For Teens, the Political Is Personal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 12, 1999; Page A24
America, says Ronald Holsey, has become a bit too raunchy.
"Have we gotten so detached and so egocentric that we can disregard the feelings of our loved ones for one afternoon of pleasure?" says the Silver Spring 18-year-old. "The '80s defined an era of me, me, me, economically and in terms of the corporate ladder. But I think the '90s is defining a world of me, me, me where relationships and love are concerned."
Diana Seymour, 17, is aggrieved. The sex-lies-impeachment scandal is a wake-up call, cold evidence that the people running the country aren't always trustworthy. "It's not a very nice lesson, but I'm glad I learned it. I would have preferred a much subtler way, though."
Ah, the moral certitude of youth.
A year of controversy has brought teenagers right up to the door of the Oval Office and repulsed them at the same time. This, a group of local teens say in extensive interviews, is their Watergate, their Vietnam, a searing emotional experience that will shape their moral and ethical outlook for the rest of their lives.
The teens describe a loss of innocence. Their image of the president is tarnished, leaving them in a premature confrontation with the most private of adult dilemmas.
It has turned some kids off politics, while hardly fazing others. Gathered at a Bethesda ice cream parlor near the end of the impeachment trial, some teens talk about a sense that the political process has been grossly violated, that even the leader the teens think of as the First Philanderer deserved his day in court and got jobbed by having intimate details of his encounter prematurely released.
Because Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton are so much like the teens' parents -- in age, in some cases even in appearance -- it has forced some of them to think about how they'd feel if it were their parents who'd strayed from each other.
Rebecca Regan Sachs is 15. Her first taste of champagne was when Bill Clinton was elected in 1992. She says her parents, like the Clintons, are baby boomers and Democrats. And her mom's hairstyle looks like the first lady's -- "not the head-bandy one, but kinda curled at the edges, chin-length."
So when news of l'affaire Lewinsky broke, she couldn't help but think of her parents. "If it were my father doing this, I would feel really awful for my mother, but I guess that's how awful Chelsea must be feeling," says the Bethesda teen. "I would feel that I wasn't such an important part in my father's life. . . . I would just feel betrayed. My whole world of stability would just be shattered."
Adults often look pragmatically at the scandal and the questions it raises about morality and honesty, says Holsey, a long, lean achiever at Blair High, where the senior co-founded the Esperanto Club. But it is the personal that really animates him, makes his brown eyes widen, his hands slice through the air.
"How can somebody be such a jerk to his wife like that? How can they all just be like in the movies, where people . . . are uncaring, where you're [so] self-centered that this is bigger than your salary, bigger than politics, bigger than your friends?
"That," he says, "is my heart of hearts, my innermost feeling on this thing."
Wesley Hotott, a political junkie, aspiring writer and religion scholar from Herndon, has watched dejectedly as the cavalcade of revelations about sex in high places has desensitized him to the tawdriness of adult life.
Hotott, like the others, believes that marriage, sexuality and family values have slipped since they entered adolescence. "I've only been around for 18 years. But I can already see a degeneration of that. The divorce rate is through the roof. You have infidelity seen as common. You're lucky if your spouse doesn't cheat on you."
It's not a good state of affairs, some of the teens believe, but it might lead people to become more realistic about marriage. "I come from a broken family," says Hotott, who lives with his father, a government accountant (Mom works for a defense contractor). "Now, maybe [because] it's reached the presidential level, maybe some people will start to say, 'Hey, maybe we're on the wrong track. Maybe not everyone needs to be married, make that commitment.' "
If every generation has a moment of political disillusionment, a rite of passage in which idealism is forced to confront reality, the Clinton scandal has served that purpose many times over for Seymour, a junior at Wilson High in the District.
"This kills all my hopes of political office," she announces, pushing herself back from the table.
"I was thinking it might be fun to be on the city council, really do something that I cared about. But if this is the kind of thing that's going on, I would not want a part of it."
But Holsey maintains that despite the scandal, he might one day run for office -- after he's retired. "I think holding political office is a great thing," he says. Seymour says she's afraid the scandal will turn away all but saints from the political process. Look, she says, there've been tons of presidents who've had sex outside of marriage. "Jefferson, I mean. He wrote the Declaration of Independence. Where would we have been if he had not been president? He bought Louisiana!" Holsey flashes a mischievous grin. "We need another Bush as president. Bush was the greatest president I've lived through!"
Seymour cuts in: "But he threw up on the Japanese prime minister! That wasn't great!"
Seriously, she says, "If you're a paragon of virtue, you're not going to have the wide range of experience and views and understanding of other people. Where would we be if we had a president who was convinced that having sex outside of marriage should be a federal crime?"
The teens generally agree the president is a cad. He let his family down. He's also someone whose most intimate habits -- his choice of underwear, of women -- are openly shared on MTV and the Jay Leno show. Which brings him down to their level, in a way.
"There's a sense among some kids in my grade that the president is just a player like everyone else," says Regan Sachs, a sophomore at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High. "I wouldn't want to be in a room alone with him."
As Clinton has achieved power, he's taken a lot for granted, including women, she says. "There's a lot of power in that office," she says. "Some guy thinks that applies to all aspects of his life, and that gives him an excuse to womanize."
A gender gap emerges on this point.
Holsey, despite his revulsion at what he calls Clinton's "ultimate self-centeredness," says the president isn't all that bad morally. On a morality scale of 1 to 10, with serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer being a 1, he'd rate Clinton a 6. "He didn't maim anyone. Or kill anybody. In the grand scheme of all things moral, it wasn't that serious. . . . Although Dr. Laura would tell you something different."
Hotott even feels sorry for the president. "He made a mistake that has completely blown up in his face. I feel bad when that happens to anybody."
He does not see how Monica Lewinsky could believe that she and Clinton would ever have had a normal relationship. "Even if the president did love her and they got married," says the Herndon High student, "that would still not be a normal relationship. Do Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles have a normal relationship? No."
Seymour, meanwhile, feels sorriest for Lewinsky. "She was young and she miscalculated and now her name is getting dragged through the mud and now everyone is criticizing her dress size. I don't think it was really fair for them to portray her as sleazy or a slut, especially given some of their own personal histories."
Hotott's take on Lewinsky is simpler: "Delusional," he says. "Obviously delusional."
Regan Sachs fears that the scandal sends a signal not only that men can have extramarital affairs and get away with it, but that women have just not made that much progress.
The scandal would never have happened "if there weren't women who were insecure enough to do that," she says. "I feel really awful that Monica just felt so comfortable going up to the leader of the Free World and baring her underwear. There's something really wrong with that."
And Regan Sachs has mixed feelings about Hillary Clinton's decision to stay with a man who was going to be elected president, but who "might not be a good husband," she says. That approach might set women back, sending a message that if you want power, "you just put up with everything a guy does and his wants are the most important. If she was at all putting herself first, she would have been out of the relationship."
As much as the teens personalize the news and think of themselves as Lewinsky, the first lady or the president, they cannot envision themselves handling the crisis the way Bill Clinton did.
Holsey struggles with the very concept. He straightens his blue Izod pullover and concludes, "I might have lied to spare my family the pain and embarrassment." But if he had gotten caught, he says, he couldn't complain. "But hopefully I wouldn't be in that situation," he says, with all that moral certitude. "I don't see myself being in that situation."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company