Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Is Personal Morality Important in Public Officials?

The John Edwards sex scandal is presently percolating through the news media. I don't know if the allegations are true or not and it's certainly too early to make any conclusions, nor do I particularly care, as Edwards' political career appears to be over.

Mickey Kaus has a post up arguing why the scandal is and should be important to Democrats who think that it is irrelevant.

Is it? Does it matter if a politician has an affair?

I remember the Monica Lewinsky scandal a decade ago. I did not care for Bill Clinton, but was wholly unimpressed that hypocritical Republican politicians had discovered -- to the utter shock of their virgin ears -- that a fellow hypocritical politician had lied about sex. And that this discovery was made after a team of federal prosecutors had spent years tasked solely with digging up dirt -- any dirt --on Clinton struck me as an abuse of prosecutorial power that should not be rewarded.

And that is, in a nutshell, why I thought that the public opinion backlash against the GOP was well-deserved. It wasn't that Bill Clinton didn't behave disgracefully; it was that the Republicans shouldn't be rewarded for engaging in even worse behavior.

But when we evaluate candidates for public office, we often confront stories of moral misbehavior. Should past (or even present) moral failings factor into our decisions about who to vote for?

This morning, my wife asserted that adulterous allegations, such as those made against Edwards do matter because if a person cannot be trusted to keep his/her marital vows, s/he can't be trusted to be honest about anything else. There's no true distinction between personal and public morality. Good point.

But would we have wanted Lincoln to remove General Grant from his position because he was a drunk, instead of offering to send him a barrel of whiskey? Would we have wanted Thomas Jefferson to be absent from the public life of the early Republic because he slept with his slaves? Would we have wanted an adulterous Franklin Roosevelt to be forced out of office mid-war and replaced with the faithful but idiotic Henry Wallace?

What do you think? How important to you is the morality of a candidate for public office?

30 comments:

Michael said...

I think such questions of moral conduct should be A factor but not THE deciding factor. John Edwards had too many other problems to be taken seriously as a viable political candidate.

Think about this, though. If every candidate were to be put to the morals test, would this test be restricted only to marital fidelity? I think, for instance, that it can be morally dangerous to live in a bazillion-dollar home and then berate "the rich" for not addressing poverty "seriously". Would it not be considered immoral to have such excess while so many do without? Tricky course.

the reverend mommy said...

It makes it or breaks it for me.

If they are dishonest/adulterous in that area of their life, how could they be honest/faithful in the rest of it?

Keith Taylor said...

I agree with your wife.

A man (or a woman) that will lie to his or her spouse will certainly lie to people that they doesn't know, i.e. the general public.

Of course it matters.

TN Rambler said...

I'm with Michael that it should be A factor but not THE factor. Marital infidelity would be something that would weigh heavily in my decision making process. However, would I vote for a person who had never thought of having an affair but gained his/her wealth as the owner of title pawn/check cashing operations (legalized usury)? I think not.

jockeystreet said...

I agree with Michael's comment. "Personal morality" too often really just means "sexual morality." I think that personal morality is absolutely important in candidates... but I may believe that the person who had an affair was more moral in a thousand other ways than the person who was faithful to his wife amidst numerous more significant (to me) failings.

Earl said...

Vote for a politician who cheats on his wife? Nope. Far as I'm concerned, his candidacy is toast. Sincerely. Bruce.

Dan Trabue said...

Wow. Good luck on finding candidates, y'all.

Morality - including but not limited to - sexual morality is very important. It is not all important.

We must remember King David with his murderous, polygamous, unfaithful ways, was still a man after God's own heart. There are no perfect candidates and we'd find some slim pickin's if we were voting only for perfect candidates.

Dan Trabue said...

John, the only mention I can find of this is at less than reputable sites such as National Enquirer. Ought we be repeating that sort of gossip?

John said...

Dan, John Edwards is a Methodist. I am a Methodist. Passing around wild, salacious, and groundless (especially groundless) gossip about each other is central to our identity and distinctiveness as a denomination.

Dan Trabue said...

ha!

Well, as long as there is a good, solid religious reason for it...

John B said...

We have come to expect that our political leaders won't be able to keep the zippers closed or their hands out of the till. And since there is no expectation of morality then immorality is exactly what we get.

But hey, we don't expect our Bishops to remain true to their vows to "guard the ... doctrine, and discipline of the Church," so why should we expect politicians to keep their vows?

doodlebugmom said...

