Idea Of The Day

The “Good” Question

“That’s good. That’s good, but at this minute I’m going to stick with my position of not commenting.” President Clinton’s reply to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer when asked at a Feb. 6, 1998, White House press conference if the then recent revelations about Monica Lewinsky had adversely affected the former intern’s life.

When President Clinton said “good” at this White House press conference he may as well have employed the slang then going round and said: “That’s bad.” Either way, it was this remark, this knowing joke, which suggested to many that, contrary to what Clinton wished to imply, something had gone on between him and the former White House intern and nothing good would come of any of this now that the he had denied it.

While Clinton was in office, his fiercest critics would say that the he was unable to distinguish between good and bad—that he was amoral. That seems unfair; it was more a question of Clinton not always comprehending the nature of goodness, or of how to be good, or of the full extent of what “ good” can mean (never mind about what the meaning of “is” is or was)—though in this respect he’s far from alone. Monday in Slate’s “Book Club,” Debra Dickerson in her exchange with Nell Minow about Simon Blackburn’s new book, Being Good, wrote: “Here in the good old USA. … it’s pretty open us-versus-them warfare … with little thought for our interests as a whole. What passes for this kind of debate [about goodness and altruism] always involves the other guy needing to change his ways, never you, and what’s best for America coincides nicely with what’s best for your district, ward, or block.” Being good in America, Dickerson suggests, is invariably political, and Clinton, one could argue, acted within this definition. Moreover, the former president elided the notion of being good and being liked. So long as he was admired he would be seen as good and vice versa. In a review of the same book published by The New Yorker, Jim Holt says: “Beyond the necessary technical and organizational skills, achieving great altruistic feats seems to require a sort of demonic creativity. … If you want to be a saint, forget about being an angel.” Clinton in office was no angel, and although he tried his best to be angelic, if he had disregarded what people made of him then his instinct for the good would perhaps have been less blemished.

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