October 13, 1998
JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight another of our conversations about the issues raised by the conduct and the investigation of President Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky matter. We have talked to Stephen Carter, Orlando Patterson, William F. Buckley, and Deborah Tannen. Elizabeth Farnsworth in San Francisco has tonight's.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And tonight's conversation is with Shelby Steele, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and author of "A Dream Deferred: The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America." Thanks for being with us.
SHELBY STEELE: Thanks for having me.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You begin a September 25th Wall Street Journal op ed piece by criticizing this statement made by Tom Harkin of Iowa. President Clinton is "a failed human being but a good president." What's wrong with that statement?
SHELBY STEELE: Well, I think the reason I used it is that I think it's sort of indicates the kind of dubious achievement that I think my own baby boomer generation may have contributed to America's political culture, which is to separate virtuousness from personal responsibility so that one's virtuousness as an individual is more determined by one's political positions on issues and so forth than on whether or not in one's personal life there is - there is a consistency and a responsibility. And I think President Clinton is probably indicative of this split that advocates a kind of political virtuousness that need not necessarily be tied to anything in his personal life.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So, and you're saying that the baby boomer generation here - are you talking about the 60's here? Is that what you're really referring to?
SHELBY STEELE: Yes. Those of us who sort of came of age - I'm probably at the older end of it, but I did come of age in the 60's.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I know you're saying that "we" - baby boomers - redefined virtue in a sense.
SHELBY STEELE: Yes. Something very significant, I think, happened in the 60's. For one thing, it was a civil rights movement. There was Vietnam. On the other hand, our parents' generation, our parents had been people who I think took personal responsibility very seriously, who were a self-sacrificing generation, believed in honor on the personal level and so forth, and yet, they also tolerated things like segregation, a sort of second class role for women. They sort of marched into a war that -- without much reflection. And so on the public -
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You're talking about Vietnam there.
SHELBY STEELE: Yes, Vietnam, and so on a public level they - in a sense - they didn't stack up very well. And since they - they carried a bit of a shame of America. As young people in rebelling - and all young people do - we could look at them and we could say well, you know, you may be honorable in your personal life and you may have sacrificed and you may have fought in the wars and so forth, but look at what you've tolerated. And your toleration of these things has shamed America, and so we're going to redeem America and, you know, one of the ways we're going to do that is we're going to say, we're going to redefine virtuousness. We're going to say that virtuousness really is a result of your - of a sophisticated civilized politics, rather than something in your personal life.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you say this - you call this a boomer ethic, I think, and you say, "It spills toxicity into the culture," and you relate this to the president. Explain that.
SHELBY STEELE: Well, it is - because it is a corruption. It really has - when you separate - and the quote by Harkin, people say that, well, this was his sex life, and it has no bearing on his public life because really my point is that's a corruption because, in a sense, it says that there is no - the personal responsibility is in no way tied to one's virtuousness. When you allow that idea to go out into the culture, you say that I can be virtuous merely by identifying with good causes so that if I support, you know, affirmative action, or I am a pro-choice, or I am, you know, for gun control, whatever the cause may be, that's what makes me virtuousness - virtuous - even though in my private life I may be disrespectful of women, I may not have any relations with people of other races and so forth. So you - you validate this corruption when you redefine virtuousness as nothing more than something you can have by identifying with something.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So you would disagree with the Senator and you don't believe one could be "a failed human being" but a good president?
SHELBY STEELE: They're mutually exclusive. Because President Clinton has failed as a human being, it has caused him also to violate his trust with the American people to lie over and over again, to mislead us, to use his words, and it has, in a sense, destroyed his moral authority as a leader, and that's all a part of this - of the - you know, it's not just sex, but sex is what led him to do all of these other things, and we're in a sense - we're in a sense saying to him at this point, are you going to be responsible for the other things, as well as the sex?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What would you say to those who would say that he's part of - another part of the boomer generation, the part that risked a lot, for example, in Mississippi to fight for voter's rights and put their personal responsibility on the line there, that he - in devoting his life to public service - is really part of that tradition, even though in his - in this one area of sex - he, like many of us, is a failed human being? How would you answer that?
SHELBY STEELE: I would answer that by saying that I don't quite believe it. And it sounds like I'm being strict, but I think what happens is when you say virtuousness can be achieved by identifying oneself - I'm on the right side of the racial issues, feminist issues, and so forth, that's what makes - mere identification is what makes me virtuous in that sense - then those policies become, as I say in the piece, iconographic, that is to say they just represent virtuousness. They don't necessarily do virtuous things. I think - and race is the blatant example of President Clinton saying, well, you know, we have racial problems in this society so I'll have a race commission. I don't have any ideas about what we should do; I don't have a program; I don't have any - you know, I'm not necessarily even going to do anything, but I'm going to assign it to a committee, so we get - so then this - his assigning it to a committee then represents his virtuousness, so he gets credit for being virtuous, even though there's no reason for him to be responsible, no reason for him to do anything.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what will it signify to you about the culture if he stays in office, if he - the Senate does not remove him from office?
SHELBY STEELE: That we will - this corruption will deepen, that more of our public policies will be merely iconographic, merely opportunities for us to identify with virtue, rather than to do the difficult work and sacrifice that virtuous things actually require. Boy, race relations is a tough nut to crack. Education is an extremely difficult problem to get to, and when we can get to it through buzz terms by, you know, lower class size and no social commotion, and feel as though we've done our - the virtuous thing, then over time the society - meaning disappears in the society. We - in a sense - deconstruct our own society as a democracy.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And if he is removed from office, or if he resigns, what would that signify to you?
SHELBY STEELE: I think that that would reaffirm - that would be America saying that what is important, particularly in a free society, is responsibility. It's not just that you may have - we all have - we all fall. We all make mistakes, but the issue is are you willing to pay the price and be responsible for actually moving ahead and redeeming oneself? And so if he were to leave office, however that would come about, it would in a sense I think re-establish and re-affirm America's commitment to responsibility.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And from him you want a taking of responsibility right now, is that what you want - what you would see as a positive step forward?
SHELBY STEELE: I think it would be a real blessing to America if this man would say, in effect, I in a sense ruined my presidency, even though I may have been assaulted by any number of other forces and I had enemies, I participated in the ruination of my opportunities, and I'm not going to burden the country any longer with my presidency; I'm going to be responsible, and I'm going to demonstrate the - make my act of responsibility a contribution to the health of my society.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Shelby Steele, thank you very much for being with us.
SHELBY STEELE: Thank you for having me.
JIM LEHRER: Our next conversation will be with writer Calvin Trillin.