Friday, June 26, 2009

Political sex scandals: Why do we care?

The Republican field for the 2012 presidential race shrank Wednesday as South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford revealed that he’d been carrying on an affair with a woman in Argentina.

Sanford had vaulted into prominence by threatening to refuse some of the federal stimulus money, which endeared him to hard core conservatives and projected him onto the list of possible GOP candidates in 2012.

Sanford’s admission comes on the heels of a similar confession by Nevada Republican Sen. John Ensign. Last year, New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat, resigned and Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, a Republican, was embarrassed by revelations that they had each patronized prostitutes and Democrat John Edwards destroyed his political career with an extramarital affair that may have produced a child.

On each occasion, and in the case of President Bill Clinton in which a consensual sex act between two adults was exaggerated into a constitutional crisis, the news media poured out all the sordid details to a voyeuristic American public and the professional scolds had a field day.

Why? Who cares?

Maybe it’s because I’m a baseball fan, but I don’t have any problem with the idea someone can be excellent at their job but still be a deplorable person.

(Pick your list of the 10 greatest players in baseball history and five of them will be people you wouldn’t invite to your home for dinner. Ty Cobb was a racist thug who would have ended up in prison instead of the Hall of Fame if his career had begun any time after 1950. Babe Ruth was fat drunk who was a discipline problem from the day he got to the Major Leagues until the day he left. I don’t know if Ted Williams was the first player to make an obscene gesture toward the stands, but he was the first to be widely reported to do so. He was routinely booed in every park in the American League, including Fenway. Rogers Hornsby, despite being the best hitter in the National League during the Babe Ruth era was traded around the league at yard sale prices because his monstrous batting average didn’t justify his poisonous personality. Ricky Henderson was the greatest leadoff man in the history of baseball and the biggest egomaniac. Pete Rose was a hustler in both the positive and negative senses.)

That those with a lust for power and authority might have lusts for other things as well isn’t a new development in American history. Among our Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, among others, were known for having healthy libidos. Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy are now known to have been less than faithful husbands. That doesn’t diminish their legacies.

What’s different is the hunger with which Americans thirst for gossip about their political leaders, as if they were Hollywood stars or reality show “celebrities” who’ve somehow become famous for having more children than they can afford, and the zeal with which the news media seeks to sate that hunger by providing us with information that, quite frankly, is none of our business.

Face it: We don’t elect politicians to be faithful husbands or devout Christians or role models. We elect them to make political decisions and decide policy questions that we can’t decide for ourselves.

Mark Sanford wasn’t elected Bishop or Pope of South Carolina He was elected governor of South Carolina. We might have different views on how well he’s doing that job – going missing for five days wasn’t a positive – but he should be judged on his job performance as governor.

Look, I believe in minding my own business, a virtue we’ve somehow forgotten in this country over the last 20 years. I don’t care if my mechanic, my doctor, my lawyer or the guy who makes my burger at Wendy’s is cheating on his wife. Why should I care if my governor is? I don’t even care if he’s a “nice” person. In fact, in some cases, like when he’s protecting my rights from big money special interests who want to run things for their own benefit, I’d prefer that he be a mean, ruthless S.O.B.

I don’t think anyone who’s observed the interactions between the last two governors of Virginia and their staffs, both campaign and gubernatorial, would disagree that Tim Kaine is a much nicer guy than Mark Warner. Warner’s got a rich guy’s expectation of being immediately obeyed, a relatively quick temper, a sarcastic streak and, like his colleague in the Senate Jim Webb, does not suffer fools gladly. Warner is notoriously difficult to work for, but I think any objective observer would have to say that he was a more effective governor.

Didn’t we learn anything over the past eight years from electing an amiable dunce over two irritating smart guys because he was more “the kind of guy you’d like to have a beer with?” In 2008, it dawned on a majority of the populace that it actually mattered that the president be smart.

We need to start judging these guys on performance, not image.

And that will allow them to be less hypocritical. They lie to us because we tell them we want to be lied to.

Clinton got in trouble for lying about having sex. In part that’s because he was trying to a “nice” guy and answer the question. He should have said, “It’s none of your damned business!” and had the Secret Service throw Paula Jones’ lawyers out of the White House.

I’m pretty sure that’s the way Jefferson or Roosevelt or Kennedy would have handled it.

Bookmark and Share