Word to the morality police: Don't open everyone's closet


WASHINGTON -- I am tempted today to ridicule and pillory Rep. Dan Burton, the sanctimonious Indiana conservative Republican who has confessed that he fathered a child during an adulterous affair.

But for what purpose? To provoke a larger army of gumshoes and make-my-reputation reporters to go on sex patrol and try to prove whether Democrats or Republicans are more involved in extramarital affairs and other immoralities?

Are we sure that we want to go where we seem to be headed?

Our purpose can't be to prove to the world or even to ourselves that we are a society of adulterers, cuckolds, bastards and sexual predators. We clearly are not that different from the rest of mankind. So perhaps we are trying to convince ourselves that we don't and won't condone or tolerate immorality in high places.

Well, let's start from an honest place.

Clinton critic William Bennett can write about immorality, Democratic Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut can speak about it and a host of evangelists can preach about it, but the American people do condone it -- or disregard it -- when it suits their political or other preferences. We enrich preachers who prey upon the women in their choirs. We make heroes of scoundrels who are our athletes and gladiators. A majority of Americans elected President ; Is the Clinton scandal spurring a reform movement that will lead down roads we'd rather not go?

Clinton knowing that he was an adulterer, and re-elected him knowing that he had at least once lied about it.

Are we now in some historic movement of reform and redemption?

Perhaps there is a legislative or constitutional purpose to the current campaign to unearth the sexual lapses and transgressions of people in public life. Perhaps the intention is to codify -- or establish by resolutions of rebuke -- a limit on the amount of immorality and deceit we will tolerate from public officials.

But are we applying this just to presidents? Surely something as important as morality ought to apply to all three branches of government -- plus that unofficial branch, the Fourth Estate.

Is it enough for a congressman who has committed adultery to say, as Mr. Burton did, that he may be a scumbag but he is not as bad a scumbag as the president?

Perhaps the intent is to require that anyone who has a job for which he must take an oath to sign, under possible penalty of prosecution for perjury, an affidavit swearing that he or she has never committed adultery nor committed any act sexual or otherwise that society construes as immoral.

If we require that of congressmen and judges, governors and diplomats, in elemental fairness we should apply it to columnists, editorial writers, television pundits, lawyers and preachers -- everyone who presumes by extralegal fiat to set the level of American morality. And surely any independent counsel or prosecutor as an officer of our courts would have to sign such an affidavit of personal virtue.

I gather that the leaders of this campaign think we ought not be deterred by evidence that sexual weaknesses, adultery and other immoralities have been with us since Adam and Eve, as TC documented by the Bible and the literature before it.

I gather that they think we ought to go beyond what we have declared to be criminal conduct -- rape, assault, abuse, etc. -- in sexual behavior and set rules as to what consensual adult activity is too disgusting to tolerate in public figures.

I quake at the thought of the fallout.

I am not brave enough to want even to appear to be against more morality. But something keeps telling me that we really don't want to go where this spasm of political virtue is taking us.

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/10/98

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