Conversation On Clinton
September 29, 1998
Elizabeth Farnsworth has a conversation with Stephen Carter on issues raised by the Clinton/Lewinsky Scandal.
JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight we begin a series of conversations about issues raised by the conduct and the investigation of President Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky matter. Over the next several days we will talk one at a time to Orlando Patterson, William F. Buckley, Jr., and Deborah Tannen, among others. Elizabeth Farnsworth, in San Francisco, has the first conversation.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And joining me now for that is Stephen Carter, a professor at Yale Law School and author of, among other books, "Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy." Thanks for being with us.
STEPHEN CARTER, Yale University Law School: It's my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times you wrote: "In the current uneasy moment there is a chance for genuine moral rejuvenation which the nation desperately needs." What did you mean by that?
STEPHEN CARTER: One of the great weaknesses in America today is our reluctance to engage in genuine moral conversation, to talk openly with each other about what's right and wrong. With the current scandal in Washington what parents everywhere are asking is, what do I tell my children, what do I tell my children? And the answer, it seems to me, begins with saying that we tell our children there is such a thing as right and such a thing as wrong. That beginning already is one that Americans are often reluctant to join, but one that we need to start talking about.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why? Why is it so important?
STEPHEN CARTER: You know, let me give you a couple of examples of why it's so important. There have been surveys in recent years that tell us that somewhere between 40 percent and 60 percent of college students admit to cheating on exams, and those are just the ones who admit to having done it. And quite apart from the current scandal in Washington, hardly a week goes by when we don't read of someone else convicted of insider trading or another politician caught with his hand in the till. But somehow what's going on in America is we have more and more adults signaling to children that there is no real right and wrong; there's only the pursuit of personal advantage, the pursuit of individual achievement. Somehow we have to find a way from the current mess to build a conversation with our children and with other adults about how to build a better society.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you think this conversation, this sense of right and wrong, is important not only for us as individuals but as a nation. You think it's important to Americans, to America.
STEPHEN CARTER: The United States of America is a great and wonderful nation with its flaws but a wonderful place. And one of the things that has made it wonderful in the past, I think, has been the belief that most Americans share in a set of values, set of virtues, if you will, that we think are important for adults to hold. One of the things that's happening in the current scandal is a lot of people are saying, oh, well, it's important for the president to be a role model. That's what his critics are saying. It seems to me that that's only a tiny piece of the answer. Of course, the president has a responsibility to young people but so do other adults. That is to say, the question is not what should the president do, how should the president behave; the question is, how should all of us adults behave, what are the responsibilities that all of us have to model virtuous behavior in a time when many Americans - most Americans in the surveys think the nation has lost its moral bearings.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It's a sort of national moral conversation you want, is that right?
STEPHEN CARTER: I think it's important, and I know that people are a little scared to talk about morality. Whenever someone says morality, somebody else says, oh, well, you're trying to take away my fundamental rights. That's why you say morality. One of the things that I think both sides are missing in the current Washington dilemma is that virtues - the elements of good character - they're not cudgels with which to win partisan arguments - they're not tools to be used to beat other people over the heads. They're rules to live by, rules to live by that adults voluntarily take on because we think they're good. Take just one example. Telling the truth is better than lying. Almost everybody believes that. None of us perhaps tell the truth as often as we should, but most of us try to do it pretty much all the time. That's not something that the law always controls. It's not something the law always should try to control. But it is something that we, as adults, should try to take on as a responsibility. And when our children hear us saying, oh, tell her I'm not home, I don't want to talk to her, when somebody calls on the phone we'd rather not hear from, we're teaching our children already that lies are actually convenient tools to be used to get out of tough situations.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I was interested in your op-ed piece. You don't really let anybody off the hook here. As you said, it's not just about the president, but you criticized Mr. Starr. You criticized the American people. About the American people you say the polls show "an alarming display of cynicism."
