A nasty old French teacher of mine in Brussels would make it a point to pick on people’s national sensitivities. He once reduced a young Irish student to tears by asking whether it “was true the Irish are all terrorists.” As an American growing up in Europe in the 1990s, I had to suffer taunting at American prurience about Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky and a stained blue dress.
The Clinton scandal actually prompted me to write my first-ever journalistic article, explaining to my French teacher and fellow high-school students why, perhaps, Bill Clinton wasn’t such a great guy after all. My point at the time was that the moral compass of politicians should matter.
This debate has taken on a new life in the United States in recent months, with even Bill Clinton’s legacy being reevaluated in light of the #metoo movement that has led to political resignations and sparked a national conversation about sexual harassment. Europe, including Germany, is in the middle of a similar awakening, though it has focused more on the workplace than politics, where resignations have been few and far between. But Europeans tend to bring different attitudes to the debate. Witness a letter penned this week by 100 French celebrities, including Catherine Deneuve, countering the #metoo movement as misguided.
Many Europeans have long prided themselves on considering matters of substance. That means ignoring pesky issues such as marital affairs.
The allegations against Mr. Clinton have long divided the United States. At best (in the case of Ms. Lewinsky), the former US president abused the power of his office by having an affair with an intern. At worst (in the case of Juanita Broaddrick), he stood accused of rape, with other allegations of sexual harassment in between. Back in the 1990s it was Republicans who stood up for moral values, while many liberals unquestioningly defended their leader. Today, with Donald Trump facing 19 allegations of sexual misconduct, the situation is reversed. Liberals believe the accusers and Republicans believe their president.
Europe was never divided on Mr. Clinton. The allegations were never taken particularly seriously and Mr. Clinton remains popular on this side of the Atlantic today, in large part because Europeans ascribe to him an intellect they value. By contrast, Europeans are almost united in their disdain for Donald Trump. Because they detect no intellect, they also find the allegations of sexual harassment inexcusable.
This discrepancy fits with how Europeans and Americans see their political leaders. Americans will elect a president whom they view trustworthy and can look up to. Barack Obama was seen by many in the United States (on the left) as not just an effective politician but a role model. This is true even for Donald Trump, whose base fawns over what they perceive as his business acumen and celebrity status. They see him as a winner and want to be like him.
Many Europeans have long prided themselves instead on considering matters of substance. That means ignoring pesky issues such as marital affairs when it comes to electing politicians. Bill Clinton was a “good” president, sophisticated and intelligent in the eyes of most Europeans, which allows them to excuse his moral failings. Donald Trump is seen as crass and dumb, which makes his contempt for women and minorities all the more glaring.
In other words, Europeans are willing to overlook moral failings if their candidate is seen as an otherwise effective leader. Most Americans would probably look to France for such examples (François Mitterrand famously spent much of his time in office with a second, secret family) or to the machismo of Italy and Silvio Berlusconi, a billionaire misogynist former president who has drawn comparisons to Mr. Trump. But much of the rest of Europe is generally on point here.
In Germany, the deal for politicians is something along the lines of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” This discretion spared chancellors such as Willy Brandt, Helmut Schmidt, or Gerhard Schröder from what could have been awkward revelations. (In the case of Angela Merkel, admittedly, journalists don’t ask because they know there’s nothing interesting to tell.) Horst Seehofer became premier of the ultra-conservative and predominantly Catholic state of Bavaria despite fathering a child in an extra-marital affair.
Most Europeans will agree the private life of politicians should be off limits (though they will make exceptions for private financial scandals like that of François Fillon in France). It’s why they will characteristically snigger at the many sex scandals that have sunk American politicians in the past. True, more aggravated cases have killed careers here, too (think of former French finance minister and presidential hopeful Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was arrested for allegedly raping a hotel maid in New York, though later acquitted). But on balance, values come into the conversation far less in Europe than in America.
The Europeans have a point. Family affairs have little bearing on a politician’s ability to govern. But what about sexual harassment? Is that something we should overlook too? The current #metoo campaign should encourage Europeans to reconsider their own continuing love affair with Bill Clinton – and to think more about the morals of their own politicians, too.
To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org