How can we understand Bill Clinton's thoughts and actions during the media frenzy over his sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, a young White House intern? The idea of applying the principles of cognitive psychology as a way of understanding the Clinton-Lewinsky affair began with a phone call from Robert Sternberg, a psychologist who is well known to psychology students for his work in intelligence and other areas. Bob Sternberg asked me to write a chapter for a book he was editing entitled Why Smart People Do Dumb Things. (I didn't want to ask Sternberg which part of the book title made him think of me as a possible contributor.) It was easy for me to agree to this request because the chapter was not due for a year. But, despite the extra time, it did not take long for the topic to come to me. Like most other psychologists, I have come to dread certain words spoken at parties and other places where real people—that is, not psychologists—gather. The dreaded sentence always begins with, "Say Diane, you're a psychologist . . ." and usually ends with a question that I could never answer. This time the following part was "How do psychologists explain Clinton's dalliances with Lewinsky?" Voila! I had my topic.
It is always risky to use political events as examples of cognitive or social phenomena because the political leanings of the writer and the audience figure prominently in how the event is interpreted and how the critique of the event is received. In politics, as in many other arenas, judgments about the degree to which an action is smart or stupid are in the eyes of the beholder. Often, the "beholders" of political events view the world through the corrective lens of their political party, with each lens creating its own unique distortion. As a prime example of the way existing beliefs influence evaluative judgments, consider the United States Congress, although you could probably apply the same principles to any political body anywhere in the world where members usually vote "along party lines," often unable to recognize any merits in proposals originating on the other side of the aisle or any demerits in ones coming from their own side. It seems to be a cross-cultural universal that politicians almost always vote along party lines. Despite all of the rhetoric on the topic, the votes to impeach Clinton, with only a few exceptions, were cast along party lines.
In this paper, I focus on a cognitive analysis of Clinton's behaviors as a way of inferring his decision-making processes because I do not have direct access to his thinking at the time. The paper presented here is excerpted from a longer version that I wrote for Sternberg's book (Halpern, in press). One question that was asked repeatedly by many people around the world during the nonstop media blitz was, "How could Clinton have been so dumb?"
Understanding Behavior in Context
One way of understanding the motives and actions of another person is to try to assume his or her perspective or worldview. It is important when assuming the perspective of another person that you remain mindful of what was known and not known by that person at the time the decisions were made and judge the quality of the thinking by the actor's own objectives and goals. Following the Lewinsky scandal, Clinton publicly apologized for his sexual affair and for misleading the American public, and Hillary Clinton talked publicly about Bill Clinton's remorse. It is reasonable to conclude that he would not have become involved with Lewinsky if he had known that it would result in his impeachment and public humiliation.
In Hillary Clinton's explanation of her husband's marital infidelities, she attributed his behavior to the early "abuse" that he suffered as a young child when his mother and grandmother clashed over his mother's decision to marry. But there is no need to appeal to psychodynamic concepts like early psychological trauma to explain his sleazy affairs. There are cognitive principles that are more directly related to his behaviors that can help us to understand why he did not adequately assess the likelihood of detection and the consequences of his affair with a young intern at the White House.
There is considerable evidence that for many years prior to his encounters with Lewinsky, Clinton had had sexual liaisons with multiple partners, even during his term as governor of Arkansas when state troopers were assigned to accompany him everywhere he went. In sworn testimony, Gennifer Flowers, who is another player in this soap opera, and an Arkansas state employee and part-time nightclub singer, declared that she had had sexual relations with Clinton many times over a 12-year period that included his gubernatorial term. In 1992, during his successful presidential campaign, Clinton denied having sex with Flowers. It was Paula Jones' contention that Clinton had committed lewd acts when he was governor of Arkansas that led to Lewinsky's subpoena to appear before a grand jury. In Clinton's deposition in the Paula Jones lawsuit, he reversed his earlier denial of sexual relations with Gennifer Flowers. Thus, prior to his affair with Lewinsky, Clinton apparently engaged in sexual acts throughout his marriage and during many years in highly visible elected offices, publicly denied having these relations, and had no negative consequences as a result of these behaviors. A frequently repeated aphorism in psychology is that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Based on this premise, Clinton's sexual encounters with Lewinsky could have been predicted by examining his prior behavior.
