When I first decided on this sermon topic in mid-January, it was in response to the lead article in the December issue of “Atlantic Monthly” on the future of democracy. In it the author, Robert Kaplan, makes several thought-provoking points. For one, he demonstrates that democracy is not a viable system of governance unless other criteria are in place: a high level of literacy, and economic and social stability. He cites the failure of democracy - as exported by the US - to take hold in many third world countries due to the lack of one or all of these factors. Even Russia, despite its 99% literacy rate, presently lacks the economic climate required for democracy. While Singapore, on the other hand, is flourishing despite its despotic rule.
But of more immediate concern to the future of this nation is the erosion of power to elected officials in favor of power ceded to multinational corporations, which exhibit no particular national loyalty. Kaplan cites the fact that even Amnesty International briefs the conglomerates along with national leadership. And he contends that an apathetic US electorate is willing to trade some of its freedoms for social and economic security - witness the increase of gated communities.
Democracy is a fragile institution, yet one which we UUs value highly - respect for the democratic process in one of our Seven Principles. Yet, at times, that process can be maddeningly slow. Some thirty years ago I worked for the Lung Association in St. Petersburg, FL. When those of us on the program staff had an idea for a new activity, we’d go the executive director. He was the one who had the final responsibility for the use of our resources - the one with the big picture. We’d present our ideas and within five minutes we’d have an answer - go or no go. If we were creative, we got more yesses than nos. If we did well, it reflected favorably on the director. This was an autocracy, but a benevolent one. And, as our reputation for successful programming grew, the director was hired away by a larger affiliate in Texas.
The new director had a very different management style. There were no quick decisions. Every programming idea was discussed at length by the entire staff - it could take weeks to get a final decision. So the work of the agency came to a virtual standstill. One day the staff nurse came to me in total frustration. She couldn’t even order supplies for our emphysema clinic until the director decided if we should switch from disposable to reusable equipment. I tried to calm her by explaining that democracy was a slow process. And, somehow, we bumbled along. despite the cost in efficiency. Yet I came to understand that this was pseudo-democracy. The new director had his own agenda - he was using the democratic process to evaluate the staff and assure his own power. I was told he considered me a threat because I had so many ideas!
In whatever form it takes, governance is about power. Certainly, the price one pays to hold public office in the beltway is currently too high (both financially and in loss of personal privacy) to attract anyone not driven primarily by motives of power. When the framers of our Constitution set up our system of checks and balances, it was with the memory of Cromwell’s England still fresh: they were trying to protect this nation from despots. Surely they never anticipated that a petulant Congress could bring the gears of government to a grinding halt by trying to affix anti-abortion legislation to appropriations bills.
Another major concern of Kaplan’s in the decline of democracy is the decline of connectedness which typifies much of contemporary life and politics. Even the so-called Robber Barons felt some moral need to return something to their communities in the form of endowed libraries, art galleries, universities and hospitals - some need to promote the public welfare. Contrast that to the pork barrel deals struck in congressional cloakrooms - deals based more on greed and a lust for power than the public good. Somewhere along the way in the history of this country the ideals of public service have been set aside, and we are paying th price.
When many of us were young, there was no such holiday as Presidents’ Day. There was Lincoln’s birthday, followed shortly by Washington’s birthday, though the former was usually not celebrated in many of the Southern schools I attended. But my early formative years were spent in a private school at Langley Field - now Langley AFB. And we were taught to respect the virtues of both these admirable leaders.
There was probably as much myth as fact in these early lessons. The story of George Washington’s ‘fessing up to having chopped down a cherry tree. And young Abe walking five miles back to a store (probably in a blizzard) to return an extra penny which had mistakenly been given him in change. As I grew older and recognized the apocryphal nature of these gentle tales. I wasn’t disillusioned: the message of personal integrity as a requirement for leadership was still valid.
Hardly anyone in this country today is naive about the human foibles and fallibility of our leaders, past and present. Even if the school textbooks gloss over some of the salacious facts, TV documentaries have painted their portraits with a much broader brush. Washington was so vilified by the press that he was reluctant to run for a second term, inviting the electorate to impeach him if it did not believe he was doing his best for the country. The opposition has never been particularly loyal to our national leaders.
