Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Private Affair or Public Business?

Jerry Herbert


May 11, 1998

Chief U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson told President Clinton that he could not use executive privilege to block prosecutors from questioning his senior aides in the Monica Lewinsky investigation. If upheld, Johnson's order removes a major obstacle to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's probe into whether Clinton lied under oath about having a sexual relationship with Lewinsky (Washington Post, May 6).

But President Clinton, still riding high in opinion polls, insisted at a press conference held only days before the ruling that as long as he was in office the White House would not release any more details on the Lewinsky case, this despite earlier assurances that he would withhold nothing.

What is more upsetting: the president's behavior, or the polls showing that a majority of Americans approve of the job the President is doing even while believing that he had some sort of sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky?

James Q. Wilson says polls show that most Americans think the president had an affair with Monica Lewinsky but also feel the president's private life is a private matter (Wall Street Journal, February 13). At the same time, however, Americans believe the president should resign if he lied under oath about the affair. Wilson is troubled that Americans seem unwilling to link these two beliefs. The President said under oath he didn't have an affair. If most Americans believe he did, shouldn't they be calling for his resignation? Wilson calls Americans confused.

Could our confused unwillingness to link such beliefs be rooted in our inability to properly distinguish the private from the public? In this case have we mistaken an act in public office as private behavior? Jean Bethke Elshtain explains, that precisely because it is important to understand and respect the distinction between public and private life, the Monica Lewinsky affair makes her question President Clinton's character and public judgment (The New Republic, March 23).

The polls suggest that many of us do not want to judge the personal behavior of another person—particularly the president. That would be an illegitimate invasion of his private life. But as Elshtain points out, judgment of a public official about publicly relevant actions is the heart and soul of politics. As citizens we must make judgments based on certain criteria of assessment. And a public official's behavior is part of what we are required to evaluate. The President's sexual behavior toward an intern is publicly relevant in a way that the privacy of his marriage is not.

Such a judgment does not obliterate the distinction between public and private life that the polls tell us most Americans want to respect. On the contrary, such a judgment requires the discernment to distinguish personal behavior that is properly private from behavior that is publicly relevant. Elshtain correctly sees that we Americans seem to have lost the ability to make coherent distinctions. And Wilson notes the resulting disconnect that renders our public judgments confused.

Politics is not everything. It is qualified and limited by other arenas of life, such as family life. But it is precisely the inability to see this kind of public-private differentiation that can lead to reckless behavior in public life. To argue that personal behaviors derived from holding and using public office are private matters beyond public accountability fails to recognize the true nature and limits of both politics and private life. Elshtain argues that a proper distinction between the private and the public was ignored by the president and his people. And if Wilson is right, it is also being ignored by the American people

—Jerry Herbert, Trustee
   Center for Public Justice

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”