Our children imitate a president who lies

Providence Journal
December 3, 1998 MARK PATINKIN

Providence Journal

Until this week, I was on the president's side. Ken Starr was the bad guy, wasting millions investigating behavior that seemed nobody's business. It was sordid for Mr. Clinton to have such a tryst, and apparently lie about it, but how has that hurt the country?

I'm beginning to see.

It's about children.

Here is a letter from a reader named Pete McVety:

``My 10-year-old son used the President's actions as an excuse the other day. I asked if he had practiced the trombone. He said `yes . ' I knew that he had not since I had been home all day, so, I told him `How could you say that?' He replied, `You didn't ask me if I had practiced today, only, if I had practiced, and I have, just not today.' I asked how he could possibly think his answer acceptable and he replied, `It's just what the President does on TV. I answered just like he does.' What can you say to that? I said, `You have to be better than the President. Just because he did it, doesn't make it right.' ''

This is the second column I've written on this. The first was about a karate instructor who confronted a 15-year-old student for getting a girl pregnant, and heard this response: Clinton gets away with things, so why shouldn't he?

Was that attitude common? I asked readers if any had similar stories.

This one is from Don Giannatti of Phoenix, Ariz.:

``I am the father of three girls. My oldest is 12. As my daughter was trying to fake her way through a story about `missing' homework, the lies were beginning to mount. Her frustration at being grilled and caught was palpable. Then she told me what happened: It wasn't all her fault, she explained, if the `stupid teacher hadn't caught me, I wouldn't be in all this trouble.' Nearing exasperation I explained that the accuser isn't necessarily the wrong party. `Well, everyone on the morning show today said it was that Starr guy that got Clinton in trouble.' She was serious. I was sad.''

Usually, I get a half-dozen or so responses to a column. Fifteen is high. In this case, between E-mail and phone calls, I got more than 100. That's off the charts. And I've yet to get responses by regular mail. The Journal is on the Web, and my column runs in a few other papers, but not many, so the response from around the country surprised me, too.

Here's an E-mail from a reader named Gary, signed with the initials ``GLG'':

``I teach in a suburban San Francisco high school. Our school populace is largely Latino and Filipino. No one has ever confused me with conservative thinkers. With all that said, I wish you could spend a day with me if you really want to see the scandal's impact firsthand. With many students it's now an `anything goes' world, and Clinton is their reference/alibi.''

To be fair, about half the replies seemed to be from Clinton-haters. They quickly veered off the subject of children to attack him across the board.

Others stayed focused on children, but in a non-anecdotal way, as with this phone call: ``I'm a nearly 60-year-old grandmother with a 10-year-old grandson and granddaughter and it scares me to death that they will think that lying and the behavior of the president is an acceptable way of life as they come into their teenage years. ''

Many parents said Mr. Clinton's conduct has forced their young children to deal with inappropriate sexual subjects.

Julianne Ip, associate dean of medicine at Brown University was among them.

``I have a 7-year-old,'' she wrote. ``He has asked me about oral sex, stains on dresses, perjury, and a host of other things I had hoped my son would not have to learn about when he should be out shooting hoops, riding his bike and enjoying what we all worked so hard to provide . . . a great country to grow up in.''

Philip Moen has four daughters, ages 3, 5, 7 and 11.

``When the news first broke,'' he wrote, ``the 7-year-old was most inquisitive, asking questions like, `Did Clinton sex Lewinsky?', `Does Clinton love another woman besides his wife?' ''

And a male caller offered this story:

``My daughter, 10 years old, A-student, from a good family, good kid, was caught in a lie. Not normal behavior, but her response was: `It's not like I had an affair or anything, Daddy.' It totally blew me away.''

Even parents of older children felt this way. Dana Swift is a mother from Traverse City, Mich.

``My 18-year-old,'' she wrote, ``asked if this kind of thing happens at my workplace because pro-Clinton people act like this is normal behavior. I had to assure him that any other CEO would be fired on the spot and escorted off the premises. I am heartbroken about the negative impact Clinton has had on my kids.''

