How do the Clintons do it? No matter how unethical or just plain tacky their behavior, it elicits little more than a collective shrug of the shoulders from much of the public. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the former New York senator whose seat Hillary Clinton now occupies, had a phrase for it: defining deviancy down. Mr. Moynihan used the term to describe what had happened, starting in the 1960s, when behavior that had once been deemed deviant was suddenly considered acceptable, for example, using drugs or having babies out of wedlock.
With the Clintons, deviancy became the norm. It was the scandal-a-month administration. Once the public had gotten over the president having oral sex with a 21-year-old intern in the Oval Office, who could possibly get exercised that some of the White House furniture turned up missing when the Clintons vacated the premises? After all, the pieces weren’t priceless antiques, just a checkerboard and a few other odds and ends, as one Clinton defender referred to items totaling almost $30,000.
The key is to make the public believe that “everyone does it,” as Clinton apologists are now doing in the pages of the New York Times and elsewhere. “Jacqueline Kennedy took a pair of valuable antique tables. Millard Fillmore took a coach and six bay horses, then sold them after he left the presidency. Ronald and Nancy Reagan, after his two terms in office, left the White House with more than $1 million worth of dresses, jewelry, shoes and accessories,” wrote John Leland in the Sunday New York Times. Former White House chief of staff John Podesta “reminded” viewers of ABC’s “This Week” that President Reagan accepted a $2 million house from his friends when he left the White House an oft-repeated canard that refers to a fully repaid personal “bridge” loan the former president received while he was in the process of selling one property and purchasing another.
What the defining-presidential-deviancy-down crowd doesn’t want us to know is that most presidents and their wives haven’t behaved as the Clintons did. Presidents are allowed to receive private gifts, even expensive ones (unlike their staff, who are limited to gifts worth less than $50). But modern laws require public disclosure and the Clintons failed to disclose the goods they now claim were “private gifts.” Nor, apparently, were several of these items meant for the Clintons’ personal use at all. But the Clinton apologists want to blur such distinctions.
Of course, the same thing happened during the Lewinsky scandal and Bill Clinton’s subsequent impeachment. Suddenly, Thomas Jefferson’s alleged affair with Sally Hemings became big news sparking a study tying one of Hemings’ male descendants to Jefferson, never mind that the evidence showed only that the man was related to Jefferson’s paternal uncle, not Jefferson himself. There were dozens of stories about other putative presidential mistresses, from Franklin Roosevelt’s friendship with Lucy Mercer to stories of Dwight Eisenhower’s alleged love affair with his female driver during World War II a relationship that was denied, and others who knew Ike well during the war say was never intimate.
The point in all these stories, true or not, was to make Mr. Clinton’s behavior seem less objectionable. In an age of moral relativism, anything goes, so long as enough people do it. Of course we used to believe that our leaders were or should be our betters, to use an old-fashioned term. We expected that even if we knew some people might steal towels from the Holiday Inn, we didn’t expect the first family to take the linen from the Lincoln Bedroom. But then we didn’t expect they would rent it out to the highest campaign contributors either, and we got over whatever qualms we had about that without much ado.
George and Laura Bush have a lot of work to do over the next four years, reacquainting us with the proper behavior we should expect from the White House occupants.