Puttin' Out the Bone

Character Above the Desk

Nov 21, 2001 at 2:06 pm

Screw Peggy Noonan. I'll take Bill Clinton's character over Ronald Reagan's any day. Former Reagan speech writer Peggy Noonan has a new book, When Character Was King, in which she says her old boss is the epitome of integrity. She's making the cable-news rounds gushing about Reagan's moral foundation and how it made him a great leader.

While she never mentions Bill Clinton, she leaves implications about his character that are larger than the proverbial elephant sitting in the television studio.

No, I haven't read her book. Don't know that I will. But since she's had herself interviewed nearly to death, making her thesis easily understood, I'll chew on the thesis and it's implications.

Sure, Bill Clinton went under the desk with "that woman" and then lied to us about it. Sure, he's probably a middle-aged man struggling with clinical sex addiction.

And yeah, I'd want to kick his ass if he messed with my daughter. But on balance, his eight years of public policies showed far more moral depth than Reagan's.

The fact is we don't know everything there is to know about Ronald Reagan's personal morality. Like what he did between the sheets and with whom. Like what he did between the front and back doors of the houses he lived in. That's because Democrats didn't spend millions of hours and millions of dollars tracking his every step, hounding everyone who ever knew him. That's the Republican style, and they did it in spades to Bill Clinton.

We could do some guessing about Reagan's personal life. He had a couple of marriages, one with a Hollywood actress named Jane Wyman. Did he cheat on her? Don't know and don't care. Maybe even with Nancy while still married to Jane? Double don't know and don't care.

We do know he raised a family that had some dysfunction that would rival a good spring break at the Kennedy compound. His daughter peeled off her clothes for Playboy magazine. Name another president who can boast that family achievement. And she's written about what a lousy dad Reagan was.

Then there's the lying thing with Reagan. During the Iran/Contra scandal, he lied so many times he was sure, according to biographies, that he would be thrown out of office. There are reports of sleepless nights wondering if his days as president were numbered. Only Democratic Senator Daniel Inouye, who had witnessed the national wrenching of the Watergate hearings, saved Reagan by nudging key Democrat colleagues away from impeachment hearings.

But the real measure of a president's morality is how he used his power to set policies that affected millions of regular Americans. Run that stuff past the morality meter and see how it spikes and dives. Do it for both Reagan and Clinton.

But first, let's set the ground rule: There is no "objective" history. There are only individual judgments of what happened at any point in time. Each individual's judgment is done through filters of philosophy and experience. That's why a lot of people love, say, Columbus Day and a lot of others, such as Native Americans, abhor it. That's why some say Che Guevara was a freedom fighter while others say he was an international murderer.

So Peggy Noonan looks at the Reagan era and says it took us forward to a politically holy time. I remember it as a march backward into political nightfall.

I mean, how much character did it take to run up mountains of national debt by cutting the taxes of rich people? Where's the character in stuffing the pockets of wealthy individuals and huge corporations while millions of regular Americans lost jobs?

Was it a man of character who told impoverished children, whose only hope for a solid meal was lunch during the school day, that the ketchup on their burgers met the vegetable requirement for a good diet? How about fighting against affirmative action? Yeah, that took character. The military was well cared for, while most social programs were pressed to the threads of the safety net. Don't you just love character, Reagan style?

In reality, the Reagan years were a boon for the haves and the radical right, but they were eight years of pain for working class and poor people. Noonan's book is merely a loyal former employee's celebration of right-wing political spin.

As for Clinton? Well, when he wasn't getting the business under the presidential desk, he was erasing our national debt and generating millions of new jobs. He got a crime bill passed that made streets safer, got a family-leave act passed, cut the taxes of 15 million working Americans and returned taxation levels on the country's wealthiest to pre-Reagan standards.

He increased student loans, cut government bureaucracy, energized the AmeriCorps program to get more help to the poor, and did more for the environment than any president in modern history. By my definition of character, President Clinton had it where it mattered: above the presidential desk.

Look. The Republican "family values" issue is bogus. What former House Majority Leader Newt Gingrich did with that young congressional aide, the one for whom he threw out his second wife and then married, is the moral equivalent to Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky — just without the blue dress and tape recordings.

While Larry Flynt's track-down of Republican sinners was repugnant, he had no trouble finding a pack of them, including Newt's replacement, who immediately resigned under his own sex scandal. Flynt made his point that God doesn't work at either the Republican or Democratic national committees.

So as hard as Noonan tries to beatify Ronald Reagan, it's just commercial propaganda — which, to be honest, is what this column is.

That's the point. We all see the world and its events and its players through the eyes of our own experiences and beliefs. That's perfectly fine with me. I was just worried some of you might think Noonan's book carried the truth.