New Attitudes Toward Private Lives
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 14, 1998; Page A10
"When a man assumes a public trust," President Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1807, "he should consider himself as public property." Of course, Jefferson never had to deal with an independent counsel's 453-page report about his sexual escapades put out on the Internet.
Kenneth W. Starr's stunningly detailed account of President Clinton's extramarital affair with Monica S. Lewinsky was undoubtedly the most direct challenge to presidential privacy in history. But to many legal and cultural observers, the worldwide exposure of Clinton's behavior behind closed doors reflects a gradual erosion of the private sphere not just for presidents, but for all politicians, and to some extent for ordinary Americans as well.
"You have to think that if this can happen to the most powerful man on the planet, then nobody's private life is private anymore," said Lauren Weinstein, moderator of the Privacy Forum on the Internet. "Everything's fair game now."
Starr's four-year investigation began as a probe of Whitewater land deals, the alleged misuse of FBI files and the firings in the White House travel office, but those issues do not factor into the impeachment report he sent to Congress last Wednesday. The report deals only with the president's relationship with Lewinsky, and his alleged efforts to cover it up. And it makes the independent counsel's case in lurid detail, describing the logistics and mechanics of 10 sexual encounters, as well as the various comments and feelings of the two participants.
In his grand jury testimony on Aug. 17, the president accused Starr's team of trying to "criminalize my private life." In his address to the nation that night, Clinton repeated his complaint that the allegations have nothing to do with his public duties.
"I intend to reclaim my family life for my family. It's nobody's business but ours," Clinton said. "Even presidents have private lives. It is time to stop the pursuit of personal destruction and the prying into private lives and get on with our national life."
In an introductory section, "The Significance of the Evidence of Wrongdoing," the Starr report offers a blunt rebuttal to those privacy arguments: "All Americans, including the President, are entitled to enjoy a private family life, free from public or governmental scrutiny. But the privacy concerns raised in this case are subject to limits."
The report cites three specific limits on Clinton's privacy rights. First, it points out that the president had been sued by Paula Jones for sexual harassment, and that the Supreme Court had allowed the case to go forward. Second, it points out that Judge Susan Webber Wright had ordered Clinton to answer questions about Lewinsky. Third, it argues that the unique nature of the presidency requires a higher standard of conduct, and it quotes a former president to that effect: "The Presidency is more than an executive responsibility. It is the inspiring symbol of all that is highest in American purpose and ideals."
The president in question was Herbert Hoover, considered by many to be one of the worst leaders in American history.
To Clinton and his defenders, the problem with Starr's investigation is a failure to distinguish between the president's public and private responsibilities.
The sexual peccadilloes of presidents such as John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Franklin D. Roosevelt were generally considered out of bounds for public discussion. Grover Cleveland faced chants of "Ma, Ma, where's my Pa?" after fathering a child out of wedlock, but voters still chose him to lead the country, prompting the famous rejoinder: "Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!"
"The attitudes have changed. The climate has changed," said Will Johnson, chief archivist at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. "It used to be that photographers couldn't even take pictures of FDR using crutches, but now presidents have no privacy whatsoever."
This has been a perennial presidential complaint, the image of the four-year fishbowl. Harry S. Truman built the Truman balcony on the back of the White House because he wanted a place to sit alone with his wife. Jimmy Carter and his wife used to sunbathe together on the White House roof. Clinton began to bristle about his privacy as soon as he took office, as the media began to scrutinize his golf game, ridicule his eating habits and pester his cat. The problem took a surreal twist during the Jones case, when her court filing alleged that his penis had "distinguishing characteristics."
The Starr report, with its sordid details about cigars and its meticulous reconstructions of intimate conversations, clearly marks a new level of intrusion in the private sphere. But Clinton's critics say he invited the scrutiny by lying about his affair in the Jones case, and then by insisting to Starr's grand jury and to the nation that his responses had been "legally accurate." And they point out that Democrats were in large part responsible for the independent counsel law that gave Starr his power, a law that has no exception for privacy.
"They're hoist by their own petard," said Terry Eastland, a conservative critic of the independent counsel statute of 1978. "It's one thing to sit here talking about the statute and how much people have come to dislike it, but once you have it, you have to enforce it."
In any case, there is a widespread feeling that the explicit sexual revelations about the president are just too much information, that even in the age of Viagra ads and Marv Albert and Jerry Springer, there are some things that consenting adults do that should never become public.
Some House members who voted to release the report on Friday morning regretted their decision by Friday afternoon. Others warned that the recent preemptive disclosures of sexual indiscretions by two of Clinton's most avid congressional critics Reps. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) and Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho) may herald the dawning of an era of full disclosure.
Privacy advocates warn that Americans are already entering that era without realizing it, and not just politicians. They say that privacy protections are being chipped away nationwide, and that individual medical records, computer files and financial information are less secure than ever. Privacy, they say, is not a very popular cause these days.
"People assume there's a right to privacy, but there's no real sense of what that is," the Privacy Forum's Weinstein said. "It's a problem for a president. And it's a problem for everyone else."
Staff writer Thomas B. Edsall contributed to this report.
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