THE WORST thing about those pictures of the First Lady's thighs was neither the thighs nor the pictures. It was the First Lady and her husband — that is, the willingness of the Clintons to be seen in so unseemly a pose. (And yes, the Clintons were willing. Photographers don't lurk in bushes and snap shots of a half-naked president unless the Secret Service has been ordered to let them snap.) Put it this way: Would James and Dolly Madison have let themselves be seen in a state of half-undress? Would the Eisenhowers?
Bill and Hillary Clinton allowed photographers to take pictures as they danced on the beach in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The loss of presidential dignity is a sad phenomenon, and a recent one. FDR was at pains to keep his crutches and leg braces private; LBJ bared his belly to show off the scar from gall bladder surgery. When Harry Truman took his daily "constitutional," he wore a suit and tie; when Bill Clinton jogs, he wears too-short shorts and a sweaty T-shirt.
George Washington would have winced at his successors' let-it-all-hang-out style. The first chief executive was described as having "perfect good breeding, & a correct knowledge of even the etiquette of a court." But Washington's courtly behavior didn't come of "breeding." It was the product of rigorous self-discipline. As a young teen, Washington copied out 110 "Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation." All his life he carried the list with him, continuously working on his behavior, striving to be civil, restrained, and discreet.
Some of Washington's rules are uncannily apt today. The incumbent president could benefit from mastering Rule 53 ("Run not in the streets") or Rule 91 ("Make no show of taking great delight in your victuals. Feed not with greediness.") But no "Rule of Civility" is more relevant for presidents than No. 87:
"Let your carriage be such as becomes a man — grave, settled, and attentive to that which is spoken. Contradict not at every turn what others say."
Grave? Presidential gravity now seems positively antiquated. Think of Clinton, barking at a distinguished scholar during a televised "conversation" about race. Think of George Bush, racing frenetically from golf course to cigarette boat to tennis court to horseshoe pitch. Think of Jimmy Carter, telling Playboy about the lust in his heart.
The first president worried at length about how "to maintain the dignity of office." The current president goes on MTV to talk about his underwear. Washington didn't campaign openly for office — and for a century or so, neither did his successors. Clinton took his campaign to "60 Minutes," where he discussed his marital infidelities, and to the "Arsenio" show, where he donned sunglasses and blew a saxophone.
Whatever happened to "dignity of office?"
Answer: Television happened to it. Intrusive, melodramatic, confession-hungry, conflict-addicted, TV changed the rules of pop culture — and politicians, chasing popularity, conformed to TV's demands. Subtly at first, then shamelessly, presidents traded dignity and gravitas for approval ratings.
When TV wanted a press conference "show" starring the president, for instance, John F. Kennedy was glad to oblige. It was the first downward step in public regard for the presidency — "part game show, part miniseries . . . even part sitcom," writes Steven Stark in Glued to the Set (Free Press), a shrewd, lively history of how television changed America. For the stars of the press conferences turned out not to be the presidents after all, but the TV reporters — who could only make themselves look good by making presidents look foolish.
"Eyebrows were raised when [reported Sam] Donaldson asked Carter if he thought himself competent enough to be president," Stark notes. "The careers of TV newscasters fairly rocketed as a result of such performances, but the prestige of the targeted presidents was left on the launching pad. Humiliate the Chief of State: Win Valuable Prizes!"
And that was only the start. From "Donahue" and "Oprah," Americans would come to learn that self-control matters less than the ability to "feel your pain." From "60 Minutes," that news must be entertaining. From "Today" and its progeny, that no question is off-limits. Stark points out that Barbara Walters "became known for asking the kind of impertinent, personal questions that viewers at home . . . had on their mind: whether Mamie Eisenhower had heard the rumors that she drank too much; whether Lady Bird Johnson knew the stories about her husband's infidelity."
TV has brought presidents closer to the public — and more willing to play to the public — than ever. The familiarity has bred contempt. Say what you will about Herbert Hoover, no one spoke about his underwear. Or about Mrs. Hoover's thighs.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
-- ## --
Follow Jeff Jacoby on Twitter.
Want to read more? Sign up for "Arguable," Jeff Jacoby's free weekly email newsletter.