President Clinton, we’re told, is reckless. He was reckless with Gennifer Flowers (in a bathroom during a party), with Kathleen Willey (just off the Oval Office), and with Monica Lewinsky (ditto, ditto, ditto). Heedless of the consequences, Clinton again and again has followed, as Joseph Campbell used to say, his bliss.
All this may be true. But if it is, how do we reconcile it with Clinton’s behavior in the political realm? There he has carried risk aversion to rarely reached heights. He will pay almost any price, in terms of policy, to marginally reduce the chances of losing an election.
To pick up some superfluous Slavic-American votes, Clinton decided to expand NATO, something virtually no policy analyst anywhere near him on the ideological spectrum considered a good idea. To pick up some superfluous Cuban-American votes, he signed the Helms-Burton law, which predictably enraged America’s key allies and trading partners. Meanwhile, over in domestic policy, Clinton’s lodestar has been the focus group.
How can it be that these two identities–bold, reckless pursuer of bliss and timid, desperate pursuer of office–exist in the same man?
T here are to resolve this paradox. One is to remember that the pursuit of office can lead to bliss. Maybe Clinton’s fondness for the Gennifers and Monicas who are the perks of a job like governor or president keeps him from taking policy risks that might deprive him of the job. Maybe his emulation of John F. Kennedy’s lifestyle is what keeps him from abiding by Profiles in Courage.
Come to think of it, Kennedy himself, though nominally the author of that book, didn’t glaringly exemplify its message of principle above politics. Hence, a general theory: Men who obsessively convert power into sex are less willing to risk power for principle.
W e can test this theory by using as our control group Richard Nixon. For all we know Nixon had a tryst or two–but he can’t hold a candle to the legends of Kennedy or Clinton. Try picturing him cavorting in the White House pool with nude staff nymphs or confidently steering a beautiful woman’s hand southward.
So does our theory hold? Did Nixon’s presumed freedom from sex addiction leave him free from addiction to office? Um, no. That Nixon had more than a casual attraction to power is a fact to which various convicted felons on his staff can attest. If we want principled leaders, electing more men like Nixon and fewer like Clinton wouldn’t seem to be the ticket.
On the other hand, it might make sense to elect fewer men generally. The point here isn’t just the well-known claim that men by nature are more blindly libidinous than women. It is the Darwinian corollary of that claim: Men by nature pursue power more desperately than women do.
During evolution, the whole Darwinian point of male power–lots of sex, lots of offspring–didn’t compute for females. For women, lots of sex didn’t mean lots of offspring. Power, to be sure, brought other benefits to a female’s genetic legacy, so women naturally like having power. They just don’t like it as much as men do.
Chimpanzees, our nearest relatives, are political animals. As the primatologist Frans de Waal has observed, male chimps “seem to live in a hierarchical world with replaceable coalition partners and a single permanent goal: power.” For females, on the other hand, “coalitions withstand time.” Thus a male chimp–call him Bill–might be making nice to his liberal internationalist friends one day and signing simian bills sponsored by Jesse Helms the next. In contrast, a female chimp–call her Pat Schroeder–would hew truer to her core constituency.
S o the Bill Clinton paradox–his reckless pursuit of sex and his timid clinging to office–is indeed no paradox. The former does seem to explain the latter. But only in a broad, species-wide sense. The reason men to put power above principle is because during human evolution, power led to sex. This evolution-bred hunger for power is built into men generally, including those (such as Nixon) for whom translating power into sex is not a high personal priority.
The solution is obvious: If you want elected officials who put principle ahead of power, voting for women gives you better odds.
B ut do keep in mind that gender differences, even fairly firm ones, are only aggregate differences. The average woman will surrender less principle for power than the average man. And women who become heads of state are not average. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, certainly, was no stereotypical female. (Britain’s war with Argentina over a few barren islands, which Thatcher prosecuted with the zeal of a Churchill, has been compared to two bald men fighting over a comb.)
Still, though Thatcher may have been more ambitious than the typical woman, she was a paragon of ideological fidelity compared with Clinton (or Ronald Reagan). Just as female politicians are more power-hungry than the average female, so also are male politicians (even) more power-hungry than the average male. While admitting that Clinton is representative of my gender, I must add, on behalf of men everywhere, that he’s an especially egregious example.
Clinton’s detractors have argued that his alleged treatment of Lewinsky and Willey is a betrayal of the feminist values he professes. Maybe. But in another sense his feminist credentials look better than ever. He has provided–indeed, he has become–a potent argument for bringing more women into public office.
If you missed our links in the story, click to read Wright’s evolutionary take on 1) how Clinton can be and 2) why.