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Looking for character in an unlikely place

by Ralph Heller

hat astounded many overseas observers was not the report that the President of the United States may have become romantically involved with a 21-year-old-intern, but the disclosure that the White House now employs no fewer than 250 interns!

In England Prime Minister Tony Blair has interns, too, of course—exactly three of them at present, the first ever to work at 10 Downing Street. They were hired following Hillary Clinton’s visit to England during which she convinced the Blairs of the glories of the White House intern program. History is never without its little ironies, it seems.

As reported last month in The Economist, the British magazine that is now the most influential periodical on earth, management of 10 Downing Street and operation of the White House are as different as night and day. Mr. Blair’s press secretary works alone, for example, sometimes proof-reading his own work while simultaneously taking phone calls from inquiring journalists. By way of unsettling contrast, the White House Press Office has 100 employees and operates on a budget of over $100 million a year.

When Clinton visited England, his "advance team" was as big as Blair’s entire staff, and Hillary Clinton’s White House staff outnumbers Blair’s entire policy team. (Mrs. Blair—Cherie—gets along with just two part-time aides.)

It is slowly but surely dawning on the U.S. electorate that in our tolerance of what has become an "Imperial Presidency" we may have spawned a monster we won’t be able to control. One has to go back to pre-Truman days to find an American president served by as small a team as the 30 or so advisers who now serve Mr. Blair. Yet somehow, you’ll note, faced with World War II, the greatest challenge in U.S. history, Roosevelt’s modest staff was adequate.

Increasingly it becomes obvious that the cloak of thick protective insulation afforded chief executives in an "Imperial Presidency" invites the sort of misbehavior most Americans associate with presidents like John Kennedy and Bill Clinton. The U.S. press, of course, would have us believe that Kennedy and Clinton did nothing that men like Eisenhower and F.D.R. were not also guilty of, but this is nonsense. Ike’s solitary "fling" was with his jeep driver during his Army days and ended when he was told to bring it to a halt, and Roosevelt’s much publicized "romance" was actually a close friendship of decades.

Paralyzed from the waist down because of Polio and in a wheelchair while leading the free world in the greatest of all struggles, few would resent such a close friendship in which he found comfort.

None of this relates more than tangentially to the obsessive womanizing of Kennedy and Clinton which has far more to do with uncontrolled ego than with sex, psychologists tell us. There have always been those who rationalize such conduct, of course.

Historian Will Durant reminded us that the Greeks of Plato’s day behaved very much like the French of today—and as Professor Henry Higgins reminded us in "My Fair Lady," "The French don’t care what they do, actually, just so long as they pronounce it properly."

Indeed, many Europeans, believing themselves to be more sophisticated than we are, think it is immature to judge politicians by other than public consequences that can be measured like economic growth, to which syndicated columnist George Will came up with the best response. Nothing in Europe’s sophisticated political sensibilities (which some call "realism"), he notes, has served as an adequate defense against the emergence of Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, Franco or Hitler.

In other words, character does matter, and most of us sense this unerringly. This is why during press coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky story so many Americans sensed sadly that something essential in American life has been lost, and that somehow an increasingly manipulative "Imperial White House" equipped with hundreds of employees dedicated to "spin control" has opened up a yawning credibility gap between the presidency and the American people.

It is high character—as well as intelligence—that distinguishes a Washington, a Lincoln or a Teddy Roosevelt, while our present president reminds one of nothing quite so much as an exceptionally bright high school boy who has had lots of experience with high school girls, but who has displayed few signs of growing up.

Meanwhile the American people are left with a deeply disturbing image of a 21-year-old intern on her knees before the most powerful man on earth. Whether or not that image turns out to have been accurate may not be so important to the United States as the fact that there was nothing about the story most Americans found remotely unbelievable. u

Ralph Heller is Senior Consulting Editor for Nevada Journal.


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