STEPHEN CARTER: One of the things that I worry about in America is our tendency as a people to become so caught up in our own gaining of advantage that we don't think enough about others or about the national interest. There have been a lot of commentators who've suggested that a lot of the support for President Clinton, support that continues very strong, remains high because people say, well, the economy is going well, my wallet is full, and that's why I support him. I hope that isn't the reason, because that would be a remarkably cynical view that people can do whatever they like as long as they keep us relatively affluent. I would like to believe that a lot of the support that we see for President Clinton is actually a kind of almost a one-on-one contest. They look at President Clinton's conduct, look at Kenneth Starr's conduct, look at the hearings that they are fearful may begin on Capitol Hill, and they're thinking, you know, as bad as what the president did may have been, that these other things, the Starr investigation and the coming hearings, those frighten people a little bit. That may seem to be even a little worse.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what about the argument that - let's just talk about the main issue here - that adultery is essentially private, that we shouldn't be encouraging some kind of public conversation about this; this is a private matter; it should be dealt with between - within the family, or between a person and their minister.
STEPHEN CARTER: I think the adultery is private in the sense that it is wrong, deeply wrong, to spend the government resources to try to ferret it out. But we have to recognize that adultery also represents the kind of breaking of trust, the kind of shattering of commitment that harms the family, the family being for most of us the central institution on which the nation is built. That doesn't mean that adultery is unforgivable and doesn't mean we have to constantly talk about it. But when it occurs, whether it occurs with a president or with family and friends, it's important to recognize its wrongfulness and to be able to articulate that to our children and in conversations with each other.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And another term that I was struck by - you said the national conscience is not defeated; it's exhausted. Explain that.
STEPHEN CARTER: You know, one of the things that's happened over the last couple of decades in the wake of Watergate, perhaps in the wake of Vietnam has been what one journalist referred to as the scandal a week problem, that is, that somehow that the media have tried to play up so many stories as though everything is equally scandalous that by the time you come upon something that really is important, it's often very hard to grab people's attention. Moreover, we live in a morally confused time. There are a lot of battles going on. Some people call them the culture wars. Whatever one may call them, there are a lot of battles that go on in America today about just what are the lines of right and wrong. Those battles tend to wear people out, I think sometimes, and yet, they're battles that it's important to fight, because children need to be raised in a world in which they understand clearly from adult behavior that there's such a thing as right and such a thing as wrong, and consequences when one does the wrong, rather than the right. When we don't raise children that way, we end up with the 40 to 60 percent of college students cheating, and we may be mad at them for it, but we should scarcely be surprised.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So in a strange way you really see this - it's not strange but in a very interesting way you see this as an opportunity for America.
STEPHEN CARTER: I think it's important to look at it that way. A lot of the commentators have been saying people are exhausted by this, people are worn out, people can't take anymore. And I share some of those sentiments. But I think, you know, they say, when they give you lemons, make lemonade. The point is that when we have this kind of scandal, when we have this depth of national difficulty, the important thing to do is to look at it and say what lessons can we take from it, what can we tell the children, how can we turn this to our advantage as we try to grow into a more morally virtuous nation?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And finally, Mr. Carter, on a slightly different note, I'm curious about your views on why the support for President Clinton is so much higher among African-Americans than among whites, and I'll give you one figure here. A recent New York Times/CBS poll shows that about 69 percent of African-Americans have a favorable opinion of the president compared to 34 percent of white Americans. Why the strong support, in your view?
STEPHEN CARTER: Well, I think one of the reasons certainly is that black Americans have a perception of having suffered a great deal under Republican administrations over the 12 years before President Clinton. It doesn't matter whether someone thinks the perception is right or wrong. The fact is the perception is there. And I think there's a lot of fear among African-Americans about what happened with Republicans to get back into the White House. I think it's very important work for the Republicans to do, to try to reassure the black community that they are not, in fact, the community's enemies, which is a widely shared perception, I think, among African-Americans today, especially in the cities.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Stephen Carter, thank you very much for being with us.
STEPHEN CARTER: It's been my pleasure. Thank you.
JIM LEHRER: We'll talk to sociologist Orlando Patterson tomorrow night. Others we will hear from over the next few weeks include William F. Buckley, Jr. and Deborah Tannen.