In the bumpy road to the Republican nomination this year, there have been fresh examples of the prominence of personal foibles as drivers of political outcomes. With questions mounting about past behavior toward women, then-frontrunner Herman Caine felt compelled to withdraw from the race. Newt Gingrich’s multiple marriages and overlapping affairs have been a burden to his candidacy. And the unique features of Mitt Romney’s religious beliefs are a staple of campaign coverage.
Nor does this crop of candidates have the bad behavior franchise all to themselves. In just a couple weeks, the John Edwards trial, the Secret Service in Columbia, a few errant troopers in Afghanistan, and staff members from the General Services Administration in Las Vegas have all contributed to the feeling that the adults have stopped supervising the kids.
Now, as far as we know, sexual gossip, battlefield insensitivity, and scandalmongering are as old as language (and were probably preceded by hand gestures). Literacy, whatever its other advantages, merely extended the range of reporting about such matters. And a sensation-obsessed press is scarcely new; it would be as familiar to contemporaries of Cotton Mather as it is to us. Things do change, however, and the persistence of a general phenomenon does not mean that it invariably takes the same form.
Most of the time one can discern a clear historical trend. While for some time we have been incapable of being shocked by a "glimpse of stocking," occasionally the perpetually downward curve of taste and seriousness in public discourse does steepen its decline. There are aspects of the current "situation" in politics that clearly have no precedent. The pervasiveness of the media and the immediacy of reporting certainly seem to be increasing geometrically. Even in the days of competing newspapers in metropolitan areas and a few all-night radio shows, there was no exact counterpart to the Internet or a 24-hour news cycle. In addition, surely less and less is left to the imagination, and more and more is explicit, in our culture, art, movies, television, news, and at the Government Printing Office. Add to the list of developments the confessional genre of articles, television shows, memoirs, and biographies.
In some ways, politics, although currently in the midst of a frantic catch-up phase, has lagged these trends. It might have been foolish to think that the "new standards" (or non-standards) with regard to privacy and revelation would not eventually invade and conquer the public and political sphere. They appear to be irresistible. Perhaps the best example in recent years of the hunger for sensation was the moment when Hustler magazine took out a full-page ad in the Washington Post offering up to $1 million to anyone who can provide "documentary evidence of illicit sexual relations" by prominent officeholders.
While the political demise of several members of Congress and a couple of governors was a consequence of sexual misconduct, public officials have seen a host of other issues about their private lives revealed. Mental and physical health, substance abuse, and sexual orientation are obvious examples of subjects most people wish to keep private. Yet when these people become public servants—whether in the executive branch, on the bench, or in state or local government—their private lives become fair game. Many other countries are bewildered by America's focus on matters that are simply irrelevant elsewhere in the world.
Despite occasional examples of the public’s maturity on these matters, it is clear that highly qualified individuals are now declaring that they are unwilling to subject themselves or their families to such scrutiny and are reconsidering running for office. General Colin Powell, for one, declined to run for president in part because his wife, who has been treated for depression, was reluctant to subject their family to scrutiny.
The situation today may also be a consequence of the growing emphasis in recent years on family values. When some hold themselves out as moral arbiters for the rest of us, all, including the arbiters themselves, eventually may come under scrutiny. Ultimately, we must examine whether it is possible to have a "one-size-fits-all" approach to public and private morality. More generally, the question, perhaps, should be: What is likely to be the impact on the shape and effectiveness of government?
Richard C. Leone is the former President, currently a senior fellow, of the Twentieth Century Fund, a non-profit public policy research institution supporting work on U.S. foreign policy, economic issues, media studies, and domestic affairs. From 1990 to 1994, he served as Chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The Port Authority operates the Hudson River crossings, the major airports in the region, the World Trade Center, port facilities, and numerous facilities ranging from a resource recovery plant to the World Trade Institute. During the 1980s, Mr. Leone was the President of the New York Mercantile Exchange and subsequently a Managing Director at Dillon Read & Co., Inc., and investment banking firm. He served as the State Treasurer (chief budget and financial officer) of New Jersey from 1973-1977. Mr. Leone earned his Ph.D. at Princeton University and was a member of the faculty there before and after his government service.