The Poverty of Integrity

The conventional wisdom debunked.
Jan. 18 2001 3:00 AM

The Poverty of Integrity

So what if John Ashcroft doesn't drink, dance, or swear? 

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Republicans expect Senate Democrats to ignore John Ashcroft's retrograde political views and to confirm him as the next attorney general because he's a man of "integrity." "Ashcroft is known as a man of honor and integrity," writes Phyllis Schlafly. "In the many times he ran for public office, no enemies ever produced a scent of scandal." "No one can point to any breach of personal integrity," seconds Pat Robertson. Ashcroft's opponents agree. So enormous is the former senator's devotion to honor, principle, etc., say the Republicans, that nobody should oppose his nomination.

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But so what? Having integrity is certainly preferable to not having it. But is it more than a minimum qualification for office? Can't we assume that the president won't appoint a hustler or scofflaw as his attorney general—that he won't send anyone who lies, take bribes, consumes illegal substances, or accepts oral sex from interns up to the Hill? Integrity might count for more if we defined it as moral completeness, balance, and maturity. But this isn't what most of the integrity floggers are talking about. And if it were, it wouldn't apply to John Ashcroft.

Ashcroft's supporters don't explicitly say that his nondrinking, nonsmoking, non-dancing ways make him especially qualified to be AG. But they do imply that his teetotalism puts the gravy on the frosting—that it provides insurance against future shenanigans. Under the Republican integrity rules, it's OK to hold moronic political views as long as you advance them with commitment and consistency.

By playing the integrity card, Republicans put off questions about Ashcroft's controversial views and appeal to senators' unwillingness to diss former colleagues. But the Republicans' integrity fixation is merely an extension of the charactercentric theory of politics they penned during the Clinton administration. They acknowledged that Clinton was talented, smart, and politically dexterous—and that most Americans endorsed his politics. But according to the Republicans, Clinton's bad character cast all these good qualities into doubt. With Ashcroft, the equation is reversed: Because he doesn't drink or smoke, his retrograde views can't be questioned. Remember how we got into this business of inquiring into people's personal morality? Character was supposed to serve as an early warning sign of future public behavior. If Clinton would cheat on his wife, the reasoning went, why wouldn't he cheat on us with the Chinese?

Republicans pilloried Clinton supporters who claimed that exemplary public behavior—good policies, compassionate politics, effective leadership, and so forth—might justify turning a blind eye to private moral failings. But today's Republicans reverse this Clintonite formula, carting out private morality as a reason to turn a blind eye to shoddy public morality. Yes, Ashcroft may have accepted a degree from a racist university, savaged Ronnie White for political gain, and pandered to neo-Confederate wing nuts. But he doesn't drink and doesn't have sex with anyone but his wife, so let's give him the benefit of the doubt and assume his heart was in the right place.

If exemplary moral conduct was all we expected of public officials, we might as well recruit some Amish, give them a rulebook, and be done with it. And if integrity just means prudishness and strictness, do we really want such people in government? Jimmy Carter outpaces Bill Clinton when it comes to personal morality, but which man did a better job advancing his political agenda? And who can doubt that the fact that one failed and the other succeeded was more because of the difference than in spite of it? The rigid, purist myopia of goody-goodies may not suit an effective political leader.

Or consider another paragon of integrity: Kenneth Starr. By all accounts, he's a bit of an Ashcroft. A straight arrow, a truth teller, no carousing, no funny business. Even in the more generous reading of the excesses of his investigation, it was precisely his moralism and self-righteousness that made him lose perspective and think he was conducting a crusade for truth and morality rather than a criminal investigation. Ashcroft's defenders say the nominee's unbending moral code will make him enforce the law whether he agrees with it or not. But the Starr example points to another conclusion entirely.

The fact that Ashcroft doesn't dance doesn't mean he has extra-special-double integrity. If anything it makes him sound like a fanatic. Integrity worth the name is a statement about the full measure of a person, a matter of balance as much as morality, a polished way of saying someone is a stand-up guy. Personal propriety is a small part of the equation. We got into this integrity fixation because of a simpletons' conspiracy involving the the pundit class, anti-Clinton character theorists, and Bill Bennett. With Clinton finally gone, can't we just drop it? We used to have more artful words for people like Ashcroft: puritan, prude, bluenose, stuffed shirt. To each his own, of course. And if it works for John Ashcroft, more power to him. Should the nation's top cop be somebody who thinks that The Scarlet Letter is a users' manual for enforcing morality?  

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