Clinton had learned from his past experience. When viewed in context, his actions seem less stupid than they did at first glance. In deciding what constitutes poor judgment and decision making, one criterion is to ask, "Are the person's beliefs grossly out of kilter with available evidence?" The answer for Clinton, with regard to his affair with Lewinsky, would have to be, "No." When viewed from his perspective, Clinton's behavior makes sense. It is only from the advantageous point of view of hindsight that we can wonder, "How could Clinton have been so dumb?"
The Machismo of the U.S. Presidency
Clinton's seemingly stupid liaisons with Monica Lewinsky can also be understood by examining them within the societal context in which they occurred. Many men in visible public offices have acknowledged extramarital sexual affairs with few negative consequences. The double standard for female and male behavior is alive and well in American culture and many other parts of the world. When males brag about multiple sexual partners, they are often described as "sowing their wild oats," and such behavior is excused (perhaps even praised with expressions like "boys will be boys"). The job of U.S. President is almost too big for any single person. A macho president is, in some sense, communicating that he is man enough to handle it, and more.
History has shown that Americans have been very tolerant of our presidents' sexual infidelities. Franklin Roosevelt's love affair with his wife's social secretary, Lucy Page Mercer, is generally acknowledged as the reason why Eleanor Roosevelt pursued a politically active career. Kay Summersby wrote a book in which she described in intimate details her extramarital love affair with Dwight Eisenhower. John Kennedy's reputation as a "womanizer" came from his sexual affairs with many famous Hollywood stars and anonymous aides. The news media also carried stories about extramarital affairs between Lyndon Johnson and female guests at his Texas ranch. Public awareness of presidential dalliances dates back to over a century ago when Grover Cleveland's bid for the presidency was rocked with the news that he had been paying child support for a child born out of wedlock years before he became a presidential candidate.
If we were to conclude that Clinton was stupid because he had extramarital affairs, then similar labeling would apply to these other presidents as well. We would end up concluding that many of the presidents in the last century behaved stupidly because they engaged in sexual relations outside of marriage. According to social learning theorists, most learning occurs by observing models, with particular attention to the rewards and punishments they receive. In general, models are effective in shaping behavior when the learner perceives a similarity between her- or himself and the model. The lessons learned are not always explicit, but if Clinton were motivated to seek sexual partners outside of marriage, he did not have to look beyond earlier inhabitants of his White House bedroom to find examples where that behavior was condoned.
What Went Wrong?
Personal learning experiences based on successful affairs while in the governor's mansion and later in the White House, and the sexual legacy of many prior presidents taught Clinton the same simple lessons. Even if his affairs were disclosed to the public, there would be no negative repercussions. While Clinton was deciding how to respond to news media reports about his sexual encounters, Francois Mitterand, his counterpart in France, was making news on the other side of the Atlantic for his own extramarital relations. The reaction of most French citizens ranged from mild condemnation to amusement, support, and even encouragement, providing another example that may have emboldened Clinton to take even more risks. How else can we understand why he would have phoned Lewinsky at her home, given her gifts, and also (allegedly) groped a female acquaintance when that person visited him at the White House. What went wrong? Clinton failed to notice a critical factor that rendered his earlier lessons invalid. To quote from the words of a popular song from the 1960s, he failed to recognize that "The times, they are a-changin'."
Public Office in the Post-Watergate Era
When news of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal first broke, it seemed that the attitudes of the American public also had changed in ways that were not predictable from their responses to past presidential indiscretions. There are numerous indicators that Americans are increasingly concerned with morals and values. Consider Vice President Al Gore's comments about Clinton's sexual activities as one such example: "What he did was inexcusable, and particularly as a father, I felt it was terribly wrong, obviously."
There are many reasons why Clinton might have failed to notice that the behaviors he "got away with" earlier would not be ignored this time. Wishful thinking can be a powerful influence on what we attend to and how we interpret cues from the environment. In general, people estimate the probabilities of desired events to be higher than the probability of undesired events, even when they are objectively equal.
