Why politicians’ private lives don’t much matter
WASHINGTON — I don’t want to talk about Newt Gingrich’s many marriages. I really don’t. Nor do I want to talk about an alleged extra-marital affair that Herman Cain may have carried on for 13 years. There are so many better reasons to doubt the leadership skills of both men — sound, practical grounds to resist their claims of fitness for the nation’s highest office.
But we are destined for several more news cycles, it seems, dominated by the personal peccadilloes of public men. There are several reasons for that, but none more important than this: Cain and Gingrich belong to a political club that has branded itself the Party of Purest Personal Morality. The GOP has not worn its “family values” mantle wisely or well, but it insists on wearing it still.
So here we are, witnessing the spectacle of new and firmly-denied charges of adultery (Cain) grabbing headlines while old, more-or-less acknowledged facts of adultery (Gingrich) are relegated to footnotes. Is there a statute of limitations?
(I don’t want to confuse allegations of a consensual affair with serious charges of sexual harassment and assault, which have also been leveled against Cain. Sexual harassment is an abuse of power that often crosses the line into illegal treatment of employees; it deserves public disclosure.)
For decades, I’ve watched as the flimsy veil of privacy afforded to presidential candidates was ripped, flayed and finally shred to tiny scraps, leaving every medical infirmity, every romance, every intemperate moment exposed to public view. I’m not sure we are better off for that.
The presidency of John F. Kennedy seems impossible now, given his very active social life. Lyndon Johnson would have brought down by his lechery long before Vietnam did him in. The entrance of women into the presidential press corps did much to bring the private lives of politicians into public view. Feminists, understandably, rebelled against a journalistic standard that allowed too many powerful men to treat their wives shabbily while basking in the glow of an adoring public who believed them to be public servants of unblemished moral character.
But there was a certain naivety about the revelations that became standard news fare with the hapless Gary Hart: They sully a politician’s reputation without telling us much about the person’s character. Some voters still believe that a politician who lies to his spouse is unworthy of office because he cannot be trusted to keep his marriage vow. That thinking suggests that any person who betrays his sacred marital pledge will certainly betray the country sooner or later.
Alas, humankind is much too complicated for such a simple rule to be true. While Bill Clinton’s philandering kept his GOP rivals occupied for much of his second term, George W. Bush was never accused of stepping outside the bonds of marriage. Who was the better president? Clinton lied, disgustingly so, about Monica Lewinsky, but he didn’t lie about an issue critical to the fate of the republic.
Bush may never have betrayed his wife, but he betrayed the entire country by taking us to war on the wings of a wretched lie. Nothing about his marriage could have informed us about his capacity for deceiving the public.
So, does a politician’s personal life tell us anything we need to know? Perhaps.
If the politician is someone like Gingrich, who led the Republican House of Representatives when it impeached Clinton, it tells us much about his capacity for sheer, brazen hypocrisy. During the impeachment process, Gingrich was carrying on an extramarital affair with Callista Bisek, who alter became his third wife.
Of course, Gingrich’s capacity for stunning hypocrisy was already clear before that. So is the hypocrisy of many “family values” Republicans, who cannot be bothered to care for poor children once they are outside the womb, who denounce gay couples as threats to heterosexual marriage and who would split up immigrant families if any member is in the country illegally. Their public record tells us all we need to know.
We don’t need to peer through the keyhole to figure out whether our politicians are men and women of decency and integrity. Just look at what they do in public.