In the days since Kathleen Willey's interview on "60 Minutes," media outlets have flooded us with renewed debates over President Clinton's sexual conduct. But news coverage still fails to consider the Clinton scandals in the context of what he has long been preaching about welfare recipients and other low-income Americans.
So far, the mass media have shown little interest in exploring the extreme contradictions between Clinton's evident irresponsibility and his insistence on tighter moral standards for the needy.
In light of his own behavior, the news media should revisit the statements that Bill Clinton has made about "responsibility" ever since he launched his drive for the White House at the start of this decade. Whenever Clinton trumpeted such themes, the national press corps applauded enthusiastically.
"Opportunity for all is not enough," Clinton said during the presidential campaign in 1991. "For if we give opportunity without insisting on responsibility, much of the money can be wasted and the country's strength can still be sapped. So we favor responsibility for all. That's the idea behind national service. It's the idea behind welfare reform."
The Democratic Party, Clinton proclaimed later, "can't have people think we are captives of our own bureaucracy and that we don't recognize any responsibility on the part of the people who benefit from government programs to give something back in terms of responsible behavior."
As candidate and president, Clinton found that his emphasis on requiring "responsible behavior" from welfare mothers won him accolades from reporters and pundits. Here, many rejoiced, was a New Democrat willing to move the party away from "special interests" like poor women.
In June 1996, as Clinton closed in on "welfare reform," he sounded a familiar theme -- the specter of unrestrained sexual activities. "Community programs must stress abstinence and personal responsibility. A program cannot be successful unless it gives our children the moral leadership they need to say no to the wrong choices and yes to the right ones."
Tapping into biases among well-off whites leery of low-class sexuality, Clinton carefully aimed barbs at Americans often presumed to be dark-skinned and wanton. Implicitly, he seemed to be saying that sex was too hot for many poor people to handle. As part of the revised social contract, they must learn to restrain themselves.
"A long time ago," he said, "I concluded that the current welfare system undermines the basic values of work, responsibility and family, trapping generation after generation in dependency and hurting the very people it was designed to help."
And when Clinton signed the welfare reform bill in August 1996, dumping a million children below the poverty line, he was upbeat and moralistic: "Today, we are ending welfare as we know it. But I hope this day will be remembered not for what it ended, but for what it began: a new day that offers hope, honors responsibility, rewards work and changes the terms of the debate so that no one in America ever feels again the need to criticize people who are poor or on welfare."
In Time magazine, writer Barbara Ehrenreich pointed out that Clinton "signed a welfare-reform bill that, among many other regrettable things, insults the poor by providing millions for ‘chastity education.' A president who snatches alms from impoverished moms while consigning their libidos to cold showers and prayer meetings, arguably deserves whatever torments await him as punishment for his own sexual derelictions."
You'd think that a president whose behavior has given rise to the word "Zippergate" would provoke some media attention to his demands that low-income Americans learn to behave responsibly. But the media seem to accept the idea that affluent, powerful white guys have a perfect right to tell the poor to do as they say, not as they do.