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Off The Record: A Teachable Moment

by Gary Natriello - 1999

I guess I should have known that things were getting out of hand when I found myself writing "Monica Lewinsky" on the brown bag I was preparing for my son’s lunch while listening to the morning news program. It was getting difficult to ignore the escalating barrage of news stories about the president and his relationship with the young intern. And, of course, my sons were always present when the most salacious details were being discussed. They were listening to all of it and learning who knew what. Initially, I assumed that the news would be brief and that I could ignore whatever my children might be hearing. As the details of the scandal continued to dominate the reporting on television and in newspapers and magazines, it became clear that this would not go unnoticed by anyone. Clearly, my children would learn a lot from all of this, but what would they learn?

If I had any doubt as to the effect of this growing flood of detail, I was told at least once every Sunday by one morning news commentator or another that the most disturbing aspect of the entire scandal was the effect it would have on our children. They would, of course, be affected since the president served as a role model. How could our children be expected to act properly if the leader of their government acted so improperly? Some pundits argued that the only way to restore a sense of balance and standards to the lives of our children was to exact a harsh punishment on the president so as to communicate to all how unacceptable his behavior had been. Over and over the question was raised, "What is this doing to our children?"

I, of course, was most concerned about what "this" was doing to my children. What sense were they making of the whole thing? What were they learning? What should my wife and I be doing to make sure our sons were not somewhat damaged by exposure to this news? Should be we hiding the newspapers and magazines that carried the various stories? Should we be covering their ears at the first sign of another Lewinsky report on television or radio? Or should we somehow be intervening to make sure they drew the right lessons from these events? Was this one of those teachable moments? As events unfolded we learned that we had little immediate control over what the boys learned, but that we had already done a lot to determine its effects on them. Each new detail played out in a different way.

First, there was news of the relationship itself, our 50 plus president with a 20 something intern. "Is this what working at the White House is all about?" my older son asked, and then quickly added, "I don’t think so. I don’t think the president’s wife would like this." This led him to the apparently irresistible opportunity to comment on my age as he continued, "Besides the president is a pretty old guy, almost as old as you dad, and he seems too old for her." I, of course, was trapped. I could either claim that the president wasn’t too old for this relationship and so seem to endorse it, or yield to the observation that the president was indeed too old and by association, so was I. I could only muster the weak response that the president was at least a few years older than I was.

Next, came the discussions of where the president and the intern had engaged in intimate acts. Week after week the talking heads kept referring to how awful it was that all of this had taken place in the oval office. This was one of several instances where my sons seemed to focus on small features of the events that I skipped over in taking in the larger story. One day while listening to a discussion on talk radio that dealt with the oval office aspect, my younger son asked, "Why do they keep talking about the oval office?" I thought that this would be a good time to discuss the architecture of the White House and explain how the president works in an oval office. As I began this line, my son interrupted me with "No, I know about that, but why do you think these other guys keep talking about the oval office?" Not quite understanding his point, I replied, "Well, I suppose because the White House is government property and..." until I was interrupted with my son’s analysis "Well, I think these other guys are all concerned about the president having sex in the oval office because they all want to be president and work in that office themselves and they don’t want him messing it up."

Another interesting interaction came about in the wake of reports that some were particularly outraged that the president had been engaging in intimate behavior with the young intern while on the phone with a member of congress. One of my sons had spotted this particular outrage in a news magazine report and wanted to know why this was worth noting. "Are they just saying that Monica Lewinsky was with the president while he was talking on the telephone? Why is everyone so concerned about that? What makes this worse than having sex with her without being on the phone?" I confess that I could not resist pointing out that since Mark Twain had labeled Congress as America’s only native criminal class, perhaps people were concerned that the president was engaging in inappropriate sexual activity while collaborating with known criminals. My wife stepped in at this point and added that people were concerned about this incident because it showed that the affair with the intern was interfering with the president’s duties as president. My son, still puzzling over the particular report and unsatisfied with either of our explanations, argued that the incident really seemed to show that the affair was not interfering with the president being able to do his job, "after all he kept right on talking with the congressman."

