Ionce had a summer job as a janitor. I worked alongside an older man who had been doing it a long time. Since I was young and energetic, I would finish my tasks quickly, then ask the boss what else he wanted me to do.
After a few days of observing this, the older janitor yanked me aside.
“Listen,” he said, “if you keep showing ’em you can do that much, they’ll just expect it every time.”
I believe he was right. I also believe it works in reverse. Show people how little can be expected and, pretty soon, they expect very little.
Which brings us to the scandal of the week, President Clinton and his alleged affair with an intern, Monica Lewinsky.
It was fascinating to watch this story develop. When the charges first surfaced, there was a yawning reaction from the American public. Only after every newspaper, radio talk show and TV morning program devoted itself to the subject did people seem to be bothered — mostly because they were being told how much they should be bothered.
“These are the most serious charges yet,” said former Clinton aide George Stephanopolous on “Good Morning America.”
“Serious trouble,’ said political pundit Tim Russert on the “Today Show.”
“Impeachment might very well be an option,” said Rep. Henry Hyde, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who just happens to be a Republican.
Of course, these experts also said that that impeachment would come as a result of public pressure. Yet one survey taken in the heat of these charges still showed less than half of the American public thought an affair with Lewinsky was grounds for impeachment, and barely half thought that lying about it was.
Diminishing expectations, remember?
With a shrug
Now, you might ask why a 51-year-old president putting the moves on a 21-year-old intern doesn’t bother us as much the fact that he might be covering it up. After all, we’re talking adultery. Not to mention the troubling idea that any attractive young woman who comes to the White House for exposure to politics might get exposure she didn’t count on.
Can you see the parents of future interns, waving their daughter good-bye as she gets on the bus? “Take care sweetheart! …Dress warmly! …Don’t let the president gets his hands on you!”
And yet, most Americans took this Lewinsky story with a shrug. Why? Because we’ve already endured two years of charges about the president pulling down his pants for Paula Jones. We’ve already heard accusations of cheating sex from Gennifer Flowers. We’ve listened to countless wails about improper fund-raising, draft-dodging, marijuana smoking.
It’s not that these are small charges. But Americans tire of pointed fingers that never touch the mark. And another thing, something the self-absorbed Washington pundits can’t seem to comprehend.
We have become so used to fame equaling bad behavior, we almost expect it.
Lowest common denominator
Consider this: In the same week that Clinton faced his sleeping-with-the-intern charge, basketball star Chris Webber was arrested outside Washington on charges of assaulting a police officer, and possession of and driving under the influence of marijuana.
He was playing for his team the very next night. No shame. No interruption. A few people booed. Then he slam-dunked and they all cheered. This is how much people cared that Webber — who sold himself as a good, smart, principled person — was now in trouble with the law.
Again, it’s not because these charges don’t matter. It’s just hard to think of famous people anymore who don’t flaunt an embarrassing blemish. Movie stars cheat on each other and get into drugs. Athletes beat their wives. Rap stars are charged with murder. And still we buy their movies, tickets and records.
So what does celebrity behavior have to do with the president? Plenty. Because as a country ruled by celebrity, we can barely tell the difference. In many ways, America is divided into the famous people, and the not-famous people. And to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, it seems the famous are different than you and me.
So instead of seeing Clinton as the man we elected to uphold the austere tradition of the presidency, highest office in the land, we absorb him as another famous person we see on TV, behaving badly. Hey, John F. Kennedy did it? And we liked him.
This is pretty sad. It seems to me, that if we elect a man to represent the best in us, he shouldn’t be displaying the worst. But it’s the same lowering of standards that made cheating on your taxes or lying to your neighbor almost expected behavior.
Maybe, if it proves true, this will be the scandal that breaks Clinton. Or maybe it will dissolve into a he said-she said.
Either, way, when they call Clinton the Teflon president, I’m not sure they mean the bad stuff doesn’t stick to him. It may be that it doesn’t stick with us.