BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Who said ''power corrupts''? And ''absolute power corrupts absolutely''? I was guessing maybe William Shakespeare. Or possibly Oscar Wilde. You usually can't go wrong in the pith department if you choose one of them.
But it was British historian Lord Acton in 1887, and although I'm sure he said many other memorable things to his family and friends, this is the only one most people recall. Now that I have learned this wisdom came from a history professor instead of a writer, I'm kind of embarrassed to say he's wrong.
But he is.
If you don't believe me, look at more recent history. In fact, look at today's headlines.
William Jefferson Clinton - the president of the United States, the commander in chief, the leader of the free world, Hillary's husband, Chelsea's father - is defending himself against charges of sexual misconduct. Over and over again.
Some people believe Monica Lewinsky is just a very enthusiastic and privileged courier. Some people believe Kathleen Willey was mighty friendly to a boss who so offended her. Some people don't like Paula Jones because she has bad hair and worse grammar.
But most people believe that this is, shall we say, an area of weakness for the president.
''Sexual promiscuity has always been the medicine of choice for the chief executive of the United States,'' explains Alec Baldwin, noted movie actor and advocate for federal arts funding. ''What would you rather have him do? Take drugs? Drink?''
Medicinal? As in, take two interns and call me in the morning? Mr. Baldwin seems to have dangerously limited ideas for stress reduction.
Ronald Reagan finally was convicted of dying his hair and lying about it and taking long naps. But we never would have believed he was guilty of sexual imposition. Or drunkenness. Or drugs. Even if he'd been half as old and twice as reckless.
John F. Kennedy did not discover his libido at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Power does not make us into something we aren't. It merely advances our opportunity to indulge ourselves.
Richard Nixon was a worm all his political life. He simply became a bigger one, a gigantic night crawler of a worm, when he slithered into the office of the president.
Jimmy Carter was a good and decent man while he was governor of Georgia, then continued to be as president of the United States. He still is. And he probably still micromanages everything, counting the 10-penny nails in houses he helps build for homeless people.
Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who died in November 1996, was arguably the most powerful Catholic in America. Yet, when he was accused of sexual misconduct, he refused to bring the might of the church down on his accuser.
It's also worth noting that although the church has very deep pockets and the man's claims were widely publicized, no other accusers stepped forward. And nobody who knew the cardinal would have believed them anyway.
He was not that kind of person. And never had been.
After the man recanted his story, Cardinal Bernardin ordered his lawyers not to retaliate with countersuits.
The cardinal said he didn't want victims of genuine abuse to be afraid to step forward.
I wonder if President Clinton has any concern about the fears of genuinely victimized women. Not just in Washington, but in Cincinnati and Wichita and Seattle.
As I say, Lord Acton probably said a lot of other wonderful things, all true. But he was wrong about power. Pittacus, one of the Seven Wise Men of Ancient Greece, actually got it right:
''The measure of a man is what he does with power.''
Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at email@example.com