This was only one of a number of reports that left my sons puzzled. Another was the report that Monica Lewinsky had admitted to having sex with the president while the president maintained, and in fact testified under oath, that although he did not dispute her account of their relationship, he had not had sex with her. This prompted my older son to inquire "If Monica Lewinsky had sex with the president, how could the president not have had sex with her?" He seemed genuinely puzzled by this as if he had perhaps misunderstood something about my earlier explanations of sex and wanted to make sure he understood things.

Just when things were settling down a bit, at least in our house, there was the revelation of Henry Hyde’s five year affair during his forties. This provided another opportunity for comparisons that were amusing to at least some members of our household. My older son told me about this news by saying: "Hey dad, this must make you feel pretty good; they’re calling Hyde’s affair during his forties a ‘youthful indiscretion.’ Does that make you feel young or what?" and then added, "I don’t think mom would like it much if you had an indiscretion."

It was Bob Livingston’s admission that he too had had an extramarital affair that forced us to have yet another conversation first about biology and then about politicians. The news about Livingston’s transgression came after several other members of congress had revealed affairs. As the number of political leaders confessing to affairs grew, the nature of my sons’ comments changed; the focus was no longer on Bill Clinton but on politicians in general. This led to some disturbing observations by my sons that "all of those Washington politicians seem to be having affairs." While I assured them that not all politicians were having affairs and that breaking one’s promise to one’s spouse was not acceptable behavior, I also took the time to discuss the compelling nature of sexual activity and the selection of political leaders.

We began by discussing why so many people seemed to be having difficulty controlling their sexual behavior. I asked them why they thought this might be a problem. When they did not respond, I changed the question to "What would happen if people didn’t have sex?" My older son pointed out that without sex, human beings would become extinct. His brother added, "yep, no sex, no babies." "Good answers," I replied, "now think about what has to happen to make sure that human beings don’t become extinct." The answer "Sex has to be really fun so people will want to do it" was just what I was looking for when I posed the question. I continued, "Now what does it mean when you promise not to do something that is really so enjoyable?" My younger son’s answer that "maybe you shouldn’t make those kinds of promises" was not quite what I was looking for so I tried again, "What do you have to do to keep such a promise?" This time the response was closer to what I wanted as my older son replied that "you really have to try hard and work at keeping the promise." "That’s right," I added, "like when those politicians made promises to their wives or when I asked you to promise your mother and me that you wouldn’t have sex until you were thirty-five." My younger son recalled, "Oh, you mean when you told us you would lock us in the room above the garage if we wouldn’t promise?" "That’s just to help you keep your promise," I added. "Maybe those politicians ought to be locked up in the room over their garages," the older one replied. "I suppose it couldn’t hurt," I said.

But, of course, this little discussion did not answer the most obvious question which surfaced again, "Why are so many of those Washington guys not keeping their promises?" "That’s a good question," I said, "I’m not sure I really have an answer. Some people say we are just hearing more about this kind of behavior among Washington politicians. Other people say there’s something about the kind of people who become politicians." "But what do you say, dad," my younger son asked, pressing for a more definitive answer. "Well, I suppose it has something to do with how people get into congress. Everyone who is a member of the House of Representatives had to decide either to move their family to Washington for a two-year job or to go to Washington and leave their family back home. I don’t know whether this is good or bad, but I do know that it makes them different from many of the people in our town who wouldn’t move their entire family or leave them for a job that might only last two years. So the folks in Washington are probably a bit different from the people we know. After all, do you think I would move you guys to Washington just to join congress?"

I don’t want to give a false impression about my sons’ interest in the Clinton-Lewinsky matter, because they were much less interested in the sexual aspects of it than most in the press. Most of their questions were focused on the governmental issues involved. My younger son wanted to know if Bob Dole would become president if Clinton were to be impeached. My older son chimed in that now that Dole was on Viagra he would be ready, but then added that Al Gore would become president since he was the vice president. He went on to explain that Clinton would not resign before January 20th because if Gore became president after that date he could run for two more full terms himself. It was nice to see some effect of social studies classes!

