SOLOMON: Sex-Scandal Coverage Evades Clinton Contradictions

For months now, media outlets have been flooding us with intense 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 a subject that's rich with irony and potential insights -- the extreme contradictions between Clinton's evident irresponsibility and his longtime insistence on tightened moral standards for the needy.In light of his own behavior, it would be devastating for the news media to 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 with great enthusiasm."Opportunity for all is not enough," Clinton declared as he fired up his presidential campaign in May 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 a few weeks 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 repeated emphasis on requiring "responsible behavior" from welfare mothers won him accolades from a wide array of political 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 President Clinton closed in on his goal of "welfare reform," he sounded a familiar theme -- the ominous specter of unrestrained sexual activities. "First and foremost, 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."The subtexts of Clinton's rhetoric were hardly obscure. 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 would need to learn to restrain themselves. Throughout that summer, Clinton lectured the poor. "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." In another speech, he proclaimed that the government should "demand responsibility from all Americans."And when the president signed the welfare reform bill in August 1996, dumping a million children below the poverty line in the process, 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 an exceptional column that appeared in Time magazine last month, writer Barbara Ehrenreich made a profound point: 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 might think that a president whose behavior has given rise to the word "Zippergate" would provoke some media reassessment of his habitual demands that low-income Americans learn to behave responsibly. But, by and large, the news media seem to accept the idea that affluent and powerful white guys have a perfect right to tell the poor to do as they say, not as they do.Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His most recent books are "Wizards of Media Oz" (co-authored with Jeff Cohen) and "The Trouble With Dilbert: How Corporate Culture Gets the Last Laugh."


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