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The Seduction of Public Leadership: Principles of Morality for Christian Leaders, by Stephen M. King

Responsible Confrontation

Now, compare and contrast the way this Biblical crisis was handled with more recent crises, including Watergate and Clintongate. Again, political crisis is nothing new, but the way it is dealt with has changed dramatically in recent decades. Moreover, it has changed for the worse. Watergate was the watershed political crisis of the 20th century. This is not because it was more insidious or devious than the others, but because it brought down a sitting president. Further, it was a watershed because since then the reporting of a political scandal has become as important, or even more important, than the scandal itself. The reporter or reporters, a la Woodward and Bernstein of Watergate fame, wields substantial and generally unchecked power in the coverage and revelation of the facts.

Thus, we have a significant difference in the ground rules of reporting in the pre- and post-Watergate eras. Before Watergate, the underlying assumption was that a public official’s, especially a politician’s, personal actions or character traits had little to do with managing the affairs of state. In fact, as Bill Clinton remarked in one of those October 1992 debates with President Bush, “solving policy issues is more important, and is what the people of the U.S. want, than answering questions about one’s personal character.” Was Clinton correct? Some may ask, for example, was John F. Kennedy less capable of confronting Fidel Castro and Nikita Kruschev because he was rumored to have had secret liaisons with Marilyn Monroe? Did his extra-marital cavorting somehow make him incapable during the Berlin airlift crisis, or somehow spineless and incapacitated in his determination to win the space race with the Soviets? Is Bill Clinton less able to conduct the domestic and international policy business of government when he is alleged to have sexual encounters with Monica Lewinsky at the White House? The American people don’t think so, at least when it comes time to evaluate his performance on the job. News media polls have consistently shown high marks for Clinton’s job performance (even after the release of the Ken Starr report to the Internet in early September 1998) despite comparatively low numbers for actions and behavior in his personal life. So it seems that the American people can somehow separately evaluate President Clinton’s personal behavior from his public actions, and be convinced that the former does not affect the latter. Our analysis, however, of King David has shown otherwise.

In the case of Watergate, there was a story—of campaign dirty tricks involving a break-in at Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington D.C.—which was subsequently leaked to the press. The story was then carried in headlines and feature articles across the country, with embarrassing and potentially devastating consequences for President Nixon’s reelection bid. This, of course, prompted the cover-up—the attempt, launched from the Oval Office, to squelch the investigation of the burglary. In fact, information released from interviews with Nixon prior to his death in 1994 revealed that Nixon did in fact realize his actions were wrong, and that upon retrospection he should have confronted the problem before allowing it to progress as it did.

In Clintongate (i.e. the Monica Lewinsky White House sex scandal), President Clinton consistently denied any wrongdoing of any kind, until mid-August 1998 when he made a politically-motivated effort at apologizing for certain “acts” of misconduct, allegedly sexual in nature. Up to his August national “apology” he emphatically denied any sexual involvement with Monica Lewinsky, and denied having compelled top aides or friends, such as Vernon Jordan, of convincing Ms. Lewinsky of lying. The Special Independent Prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s long and drawn out investigation of not only the Whitewater matter but also the Monica Lewinsky escapade have raised the ire of the Democrats as well as some Republicans and a goodly percentage of the American people. However, after the Starr report was released via the electronic cyber-space library, the Internet, Clinton has flown around the country making selected stops along the way and attempting to curry political favor by engaging in what some are considering phony fixations of repentance. Most recently this calvacade of contrived contrition has even included a White House staged prayer session complete with 100 selected clergy from all denominations, but primarily liberal mainline Protestant types, who were to go back to their pulpits with a message to their confused flock of forgiveness and mercy toward the fallen leader. And where does the media, especially the national media, stand in all of this?

Well, let us notice the essential differences between Watergate and Clintongate and Bathshebagate. First, in Bathshebagate, who breaks the story? Who leaks the sordid details to the public? Where are Woodward and Bernstein, Sam and Cokie, the Internet, or their ancient counterparts? We only have the dutiful and loyal prophet, Nathan, who was instructed by God Himself to confront David with his sin. In Watergate, there was John Dean, the special White House counsel under President Nixon, who spoke frankly with the President and uttered his now infamous line, “there is a cancer on the presidency, and it is growing.” Haldeman, Erhlichman, and Colson, all close confidants of President Nixon, were forced to testify, either directly or indirectly, in front of the Senate committee investigating Watergate, and were fighting to salvage their own careers and reputation, and were thus no help to the President. In addition, the Washington Post, led by two zealous reporters, and other major national media outlets became part of the story. And with Clintongate, a career administrative aide, who formerly worked in the Bush administration, and was also secretary to White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum, Linda Tripp, spilled the story by going to Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s office with information concerning tape recordings she made secretly between herself and a young White House intern from California named Monica Lewinsky. From that point it has been nearly front page headlines every day.

With Bathshebagate, though, the media details are insignificant. Notice what Nathan does not do. He does not write down the crime and circulate it among the citizenry. He does not approach the elders of the city or announce his judgment in the town square. His intention is not to be the town crier, to elicit or cull public attitude, and he apparently has no desire to profit personally. His end is not to embarrass the king but to bring him to repentance. From the Bible’s brief account, we are led to conclude that Nathan went to David only and that he rebuked him privately. And it was here, in this short but private encounter with the prophet of God, that the highest ranking official in all of ancient Israel, the king himself, came face-to-face with his own reality. In the modern American political arena, press and president have often shared a mutually adversarial relationship, a “love-hate” relationship, if you will; but there is no animus in II Samuel between prophet and king—only an atmosphere of responsible confrontation.

Responsible Purgation

Here, in Bathshebagate, as opposed to most modern political scandals or crises, such as Watergate and Clintongate, David is caught by the force of his own logic, and he is without excuse. He is no Teflon monarch, nor does he try to be; the charge sticks. Think again, however, about the parallel to Watergate and Clintongate. Should David continue the cover-up? Should he try to silence Nathan, permanently? Amazingly, David makes no attempt to bribe Nathan, or to have him arrested or even executed, all of which would have been within the purview of an absolutist ruler. Rather, David is ingenuous, even transparent, acknowledging his transgression before his accuser. He makes no public confession nor is he compelled to. His sin has been “against the Lord,” and this is how his confession is framed.

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About the Author: Stephen M. King, Ph.D. (University of Missouri-Columbia), is Associate Dean of Academics, Chair of Department of Government, History, and Criminal Justice, and Professor of Government at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He is the author of God and Caesar: The Biblical Keys to Good Government and Community Action (Xulon Press, 2002) and co-author with Bradley S. Chilton of Administration in the Public Interest: Principles, Policies, and Practices (Carolina Academic Press, 2009), as well as writing and being a contributor to numerous books and articles about Christian faith and politics, administrative ethics, public management, and public policy. In addition to his extensive background as an educator, he has experience in pastoral ministry and overseas mission work. Regent University Faculty Page.

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