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An American Morality Play

While legal questions take center stage, the president also faces 'Lake Wobegon factor.'

From mythical Lake Wobegon, storyteller Garrison Keillor tells of a husband considering adultery. The man, about to rendezvous with the woman of his desire, looks down his street and thinks of the rich fabric of lives around him, then realizes his world will collapse if he goes through with it:

"I saw we all depend on each other.... I thought my sins could be secret [but] they would be no more secret than an earthquake. All these houses and all these families - my infidelity will somehow shake them."

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Bill Clinton, struggling to surmount the biggest scandal of his presidency, may yet have to face the "Lake Wobegon factor."

While many consider the legal questions surrounding his alleged affair with an intern to be the most serious, the moral dimension of the scandal could end up shaking the rest of his tenure in office - and set a new behaviorial code for future US leaders.

From abroad, the Lewinsky scandal may seem petty or moralistic given the importance and power of the presidency. But in the calculus of American virtues, the adultery allegations, if true, may have destroyed an unspoken moral contract between Clinton and the American public - one that derives from US history and shared religious values.

That unspoken contract was formed in 1992, when candidate Clinton was confronting allegations of sexual dalliance, analysts say. It reads, in effect, "We know there may have been problems in your past, but we expect that you will not behave in this fashion in our nation's highest office."

No allegations are proven. News reports say Clinton recently admitted under oath that he had relations with Arkansas acquaintance Gennifer Flowers, something he denied in 1992. Clinton now denies any "sexual relations" with Monica Lewinsky, the former intern. But is this believed?

In the past week, ministers, philosophers, theologians, and others given to feisty debates about privacy rights or formulas of forgiveness are throwing up their hands in frustration. They frequently invoke the word "betrayal" in reference to Clinton putting so much at risk - his family, his aides, Democrats, and his unfinished agenda.

"This is tawdry; you can't speak about it without feeling besmirched," says Jeanne Elshtain of the University of Chicago Divinity School. "If a president has to trim the truth, or has to engage in unorthodox behavior as a part of the complexities of statecraft, we can talk. But this is just sleazy."

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"We aren't naive American Colonial provincialists by expecting something more from our leaders," says the Rev. William Willimon, head minister at Duke University in Durham, N.C., speaking of the view of the Lewinsky affair abroad. "We aren't bumpkins. Maybe Europeans ought to expect more from their leaders."

Unlike previous presidential dalliances, notably by John Kennedy, whose persona Clinton has long emulated, the Lewinsky allegations have become public while Clinton is still in office. White House defenders, moreover, are advancing arguments that open new ground in the area of relaxed moral standards - including leaks that any affair between the president and Lewinsky was between consenting adults, or that certain kinds of sexual behavior do not constitute adultery.

The adultery allegation, however, is no small imposition on family discussions, critics say. "It's humiliating to have a psychologist on the morning news counseling us about how to speak to our children about sex in the White House," Mr. Willimon notes.

For some, the intern scandal is harmful not simply because it distracts from the business of governing. Rather, it is evidence that integrity and trust, if they are not valued by the president for their own sake, will be further marginalized in the American mind.

"If Clinton really cared about these values, he would not endanger them," one historian points out. "The stakes are so high and the act so trivial. We are looking again at a growing gap between ideals professed and ideals lived. At least with Nixon, for all his monumental paranoia, the failure was over real political issues, like Vietnam."

The notion of morality as a factor in leadership dates to Puritan times. From the beginning, "personal morality in the life of the ruler was integral to the commonweal," says Mark Valeri of Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Va. "Clinton has sold himself as a good ruler, a family-values guy. We'll have to see."

CHIEF executives historically have conducted their private affairs out of public view. During the 19th century and the first half of this one, a religious ethic about personal conduct reinforced moral standards. Moreover, news outlets did not report on details of private lives - such as Franklin Roosevelt's handicap or even the bond between him and his wife's secretary.

Today's politicians and many in the press have argued for this kind of split between private behavior and public performance. Moral thinkers like Neil Plantinga, head of the chapel of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., point out that "corruptions of the soul" are complex matters. "You can have absolute integrity in one part of the life, and be fighting battles over your behavior in others," he notes.

In coming days, the battle over the truth is likely to invoke new levels of sophistication in political "spin."

"Whether or not [Clinton] leaves, this is will a good lesson for the country," says David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values in New York, a nonpartisan think tank. "One lesson is that you can't forever separate character from policy and politics. A bigger one may be that truth can only be denied so long. Even if you are king, there are only so many times you can walk out at noon and say it is midnight."

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