In the aftermath of the Clinton scandal, there are many causes for pessimism. One of the greatest problems with the Clinton scandal all along has been the likelihood that it would lower standards for Americans. In the week just before the Senate's deliberations on the fate of Bill Clinton came to an end, the press foresaw that he would be exonerated, and began to predict what would happen next. Newsweek magazine headlined coverage of how the scandal would affect the law, the workplace, and our children.
When the nation's chief law enforcement officer abuses the law, the law's authority is weakened. When the president misuses the Oval Office without personal consequence, every office in the land is made more vulnerable. And when good character is considered unnecessary in a president, ordinary citizens will hardly think it necessary for themselves. When you also consider his enduring popularity, things can look hopeless.
The way to find hope despite this catastrophe is to follow the example of the Holy Father. He sees the greater problem of our times: the culture of death, and still finds hope. In his letter about the Advent of the Third Millennium, he writes that he expects a “new springtime of Christian life” to be inaugurated by the Jubilee. But his hope — and ours — entails a response from us. This springtime will come, he writes, only “if Christians are docile to the action of the Holy Spirit.”
The Pope is calling for a direct reversal of the situation in our 20th century, a time like the one William Butler Yeats described when he wrote: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
In this context, instead of complaining about Clinton's ceaseless efforts to win and use power, we would do better to imitate his untiring work — and use the results for good.
The saints certainly were his match. St. Paul endured imprisonment, calumny, and betrayal to evangelize the Roman world. He was faithful to his call, and his work sowed the seeds of Western Civilization as we know it. St. Patrick struggled indefatigably in his confrontation with pagan Ireland. His adopted country gave the world centuries of missionaries as a result. Mother Teresa let nothing and no one get in the way of her service to the poor — and set an example the world cannot ignore.
Catholics, with God's grace, can work to change the world according to Christ's standards just as effectively as Bill Clinton pursued his goals. Consider his career:
He didn't despise the tedious jobs. Good people are often turned away from the large-scale political work it takes to be president, or the analogous effort it takes to be leaders in other spheres, because of the messiness of it all. It takes fundraising. It takes campaigning. It takes compromising, humbling, and difficult work. Bill Clinton didn't despise it: he learned how to do it more effectively than any president before him. And the consequence is all around us. If a Catholic leader were to expend that effort in pursuit of truly Christian goals, the consequences could be even greater. As St. Theresa of Avila said, “Theresa alone can do nothing. Theresa with God can do many things. Theresa with God and money can do all things.” And so she did what was necessary to fund her order.
He aggressively promoted his principles. The mark of Bill Clinton's presidency, 100 years from now, will likely be its embrace of abortion — from the executive orders allowing fetal testing and government-funded abortion referrals in his first days in office to his vigorous defense of partial birth abortion today. If such a president had been half as constant and unflagging in defense of the unborn, America would be very different today. Catholic Senator Rick Santorum's tenacious efforts to end the parital birth abortion ban are a good example. Past reversals have only caused him to increase his efforts to override the president's veto.
He paid no mind to critics. The president, we would argue, richly deserved criticism. And he got it, plentifully. But even at the height of the onslaught, when accounts of shocking private conduct were on the Internet, on the airwaves, and in millions of newspapers around the country, he focused again and again on his political plans. His sheer lack of public perturbation over the charges was enough to exonerate him in many minds. Christians have been told to expect that such stories would be aimed at them, too. The innocent can bear similar trials with even greater grace than the guilty.
He used the world's ways wisely. President Clinton came to his job well prepared to achieve what he wanted. He learned how to play to the press, when to be self-effacing, and when to be tough. He learned the diplomatic circles, how to ingratiate himself to kings and chancellors, and even how to behave around the Pope. Catholics have reason to know the world's ways even better — because Christ himself asks us to in the parable of the unjust steward, where he complained that “the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” The Holy Father himself can be our example. His mastery of the socio-political scene helped bring down the Berlin Wall.
Of course Clinton cannot, in the end, be praised for his ambition simply because it was effective. Mere ambition has no worth on its own. Only where personal ambition is magnanimous enough to embrace the good of the community at large is it truly worthwhile.
A model of such magnanimity is George Washington, whose birthday we celebrate this week. He provides us with a sterling example of dedication and effectiveness. He consciously formed his character from childhood, when a French Catholic manual called Rules of Civility fell into his hands. He committed to memory its lessons on applied charity, and scholars say they transformed his whole life. Later, Washington fought for the principles of freedom in the Declaration of Independence, and after losing battle upon battle, won the war.
Washington shows us what happens when a magnanimous heart is matched with high ambition. Something as great as America comes into being.
When we add prayer, grace, and the Holy Spirit to the equation, surely something even greater will result. Something as great as a new springtime of Christian life, with all that entails.