A tale of two presidents

The loveliest three words in the English language may be 'I love you,' but the most difficult are 'I was wrong.'

By
October 1, 2006 00:48
4 minute read.

 
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The fire may not be visible just yet, but the smoke is clearly rising around President Moshe Katsav. More and more young women - at least seven and, by some estimates, 10 - have come forward with serious allegations against Katsav of sexual misconduct, harassment and even rape. While every citizen is entitled to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, the dark cloud hanging over the man and the office he represents does not look like dissipating any time soon. The whole sordid scandal is eerily reminiscent of another president with a penchant for pretty young things, Bill Clinton. Though Clinton was impeached, he ultimately escaped conviction. But his affair with Monica Lewinsky provided - along with marvelous material for every comic, pundit and late-night talk show host on the planet - one of the sleaziest chapters in American presidential history. As happens in most of these cases Clinton was a repeat offender before Monica, having already been involved in lurid peccadilloes with Gennifer (you don't send me) Flowers and Paula (me and Mrs.) Jones that lit up the tabloids for months on end. It's hard to say which was worse: Clinton's moral turpitude, or the willingness of the American public, particularly the women who remained dazzled by Bill's charm and good looks, to let the whole thing slide. In any case, the combination left an ugly stain on the presidency. CLINTON AND Katsav, one fears, share two primary features. Both show a willingness to risk their political careers, reputations and places in history in order to satisfy a momentary physical urge and test the limits of just how far a leader can go in defiance of all the rules of proper conduct. They display a singular type of hutzpa that is not uncommon among people in high places; it's almost as if they were daring the world to try and stop them from doing whatever their heart - or other organ - desires. Yet more frightening than that, I think, is their inability - proven in Clinton's case, feared in Katsav's - to 'fess up to the truth and admit that they have acted amiss, even when caught in the proverbial act. Clinton's straight-faced lie to the cameras, before millions of people - "I did not have sex with that woman" - displayed an arrogance and bravado more appropriate for banana-republic dictators than for leaders of the free world. And even though Katsav is yet to be legally charged, his stubborn refusal to either leave office or step aside until the episode is resolved bespeaks an inflated personality that considers itself above the nation he was appointed to serve. WHILE THE loveliest three words in the English language may be "I love you," the most difficult three words to utter - particularly in Israel - are "I was wrong." It is so much easier to pass the buck, play the blame game, and rationalize away our miscues and misbehavior than it is to take responsibility for our actions. But as we know from our Yom Kippur liturgy, repentance and rehabilitation begin with an admission of guilt, with the breast-beating confession that we are human, and so we err and make mistakes. As long as a person maintains his innocence and refuses to face his failings he cannot start on the road to correction and self-improvement. His sins and self-destructive behavior - be it alcoholism, abuse of a spouse or amorous adventurism - will remain firmly in place. That is why the 3-step program of the sages - which hopefully results in sincere regret and abandonment of the sin - always begins with vidui, the painful acknowledgement that we have fallen short of what God and society expect of us. The first three kings of Israel - Saul, David and Solomon - committed grievous sins and were reprimanded by the prophet and by God Himself (tellingly, two of the three sins involved illicit liaisons with women). Yet while Saul and Solomon were ignominiously stripped of their kingships, David remained on his throne and became the rightful progenitor of all future kings. The reason? Saul blamed the people for his transgression, while Solomon was silent and unresponsive when confronted by God. David, however, listened to the charges presented against him and responded, Hatati l'Hashem - "I have sinned before God." That moment of sincere contrition was sufficient to elicit Divine forgiveness and salvation. On Yom Kippur we mimic the angels by abstaining, as they do, from all manner of physical indulgences. But Yom Kippur is the exception that proves the rule; we were created as mortals, not as angels. It is no sin to be human, nor any shame in admitting our shortcomings. Our leaders must accept that they, too, are not perfect, and come clean in humble admission of their sins. Rather than sullying their careers, the truth may just make out of them the leaders they aspire to be. The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra'anana. jocmtv@netvision.net.il

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