There was even one letter mourning the impact on young people over 18. It came from Thomas A. Young, and has a special credibility given his work.

``I am a training officer in the U.S. Marine Corps,'' he wrote. ``And, yes, I have heard `kids' talk that way. The `kids' I'm referring to are 18-to-20-year-old Marines. All they know is that their commander in chief is getting away with conduct for which they would be court-martialed. And people in positions of authority are saying it's O.K. How can I teach my Marines that Honor, Courage and Commitment are worthwhile values, while you give a pass to the president for his actions? I hold my Marines accountable for their actions. I am held accountable for my actions. So are you, I would imagine. Yet, the president shouldn't be? Please, explain to me, so I can explain to the next Marine I have to discipline, why he should be accountable, but the president should not. And please explain why the ` Cop ' is the bad guy?''

The majority of the replies, however, focused on specific examples of children justifying bad behavior by saying : Clinton does it, so why shouldn't they?

Keith Preston is from St. Louis.

``I work in a private school in the Midwest . . . here, the kids call it `pulling a Clinton.' Also known as `deny, deny, deny . . . lie, lie, lie.' Our children look for examples, especially ones set by men who are powerful, popular, and looked up to. All we are saying is that if you lie CONTINUOUSLY, and without remorse, then your society will pay the price. And I tell you I see it every day.''

Nick Carver is from Columbus, Ohio:

``I have a 13-year-old stepson with behavioral disabilities; honesty has been something we have worked very hard to instill. This weekend he used the `presidential excuse.' He used terminology right from the evening news, only my wife and I were the prosecutors.''

Mary Williams called to say it's now harder for her husband and her to teach their three children that lying has consequences:

``They have pointed out `Then why can the president lie, how come he won't get in trouble?' We say that he has a lot of people protecting him. Well, they feel that if their friends protect them in a lie then they, too, should get away with it.''

Sharon Sammartino teaches confirmation students.

``This is the kind of response I've gotten also,'' she said. `` `If it's okay for the president of the United States, why isn't it okay for kids, and why do you teach us not to be like that, and yet he can do it and it's okay?' ''

The president had a few thoughtful defenders. They said that taking children seriously when they use a ``Clinton-did-it defense'' is a cop-out by parents who fail to set standards themselves.

``To me,'' said a woman caller, ``this is just another situation where a child misbehaves and we blame it on something else. Society as a whole has got to start taking responsibility.''

A caller named Polly Stiness said her 11 grandchildren show that Mr. Clinton's impact is minimal: ``The young ones neither understand nor do they have the remotest interest in all those revolting revelations from Washington, via Judge Starr. They're NOT INTERESTED. Are they using that as some kind of excuse for their own bad behavior? Of course not!''

But most who responded felt differently.

There was Paul Marshall, who teaches at the John Casablancas modeling agency in Warwick. ``These kids look to us for some sort of leadership,'' he said. ``A lot of these kids, they think that what our fearless leader did is acceptable. And I see it every day.''

There was the male caller who said his girlfriend has been having trouble with her 14-year-old because of Mr. Clinton: He tells his mom to ``get off his back'' -- the president gets away with things, so what's the big deal?

Finally, a man called with an anecdote about his 12-year-old nephew: ``He got caught lying about something,'' the man said, ``just typical 12-year-old stuff. And he looked at my sister and said, `You're getting upset at me, when the president's up there arguing about what ``is'' is. And you don't get mad at him.' ''

The man added a final observation:

``All the kids hear is everyone putting down the prosecutor, and the person who lied is being defended. Just think what that will do years down the road as these kids get older, if that's the base they're starting out at. Will they have any respect for the law and about lying? I think it's going to have consequences that a lot of us aren't even thinking of.''

Until this week, I was on the president's side. How had his behavior hurt the country?

I'm beginning to see.

To read Mark Patinkin’s previous article, Does making fun of Starr hurt our kids?, click here.