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The Compartmentalized President

By James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.

Just how many President Clintons are there? The public has heard numerous references of late about the public Clinton versus the private Clinton. While engaged in presidential duties, we have all been treated to the consummate policy wonk. When presenting defenses against allegations, our heads have been left swimming as we attempt to translate the cryptic ramblings of the parsing president. The average person wants to know, what exactly does it mean to compartmentalize, and is it really something with which we should be impressed, even awestruck, as some in the media would lead us to believe?

President Clinton appeared to demonstrate in both the State of the Union address and in his recent press conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair that despite the scandals swirling around his administration, he is able to maintain an unaffected appearance and an unimpeded job performance. Following these displays, certain members of the press began to gush about the President's ability to compartmentalize. His general denials and stonewalling, all the while attending to work related obligations, seem to perpetuate the image of a neatly partitioned persona.

According to the current popular use of the word, compartmentalizing refers to the ability of an individual to segment different components of his or her life. This, of course, would involve keeping one aspect of life completely separate from another. For instance, people sometimes speak of this concept in relation to religious practices. In the view of a substantial segment of our population, religion is not a subject of polite conversation. In fact, some people hold that personal beliefs should never intrude on secular life at all. With this perspective, the doctrines and teachings of faith would be reserved for Sunday worship alone.

Compartmentalization may also refer to a person's ability to maintain a normal appearance or carry out professional duties while engaging in unconventional or even untoward behavior in private.

Recently, a young couple living in one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in Orange County, California made headlines when their dual character was exposed. The two were considered to be model citizens in all respects known. They were involved in many charitable benefits and were heralded by the high society set for their philanthropy. Much to the dismay of the local community, the couple was indicted when it was discovered that they had obtained their wealth in a criminal manner. The news sent shock waves through the charity ball crowd. Over and over again people asked the question, how could this couple appear so normal, gracious and refined? The answer may lie in this peculiar trait of compartmentalization.

When analyzed in depth, the ability to compartmentalize may not be such a good thing after all. If most people were asked for a spontaneous response regarding the concept of integrity, they would most likely reply that it is a quality for which they personally would like to be known. It is also something most parents would like to instill in their children.

The word integrity comes from the Latin word "integratus" which means made whole. The basic premise underlying its core definition is the requirement that our conduct not be separated into parts, but rather in the ideal state, a person would experience completeness and undivided intactness. When we separate and compartmentalize our lives, we cloud our moral compass, and we are eventually able to comfortably justify a mind set where we value expediency over truth, advantage over trust and winning over justice.

Thus in order to protect our society and promote the common good, we have come to hold as a positive societal value the idea that integrity is a crucial element for exemplary citizenship. If one of our political leaders lacks integrity, all communication from that person becomes suspect, and doubts concerning behavior arise. Moral authority is undermined, and distrust and cynicism multiply.

The complete and wholly integrated life is that estimable quality which allowed the courage and conviction of those great individuals who possessed it, celebrated or unknown, to stand up and be counted for what was good and right. Integrity still matters.

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James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.

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