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In 1998 the American public was riveted by headlines detailing the private sexual encounters of our president and a White House employee. For the first time in US history, a sitting president had every aspect of his personal life presented to the public for debate. As the smoke cleared, discussions began to question what trend had allowed the media to print such sordid details about our top elected official. Suddenly, our Commander in Chiefs private life warranted front-page news. What gave us the right to invade his privacy?
The theories presented to answer this question blame everything from technology to a lack of morality. Many feel the information age has allowed the public such a high degree of exposure to headline news-bites that the competition for an original, attention grabbing story has forced the media to dig deeper to hold public interest. Others say the success of tabloid media in the late eighties and early nineties is to blame. They proved that scandal sells. Political analysts believe Clinton can only blame himself. During his first campaign he answered personal questions openly and with amusement. Even an extrinsic question about his choice of underwear was acceptable. GOP leadership would have us believe it is a conspiracy lead by the Republican Party in an attempt to gain control of the White House. Religious leaders think American morality has sunk so low that all this news of scandal has just become perverse entertainment. Journalists in an attempt to justify the story will argue it is our right to know. It would be reasonable to assume that each of these factors contributed to the end result.
It may be necessary to look into the history books to find the root cause for this. We know from biographies written about former presidents that there were very few who can claim they had nothing to hide. In contrast with the current trend there was actually very little scandalous press written during their respective terms. Harry Truman was the harbinger of change. He almost lost his bid for re-election when some of the countries most respected newspapers printed allegations, based mostly on rumor, that he was involved in the corrupt politics of Thomas Pendergast. This was a departure from the term of James Garfield in 1881.
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What happened between Presidents Garfield and Truman to make the difference? Franklin D Roosevelt became our 32nd president. In 1933 he came into office with the country in crisis. The average American was frightened. The depression had left many families homeless. With a weakened economy the threat of Communism seemed more ominous. Roosevelt wrote a series of addresses to be read over the radio. He called these “fireside chats”. The term was meant to be reminiscent of a relaxing evening spent with family around a fire. Their main purpose was to calm the populace and lift national spirit. He also
hoped to associate the office of president more closely with the common man and present himself as a fatherly protector. Not only did he accomplish these goals; he simultaneously lowered the status of the office from its formerly untouchable posture to one of unlimited accessibility. This new and unconventional familiarity allowed people to feel more comfortable asking questions of a personal nature about their president.
There are many comparisons that can be made between the presidents before Roosevelt’s day and those who came after. Roosevelt himself we now know suffered from severe paralysis brought on by polio. The news media was well aware of this at the time but no one dared to print it. Partially so as not to frighten the public but mostly out of respect for the man and his office. Eisenhower was unable to escape such public scrutiny. After a heart attack in 1955 and Ileitis surgery in 1956 the media openly questioned whether he was capable of effectively governing while in such bad health.
More recently many people questioned Ronald Reagan’s senility in the 1980’s. The press openly printed innuendoes about his inability to hold a coherent conversation or even remember what he had for breakfast. In contrast after Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke in 1919 the public was never told he was barely able to speak. His aides explained his apparent lack of public appearances and speaking engagements as the result of an increased workload.
Thomas Jefferson’s 38-year affair with a slave was common knowledge among his contemporaries. The rumors have persisted through the centuries. Due to a lack of documentation substantiating these claims present day historians argued about its plausibility until DNA tests proved his infidelity.
Clinton’s detractors printed every innuendo even if there wasn’t a shred of evidence to support it.
Presidential scandal is a part of American politics. That is a fact that we, as a people, must accept. In the thirties society enjoyed the feeling of a personal relationship with our president. Today we have become so personal we look closer at his personal flaws and less at his ability to lead. Politicians and journalists should act carefully as they hit the campaign trail this year. If this trend continues there may be no one moral enough to pass public scrutiny. Through history I believe we can prove Clinton’s political trouble was not merely a sign of the times but a side effect of a trend started sixty-five years ago.