"...He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone..."

Dan Trabue said...

We have come to expect that our political leaders won't be able to keep the zippers closed or their hands out of the till. And since there is no expectation of morality then immorality is exactly what we get.

So, which sins ought keep people out of public office?

If they have an affair, then they ought not run. If they steal?

If they speed or drink and drive and cause an accident? (Personally, I'm MUCH more concerned about that sin because of the potential for loss of life)?

If they are greedy (again, a larger concern for me)?

What list of sins shall we generate that will keep serve as criteria for keeping people out of office?

For my part, I certainly DO try to hold our elected officials accountable for their indiscretions and especially for their crimes. I wrote and called for Bill Clinton to step down after having an affair with a young woman - an intern - barely out of her teens!

I have called for Bush and his cohorts to be investigated for possible war crimes.

I have called for Bush to be questioned for HIRING two convicted war criminals in his cabinet right off the bat (Abrams and Poindexter).

As have many others. I don't know that there is a serious problem of we, the people not trying to hold our elected officials accountable. Although I guess the case could be made that not enough people are trying to do so.

My concern is that the stink seems to be raised especially for sexual offenses but not so much for the (to me) even more serious problems of war-mongering or lying or accepting bribes or catering to special interests.

John said...

Dan is spot-on: focusing exclusively on sexual sins is misplaced priorities. During the Lewinsky scandal, I was far more concerned that Clinton may have taken bribes from Red China than that he had slept with an intern.

Although, when I was in college, I knew a guy who had interned at the White House, and he became the butt of many hilarious jokes after the scandal broke out. Perhaps that alone justified the distraction of Monica Lewinsky.

Dan Trabue said...

?

What happened to all the comments?

Dan Trabue said...

That's odd?

I was seeing only three comments here (where last night there were about 14). Then, I just asked where they were, posted it, and it didn't show up.

What's happening?? Is our technology turning against us???!!

Dan Trabue said...

test.

Dan Trabue said...

Wow. Each time I add a comment, another comment that was there yesterday shows up.

I've made three comments, and now we're up to six (but none of my comments are showing up - instead they're some of the missing comments from yesterday). Once I post this, I expect a seventh comment will show.

This is really spooky...

Dan Trabue said...

test2

Dan Trabue said...

test3

Dan Trabue said...

test4

Allan R. Bevere said...

It's only important when the politics of the politician in question doesn't agree with my politics. When the person in question has the right politics, then its just about sex.

Isn't that the way it usually works?

Kansas Bob said...

How a man treats his wife says more to me about him than how good of a speaker he is or how much torture he has withstood.

TN Rambler said...

Dan said:
the only mention I can find of this is at less than reputable sites such as National Enquirer...

Really Dan. If we can't trust the people who bring us pictures and interviews with space aliens and zombies operating a coffee shop in Paducah then who can we trust? Enquiring minds want to know.

Dan Trabue said...

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Dan Trabue said...

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Dan Trabue said...

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JD said...

I, and I find myself doing this a little more lately (scary), have to agree with Dan as well. While we, as Christians, my have issues with these personal sins, they are not things that can keep a political official from doing a good well.

I work with some pretty vulgar people, but they are awesome at their job. If they have not broken a law that would keep them from holding office, then they should not be thrown out. If they are despicable, and we still vote for them, then it is our own stupid fault and we deserve what we get.

These sins are things that do and should keep a pastor from continued service as a pastor because part of their job is to be a moral role model to their congregation. Political officials are not.

PAX
JD

JD said...

I, and I find myself doing this a little more lately (scary), have to agree with Dan as well. While we, as Christians, my have issues with these personal sins, they are not things that can keep a political official from doing a good well.

I work with some pretty vulgar people, but they are awesome at their job. If they have not broken a law that would keep them from holding office, then they should not be thrown out. If they are despicable, and we still vote for them, then it is our own stupid fault and we deserve what we get.

These sins are things that do and should keep a pastor from continued service as a pastor because part of their job is to be a moral role model to their congregation. Political officials are not.

PAX
JD

John B said...

I did not mean to imply that the only sin or even the chief sin politicians commit we citizens should be concerned about are sexual. I was trying to make a point about the low standards of expectations we have. Surveys have repeatedly shown that the vast majority of Americans don't trust politicians. Political scandals are so common they aren't scandalous.