If you've surfed the web at all over the past two weeks, you are probably aware of the hot new rumor about a well-known Democratic politician, his mistress, and their secret love child. The National Enquirer has been riding this horse for several months now, and bottom feeders like Matt Drudge and Mickey Kaus (of Slate.com) have now taken their turns wading into the sewage. Right-wing blogs are indignant about the fact that the traditional media have yet to find the story worthy of their attention. If this had been a Republican, they caterwaul, it would be a Page 1 story on every newspaper in the country and Katie Couric would be doing a victory dance around her teleprompter.
Except, of course, that a similar story (sans baby) actually did involve a GOP presidential nominee a generation or so earlier. There was no internet at the time, of course, but the Enquirer and its competitors took their turns rummaging through the underwear drawer, making accusations and naming names. Finally, in desperation, one high-level Democratic operative blurted out the rumor in a roomfull of reporters and was immediately relieved of her duties. The supposedly liberal media then let the whole thing die.
And that is as it should be. The personal and sexual lives of candidates are generally not newsworthy. Indeed, until 1987 everyone agreed on that. It was then that Gary Hart, Democratic frontrunner for president, stupidly told the working press not only that he was not philandering, but that he had no objection if they followed him around 24/7 to satisfy their curiosity. They did, and the result was that Gary Hart ceased being the Democratic frontrunner shortly thereafter.
From that moment on, we have been forced to weight the "character issue" when judging our presidential candidates. This has been enormously destructive in multiple ways. First, it deprives us of the services of men and women who, but for irrelevant personal weaknesses, might be outstanding presidents. Gary Hart was and is a bright and creative thinker. He almost certainly would have been a better candidate than Michael Dukakis and a better president than George H.W. Bush (with the added advantage that the defeat of the father would likely have ensured that the arrogant, reckless, and incompetent son would never have entered the White House again without a visitor's pass).
But it's not just Hart. Outstanding people, unwilling to endure the full body cavity search of today's presidential politics, simply pass up the opportunity to run. This, in turn, leaves us with only the hyper-ambitious, the sixth-grade class president types who are willing to crawl through broken glass to satisfy their craving for power and affirmation. Surely, out of 300 million people, we ought to be able to do better than John McCain and--sorry--Barack Obama.
The other problem with the character issue is that it causes voters to elevate truly immaterial portions of a candidate's biography and turn them into decisive criteria. Wesley Clark, for example, spoke an undeniable truth when he pointed out that John McCain's POW experience had no bearing on his qualifications for the presidency. There is, in fact, no time during the next four years in which the Commander-in-Chief will be required to languish in prison and be subjected to brutal torture.
Oh, but wait! Doesn't this show what kind of man John McCain is? Well, I suppose it shows what kind of man he was forty years ago, but it's still irrelevant to the task at hand. The job he is currently applying for requires no particular physical courage. Indeed, it is possible to be heroic in one context and hopelessly venal in another. Just as former Top Gun pilot Duke Cunningham.
The same John McCain who refused early release from the Hanoi Hilton also aided and abetted (and won favors from) Charles Keating, one of the nastiest swindlers of the Savings and Loan Era. Doesn't that also speak to the issue of character? Indeed, doesn't it speak quite a bit louder, since it happened more recently and involved the conduct of his public, elected office?
So getting back to the question of extra-marital sexual activity, the rules seem pretty clear. The only time it should be considered newsworthy is when it intersects--or potentially intersects--with a politician's day job or involves violation of the law. Larry Craig fits both categories, having been arrested for conduct that he regularly condemned on the Senate floor. Likewise, if you choose to ambush a sitting president at deposition with questions about his sex life and then impeach him when he lies, you better keep your zipper locked and in the upright position. There was, in that sense, nothing wrong with exposing the hypocrisy of Newt Gingrich and Henry Hyde back in 1998.
Also, the JFK rule: if you're shtupping the girlfriend of an organized crime boss, that, too, should be made public.
But otherwise, public people ought to be allowed private lives. And we should stop pretending we have any insight as to the "character" of our public officials. First of all, we don't. Second of all, despite our desire to pigeon-hole and summarize, "character" is not some trait that is greater than the some of its parts. Character is the sum of its parts, nothing more, nothing less. We all have people that we know and love who are wonderful in hundreds of ways who nevertheless occasionally make terrible, hurtful choices in their private lives. If we can understand that about our friends, we should be able to understand it about our politicians as well.