals winking at the mores of the 1960s, but conservatives who appear ready to overlook adultery among their own, so long as the affairs are conducted decently, and in order. Or, as Bill Kristol has explained, Republicans commit adultery like gentlemen.

Conservatives ready to accept this argument ought to shake hands with Bill Clinton and stop trying to argue from the moral high ground. Livingston’s admission, coming just before public exposure, was as ambiguous and evasive as the President’s evolving confessions. Though Livingston has not committed perjury or obstructed justice, his words betrayed a pattern of serial adultery, cloaked in the language of moral evasion—”I have on occasion strayed from my marriage.”

Livingston’s admission came after Rep. Henry Hyde, the revered chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, admitted to a “youthful indiscretion,” which turned out to be an affair of several years conducted with a married when the Congressman was a mature adult, and which led to the breakup of the woman’s marriage.

Following what has become standard form for Republican confessions of adultery, Livingston admitted to “these indiscretions,” while insisting that he had never committed adultery with a staff member or lied about his affairs. “Indiscretion” has become the new code-word for adultery—effectively putting the violation of marriage vows on par with bad table manners. In the Age of Indiscretion, morality is replaced by etiquette.

The marriage vow commits both husband and wife to “keep to Thee and Thee only,” so long as both shall live. Those who break this vow tear the moral fabric of the nation with damage greater than that which follows lying, obstruction of justice, and abusing the public trust. If a man can’t keep that most precious vow to his wife, how can he be trusted to maintain honor, dignity, and morality in high office?

We can be glad that the Livingstons’ marriage has survived adultery, but the Speaker-elect’s statement that “this chapter was a small but painful part of the past in an otherwise wonderful marriage” cannot be true. With the forced public admission of his adultery, Livingston’s sin injures his wife once more, and the issue is anything but past.

H. R. Haldeman, no stranger to political scandal, one time commented, “Once the toothpaste is out of the tube, it’s hard to get it back in.” Members of the Republican majority must fulfill their responsibility to uphold the Constitution in the case of the President, and hold him accountable for his lies and abuses of power. But they must also deal with their own problems, or earn the public’s scorn for hypocrisy.

The Bible makes clear that adultery is not the unforgivable sin, but it is a serious sin, and it cannot be dismissed as an “indiscretion.” Moral credibility is essential to leadership, and private and public character can never be separated. Republicans must deal with their own character crisis—the toothpaste will not go back into the tube.