As the discussion about the scandal wore on, my sons could not help but note the nature of the debate. They would often focus on one detail or another such as when the various lawyers debated the difference between not telling the complete truth and perjury or when they discovered that impeachment was not the same as removal from office. These offered useful opportunities to discuss the finer points of law or government. But what seemed to dominate their reaction to the entire matter was the tenor of the debate. They would often note that "all of those Washington guys seem nasty to each other. What’s their problem?" I replied that some have observed that in our country bad people are sent to jail or to Washington, and sometimes the really bad ones go to both places, but I added that it is probably the ones who seem nasty that we hear more about because it makes for interesting television.

This gave me the opportunity to raise the issue of "bad people" becoming government leaders. I asked them what they thought might happen if some bad people or even many bad people became leaders. "Could our government work if there were bad people in positions of power?" They seemed to think about this for a while, and then my older son said that the "power checks" would keep the bad guys from doing too many bad things. After a quick review of the separation of powers among the three branches of the government, I asked the boys whether they thought the framers of the constitution had considered what might happen if bad people ran the government. My older son pointed out that since the American revolution "was all about getting away from a bad king" they must have thought about bad people running things and what to do about them.

This led us into a discussion of how you would organize a government if you knew you would have bad people in power at least some of the time. My sons concluded that you could maintain such a government if there were some bad guys and some good guys to keep them under control as long as there was a system of checks and balances like when the congress or the supreme court or the president stopped people in another branch from doing things that were not in the best interest of the country. They even argued that it might work of there were lots of bad guys in government if you could keep the bad guys fighting each other. My younger son thought this might be what was going on now that the republicans in congress and Bill Clinton were busy fighting each other, "like in my class when too bullies fight each other but leave everyone else alone." The boys concluded that our constitution assumes that there will be bad guys in government. In fact, the country is designed so that bad guys can’t destroy it. After all what were the framers most afraid of: "another king who would do bad things."

This on-going discussion of bad guys and good guys in government still left me with one remaining issue to address, the issue of role models. The commentators on the news programs kept repeating that the most damaging aspect of the presidential scandal was the fact that it destroyed the president as a role model for our children. I put the question to my sons directly, "What kind of role model could Bill Clinton be for kids like you after behaving the way he had?" I found that I had to explain the notion of a role model since the boys did not really understand what the term meant. Once I explained that a role model was someone that they might admire and look up to and seek to become like, they both snickered. My older son began by pointing out that he didn’t know enough about Bill Clinton or any other government leader to know if they could be role models for him. "Besides," he added, "why would I want to be like someone else anyway?" My younger son amplified on these comments, "we might want to be like you or grandfather because we really know you, but all those guys on TV are just like cartoon guys; we only know how they act on TV. Who would want to be like someone you don’t really know?"

I tried again, "All the news people are saying that young people in American are being let down by Bill Clinton because they can no longer use him as a role model. Don’t you think your friends are disappointed in him as our president?" "Well, maybe," my older son replied, "but they are more affected by people close by like parents and teachers and neighbors, I’m not sure any of my friends really think of government leaders all that much anyway."

The conversations I have had with my children over the Clinton scandal have been very revealing; these events have caused us to have conversations quite unlike any others. I come away from these conversations much less concerned that the conduct of the president or of any other government leader will have an impact, positive or negative, on my children and probably on anyone else’s children. I am less worried that the behavior of people in Washington will have an impact on the behavior of people in my family and neighborhood. At the same time I am certain that the behavior of adults in my family and community will have a big impact on my children and the children of my neighbors. Acting to make that impact a positive one is the big challenge. Unfortunately, the behavior of Washington politicians also seems to have a big impact on other Washington politicians, and that may be the big problem. I wish folks would stop talking about my kids and my neighbors’ kids to avoid that problem.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 100 Number 3, 1999, p. 691-696
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10336, Date Accessed: 5/17/2022 5:46:29 PM

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About the Author
  • Gary Natriello
    Teachers College, Columbia University
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    Gary Natriello is Professor of Sociology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University and the editor of the Teachers College Record.
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