The Toothpaste Is Out of the Tube

Well, another one bites the dust.  John Edwards had an affair in 2006 with a campaign worker.  The situation is shameful and shows once again that our leaders do not live on a higher moral plane than the rest of us.

Is that a surprise to anyone?  Philandering politicians are nothing new.  Spitzer, Vitter, Craig, Clinton, Hart, Gingrich, Dole, McCain…public officials have probably been lying about sex since the birth of the republic.  So, why is it relevant?

FDR and JFK both cheated on their wives.  They still managed to be remarkably talented presidents, and FDR is usually ranked among historians’ top three chief executives.  Despite their common character defect, they shared an ability to inspire and comfort the public.  Without their gifts, we might have never landed at Normandy or on the moon.

Since then, though, politics has become equally oriented around personality as well as policy.  When we shop for leaders and representatives, their character and moral fiber are now crucial selection criteria.  It is as important for a would-be politician to appear to be a devoted father/mother/husband/wife as it is for him or her to be well-versed in policy.  Their private lives and public roles are now merged into one package.  A CEO or network anchor would probably not be fired for committing adultery, but we seem to demand moral perfection from anyone who would serve in government.

Maybe Gary Hart could have been elected president in 1988 if the media and the public had decided that his personal behavior was irrelevant.  Maybe he might have made a bold and noteworthy president.  Maybe Bill Clinton could have accomplished more in his final years in office if that same standard had been applied to him.  Politics is a job, and in the past even moral deviants have been able to make their mark in it.

But now is a different time.  Choosing to look the other way is impossible and impractical.  Even if most media outlets choose to give a man such as Edwards the benefit of the doubt and a little privacy, The National Enquirerwill leap to fill the vacuum.  The toothpaste is out of the tube, and for the foreseeable future, no politician is entitled to privacy.

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