Does a politician's private life matter? Should I care about what activities my representatives partake in when they believe no one is looking? The answer to these questions is unequivocally yes.
This past summer I was working in Los Angeles when the mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, admitted to having an extramarital affair with a television news reporter. After reporting this story, the media reviewed the mayor's screwed up private life: He has two daughters out of wedlock and his wife filed for divorce in 1994 over a separate affair for which he later publicly apologized. They reconciled soon after. This time his wife mustered up some self-respect and divorced him.
Throughout the summer the controversy was front-page news. But I was surprised to learn that most people didn't care about the mayor's adultery. They would tell me I am wrong to scrutinize his private life. That I should only bring to light issues which have a direct effect on the city and its residents.
What constitutes an effect? I am one who believes that the decisions politicians make in their private lives best reflect the ones they will make while serving in public office. Does it not show bad judgment when a man cheats on his wife twice, the second time being with a television news anchor no less? Is it possible for politicians to be poor decision-makers in their private lives while reserving all flawless decisions for public office?
A politician uses the same decision-making process when determining whether to have an affair or abuse his power in office. Neuroscience has not yet mapped out exactly how the process works, but we know there are a series of events that occur in the brain that include neurons talking to each other by way of electrochemical impulses and chemical messengers, called neurotransmitters. Information flowing through these circuits is analyzed in different structures, before the network as a whole shoots out a response.
The decision-making process can happen instantaneously. Examples of information included in the process are cost-benefit analysis and determination of consequences. While the information analyzed may differ, the general process does not change whether an elected person is making a decision concerning public office or private life.
Everyone makes mistakes, and I certainly don't want to discourage imperfect but generally good people from running for office. But when there is a clear pattern of hypocrisy, lies or character flaws, then these issues need to be addressed - for they will contribute to a politician's decision-making ability, or lack thereof.
Tony Blair has said, "Politicians are entitled to private lives the same as anyone else." Untrue. A politician is not like everyone else. Politicians ask us to entrust them with sweeping powers, and so we have a right to know as much as necessary about their morality. Politicians who agree with Blair, virtually all of them, are player haters. If anything they should stop hating the player and start hating the game. The first rule is to always be up-front with your constituency.
Examples of how to play the game: Barack Obama admitted to using cocaine. This made news for a couple of days, then went away. President Bush has admitted to an addiction to alcohol, with the help of some unflattering video. This too has largely become a non-issue. Our government is filled with people who subscribe to the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do mentality. Examples of those with proven character flaws are far and wide and transcend party lines: Chuck Schumer, Mark Foley, Newt Gingrich, Al Gore, David Vitter, Larry Craig, Rudy Giuliani, Bill Clinton and William Jefferson (the FBI found $90,000 of marked bills in his freezer yet he still holds office.) Sen. Diane Feistein (D-CA) is a strong gun control advocate who at one point had, and still may have, a concealed carry permit. These people speak on behalf of their constituency. Therefore, the constituency has a right to know what type of person it is hiring.
I understand the media can get carried away. Scandal sells. I don't want a public official's private life to be the headline of a story, but it certainly should be a part of it. It is difficult to draw a line around any area and determine if knowledge of it will provide relevant information about a politician's moral character. The media have an interest in publishing information that increases their audience, and scandal does just that. Having this in mind, I still believe politicians' personal lives are relevant to their leadership abilities. Just like in every other aspect of politics, the media must play a responsible role.
Politicians' private lives are only one aspect of many that can help to paint a picture of what type of leader they may be. It is a valuable resource voters can use to determine if a person is someone we want to represent us in office.