And yet, up to the present time, the media has for the most part separated a leader’s personal life from his public acts. Certainly, there were those who knew about the extra- marital exploits of such men as Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson. But they were not made public during the term of office - the period of public office. The dignity of the office was protected. Apologies and explanations were owed to the aggrieved families, not the public.
Do we have a right to expect more of certain people than we do of others? Certainly we expect our clergy to strive for moral excellence - I accepted that when I accepted this calling. We expect physicians and counselors not to exploit vulnerable patients; teachers not to exploit students; employers not to exploit employees. These expectations are expressed in both professional codes and civil law. And there are strict consequences for violating these codes and laws.
So how are we to react to the current presidential scandal? Certainly, if true, there is plenty of blame to go around. As is more and more the case, Clinton has already undergone trial-by-media. The actions and motives of the special prosecutor (an office created with virtually no checks and balances) bear close examination. In taking the high moral ground and probing into personal acts that have nothing to do with the execution of public office, he seems to have forced a series of evasive half truths and possibly even lies. I’m reminded of some of the plots of the TV series “Law and Order”, when the DA takes the high moral ground against a known public enemy and tries a variety of charges - murder, extortion, larceny, tax evasion - until something finally succeeds. But our president is not a known public enemy. We should not tolerate such tactics.
Then there is the so-called victim. An insecure young woman, emulating her social climbing mother, who early on expressed an ambition to have sex with the president. If she is to be believed, it was not a mutually satisfying relationship, but one which gives pleasure primarily to the male. And that is exploitive, consentual or not. Her pleasure was restricted to bragging rights, which she seems to have exercised widely. It’s a tawdry affair, all around.
And what does it say to the youth of this country? The myths we were raised on of presidential integrity now seem a sham. Editors of school publications are in a quandary: how should the Weekly Reader respond to reporting a scandal which young children hear about every time they turn on the TV? I was particularly distressed with an interview one of the Norfolk stations did with a high school student group touring Washington a few days after the scandal broke. Some of them said that this served to make the president seem more human, and thus a career in politics appeared more interesting. What a tragic commentary on the state of our nation!
But in the final count the primary responsibility rests with the president. And Bill Clinton is not known for candor. How could he, with a straight face, say that Saddam Hussein must take responsibility for his actions and recognize that there will be consequences otherwise? How, in the present circumstances, can our President expect to have credibility either at home or to the rest of the world?
It’s far from certain that we’ll ever know the whole truth of this sorry affair. Since the beginning of time sexual prowess has been equated with power - an exploitive perk of office. It is not up to me to forgive any president his infidelities - that’s between him and his wife. And I would certainly admire someone who could admit such lapses, and even seek counseling for sexual addiction. In that, I seem to be in agreement with the majority of Americans. What we would find unacceptable is a blatant lie, or asking others to lie in his behalf. In that regard, things haven’t changed so much. If that standard of integrity stood for George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, it must stand for Bill Clinton as well.
It’s a bitter irony that such a shabby event has brought this country to the brink of political crisis. I won’t try to speculate how this crisis will play itself out. But at the very least it offers us an opportunity to rethink the standards we set for public officials. To recognize how far away from the ideals of our founders have the corridors of power taken us. If democracy ends as only an empty shell - if it proves to be a transitory system whose time has passed - then most of the blame must fall to an apathetic electorate.
I’ve lived too long to still believe that humanity is very often motivated purely by altruism. And, certainly, this isn’t the first time our democracy has withstood the test of a presidential scandal. Yet isn’t it time that we let the public good have equal time? Time that altruism can again temper our baser natures? And time that we elect leaders who respect the dignity of the office and understand that character also influences one’s place in history? If we, as professing Unitarian Universalists, really cherish our democratic ideas, how can we seek for less than that? Perhaps then we can once again celebrate Presidents’ Day with pride. Perhaps then democracy will have a future. Amen...so be it.