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Public officials' private lives

POSTED: July 24, 2009 11:56 a.m.
As happens every so often, we have recently been through a spate of embarrassing reports about the lives of prominent public officials. Adulterous affairs by Nevada Sen. John Ensign, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, and former presidential candidate John Edwards, entanglements in prostitution by Louisiana Sen. David Vitter and former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer — these are just the latest in a long line of revelations about people in whom the American voters once put their trust.
Celebrities often disappoint. Baseball players use steroids; track stars and internationally known bicyclists enhance their performance with chemicals; entertainers slip into alcohol- or drug-induced misbehavior; ministers run away with their choir directors.
Politicians are no different, with actions that raise issues about their judgment, self-control and basic integrity. They are public figures, but they are also all too human, with all the strengths and flaws that attach to the human condition.
The question, of course, is what do we do when their private lives go off the rails? And the answer, I’m afraid, is that there is no answer: Each of us can only respond according to his or her own lights.
I still remember, for instance, a single day in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal that beset the presidency of Bill Clinton. Two constituents of mine, both strong Clinton supporters, spoke publicly about their reactions. One said he still believed Clinton was a strong and effective president, whatever his personal behavior. The other declared he was appalled by the whole affair and could never bring himself to support Clinton again. Both were intensely personal reactions.
Because there are no set rules when it comes to this sort of thing, there is also little consistency when it comes to the long-term results. Some politicians’ careers have been undone or badly sidetracked — think of Spitzer, Edwards or former New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey — while others have suffered uncomplimentary attention for a few weeks and then picked up where they left off.
In the end, a politician’s fate often rests in the hands of the voters, who must use their own judgment about that politician’s values, performance and abilities. Voters tend to prefer politicians who share their values and signal that they’d make similar choices on ideological issues — indeed, the question of how much weight to place on character issues often depends on whether we agree on a politician’s positions.
But if voters see hypocrisy — behavior that the politician in question would have been quick to condemn in others — they are less likely to be tolerant, and can be merciless.
There is another question that has to come up in such cases, and that is whether the misbehavior is truly personal, or instead threatens to bring discredit to the institution in which the politician serves. This is illustrated in the House of Representatives, where the official name of the committee overseeing members’ behavior is not — despite its wide use — the “House Ethics Committee,” but rather the House Standards of Official Conduct Committee. Its focus is less on ethical misconduct in general than on actions that relate to official conduct and that might undermine the integrity of the institution or affect a member’s performance of his or her official duties.
A House member’s extra-marital affair with a neighbor, for instance, would probably not lead to any formal committee involvement — in that case, the House would leave questions of punishment up to the voters back home. But a member’s affair with a lobbyist, or with a paid member of the staff — and certainly with a congressional page — would lead to a much tougher look by the committee and the House as a whole. In some cases, important questions need to be answered: Was public money involved? Did a politician abuse his or her position? Were any laws broken?
This means that sometimes — rarely to be sure — the House or Senate takes action to remove a member. Yet other times he may leave because of court action. And sometimes he decides to resign midterm or not run for re-election.
Yet often the decision is left to the voter, and in that case each of us will have to make our own judgments. We may be disappointed when a political leader’s personal vulnerabilities or weaknesses come to light, but how that affects our willingness to support him or her is a personal decision.
As voters, we’re asked all the time to make decisions about politicians based on incomplete or insufficient information. When an elected official misbehaves, all we can do is to make the best decision we can, rooted in what we know about the case and our own personal reaction.

Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.
 

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