The Changing Nature of Evidence
Another important change that sets the Clinton affairs apart from those that occurred earlier in this century is the widespread use of electronic devices, specifically recording machines. In an earlier time, a president's paramour may have confided in inappropriate friends, but these confessions could later be denied and left to circulate as unsubstantiated rumors. This time, Linda Tripp, the confidant for Monica Lewinsky, captured Lewinsky's version of the affair secretly on tape, thus making a permanent copy available for further scrutiny and preventing Lewinsky from denying the allegations. This is reminiscent of the most immediate cause for Nixon's resignation from the office of President—the discovery of audiotapes, which prevented him from denying his involvement in the Watergate scandal.
Other advances have changed "he said, she said" exchanges into provable claims based on physical evidence. Clinton's semen stain on the infamous blue dress was his final undoing. It is unlikely that he had any idea that Lewinsky kept a semen-stained dress. DNA testing showed conclusively that he had had an inappropriate relationship with "that woman, Miss Lewinsky," despite his televised denials. Unlike other types of evidence, DNA does not leave open many alternative interpretations.
Clinton made many mistakes during the investigation of the Lewinsky mess. Despite these "errors," it is likely that there would have been no negative consequence of his behavior with Lewinsky if he had not committed two additional errors. Clinton could have stopped the grand jury investigation before news of his involvement with Lewinsky became known by quickly by settling the lawsuit with Jones. Initially, all she wanted was a public apology. Clinton refused this early settlement, obviously believing that he could win the case and that he had too much to lose by admitting guilt. Unfortunately for him, Clinton was only half right. He was correct with regard to the lawsuit, as it was dismissed. (He paid $850,000 for an out-of-court settlement and almost $91,000 for contempt of court.) But, his unwillingness to put a quick end to the Jones suit gave Starr a large amount of time to investigate a wide range of Clinton's behaviors.
Lies and Damn Lies
The second major error was his use of a "technically correct" definition of sexual relations as a way of covering up the affair. When he denied having sexual relations with "that woman—Miss Lewinsky" he later claimed to be using a definition that restricted sexual relations to intercourse. The purpose of this "legally accurate" definition was to mislead the public. It opened the way for prosecutors to charge Clinton with lying under oath. Unfortunately for Clinton, the Republicans in Congress perceived his use of a "technically correct definition" that was intended to "mislead" as a lie, which led to his impeachment for perjury.
So Dumb, After All?
Compare the historian's job to that of a forecaster. Everyone can assess a situation with more confidence after it has occurred, and can see most clearly with 20-20 hindsight. There are no surprise endings with history. Clinton was impeached, publicly humiliated by the porno-like posting of his sexual escapades on the internet, and caused great pain for his wife and daughter. Lewinsky and her family have also suffered and will live under the shadow of the scandal their entire lives. But, despite these negative consequences, the strong economy and Clinton's concern with a variety of social issues such as health care and education, seemed to be far more important to much of the American public than the sordid sexual affairs he ultimately acknowledged.
Perhaps there are lessons for future presidents to learn about the American perspective on extramarital sex, honesty, and the office of the Presidency. Of course, there would have been no scandal, no huge cost to American taxpayers, and no loss of valuable Congressional time if Clinton had not engaged in extramarital affairs or had simply admitted the truth early in the investigations. Fidelity and honesty would have been the best policy. But for those future politicians whose inclinations lie elsewhere, I offer these caveats: be vigilant for the changing nature of evidence. If caught in "compromising situations," then honesty may be far less painful than the legal and social consequences of compounding "bad" behavior with lies. Whatever the issue, a more negative outcome can be expected if one's own party is not in the majority. End the investigation as quickly as possible if you have something to hide, but it is important to recognize that other performance indicators like the economy and education are more important to a majority of Americans, who ultimately prevented Clinton's removal from office. When Clinton's behavior is seen from his perspective, it is easy to see that "mistakes were made," but it looks as though the long-term view will indicate that they will not be a critical determinant of Clinton's place in American history.
Halpern, D. F. (in press). Sex, lies, and audiotapes: A cognitive analysis of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. In R. Sternberg (Ed.), Why smart people do dumb things. New Haven: Yale University.