Should We Weigh in on Politicians’ Personal Scandals? Hell, Yes

Is it the public’s right to judge a politician’s questionable private behavior? Yes.

So, Weiner is out. After weeks of wailing and teeth gnashing, another politician has fallen from grace and retreats with his tail between his legs. Off to another lucrative job, no doubt, but out of the public eye for now. Sadly, Rep. Anthony Weiner is simply the most recent and most visible (pun intended) sexual scandal in a long line involving politics in America. His departure did accomplish one thing – the furor has fizzled out, the ink has dried up and people have moved on – at least until the next scandal. But the question that crops up each time is: does the public have the right to examine and question a politician’s questionable private conduct? I say: Yes. Absolutely.

Public opinion is divided as to whether we have the right to weigh in on a politician’s personal scandal or lobby for his resignation. Many say it’s a personal family matter and doesn’t affect a politician’s ability to do his job. The Daily Beast’s Peter Beinart says, “Who cares?” that Weiner flirted with women online, and accuses us of being a nation of “kick-‘em when they’re down” holier-than-thous for wanting him to resign.

I say as a taxpayer and a citizen, it is absolutely our right to know. It is our right to judge. It is our right to question the effectiveness of a lying hypocrite in government (and saying that there are so many of them, so what’s one more, is the worst kind of apathy). It is our right to know who is representing us and making decisions about our livelihoods, our health care coverage, and our fundamental rights. Our already considerably abused tax dollars are paying their salaries. Politicians decide whether or not to commit funds to a war, initiate a conflict, and send fathers, brothers, mothers, and daughters into harm’s way. I believe if that person knowingly treats their spouse with utter disrespect, objectifies women, lies to those closest to them repeatedly – that impacts my trust in them. I think if a politician misrepresents himself in important ways – that says a lot about that politician as a person and a leader. Should politicians have to sign up for this type of scrutiny in their personal lives? It should be no secret that this is what they are in for. They govern our country. Their decisions can have long-lasting and far reaching consequences. They aren’t managers at the local Kinko’s.

Politicians bring their personal agendas to work every day. They tell us how to live our lives on a daily basis. They make decisions that determine our taxes and affect our businesses, and they enact laws that reach into our doctor’s offices and our bedrooms. They want a pass when we find out they are hypocrites and liars? No pass.

We are not talking about a stumble during an interview that makes someone look foolish, an insult hurtled at a coworker, or any number of humiliating everyday incidents that we all have, that become inflated when they involve anyone in the public eye. In these cases, we are talking about patterns of behavior and long-term duplicitous conduct that only ends when the person is caught. Beinart says that everyone’s private life is “messy and flawed,” and I agree with that, but imperfect is a long way from adultery, lying, and reckless, predatory behavior.

We’ve written about the dismal rates of law enforcement of domestic sex trafficking laws on the books, and how victims are treated. Can I trust a man who has so little respect for his wife that he has a habit of propositioning strange women online, to introduce legislation protecting the girls in our country? Can he fight to punish men he might identify with considering his private behavior? Currently these cases are not prosecuted because the attitude in government is that the girls are the criminals, and the men get a fine. Weiner’s behavior and those who pardon it just reinforce this idea.

Many say that Weiner had a solid political record, but how can a man who thinks so little of women – half of his constituents – be an effective representative? Will he stand up for women’s health rights as he is objectifying women online?

Although many say that Weiner did nothing wrong since he never saw any of these women in person and none (so far) are underage – that is a thin defense, since he had no way of knowing that. In addition, he traded on his political position when he contacted these women. His conduct was either extremely stupid or extremely arrogant, especially when you take into account Congressman Christopher Lee’s identical downfall just months earlier. These traits and behaviors make Weiner and those like him – Lee, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Newt Gingrich, and John Edwards – poor candidates to contribute to the leadership of our country.

Many have called Bill Clinton a good president, yet repeated accusations of him abusing his position to harass women in his employ cast a dark shadow over even his most impressive accomplishments and doubt on his efforts regarding women’s rights. Newt Gingrich was one of the first and most vocal leading the charge to cast him out, even as he was carrying on his own long-term affair. In John Edwards’ case, his conduct was particularly cold-hearted and selfish toward both his cancer-stricken wife and his pregnant mistress at the same time he was on the presidential campaign trail telling us how much he cared about America. Now he is facing criminal charges for using campaign funds to cover up his actions.

Is divorce not an option anymore? Wouldn’t many more people understand ending a marriage that was not working, than adultery?

There are politicians whose politics and personal beliefs I abhor – but until proven differently, they are acting exactly as they represented they would, and their motives and actions are predictable and transparent. I voted against them because I didn’t believe in them. Their supporters voted for them because they did. The system worked. And that’s what we all want. We want to elect the politicians these men and women stand up and say they are – minus any dark, hairy hidden agendas. Mistakes we can forgive, but our society has a long history of detesting carefully constructed, long-term hypocrisy, duplicity, and arrogance – not to mention stupidity – in its leaders.

I believe we should hold the men and women who are running our country to a higher standard than an actor or even a CEO. If Weiner, Lee, Eliot Spitzer, John Edwards, or Bill Clinton had been an executive at a large company and were discovered performing the same behavior, then yes, it would be a family matter (unless there was an illegal act) and up to that company to determine if they violated any company rules, harassed another employee, or misused company funds.

HP CEO Mark Hurd departed immediately when the company determined that he violated their code of ethics during a business relationship with a female independent contractor. The behavior is just as reprehensible as when a politician does it, and there should still be consequences, but it affects far fewer people. The remedy (if warranted) is expulsion from the company. Here, the taxpayers’ only remedy is if the politician resigns or is voted out during the next election, which could be years away.

When a politician’s personal life is far from advertised, it can have a big impact on the way they vote and where they choose to focus their influence and energy. New York Governor Eliot Spitzer mounted a vendetta against prostitution even as he himself used their services on a prolonged basis to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars – the ultimate in telling other people how to live their lives while having the arrogance to break the very laws you are enforcing. Rep. Mark Foley headed a congressional caucus on children’s issues even as he sent inappropriate emails and texts to underage congressional pages. Carl Kruger, a closeted gay man, initially fought gay marriage and was known as one of its biggest denouncers. Now Kruger’s sexual orientation is publicly known. For the most recent vote on gay marriage, he announced his intention to change his vote, which might have helped the gay marriage legislation pass in New York last week.

Many defenders stood up for Weiner (and other disgraced politicians), essentially shrugging off their hypocritical personal behavior as not indicative of their fitness to represent their constituents’ interests. I think that does a disservice to all the politicians who don’t engage in questionable personal behavior. There are public servants who work hard at their jobs – not at covering up their poor judgment and a trail of lies. There are politicians whose personal lives are “messy and flawed” but whose supporters can nevertheless count on them to be who they say they are – not perfect, but representing their interests the best they can, with honesty and integrity.

And when the next politician is exposed, I will read the details of their actions and judge for myself whether as a taxpayer and a voter, I want that person to represent my interests and continue to tell me how to live my life. Perhaps if enough people stop shrugging off this behavior, we will have fewer leaders who think hypocrisy is acceptable. Let’s lift the bar a bit, please.

image: Scott Ableman

Andrea Newell

Andrea Newell is a Michigan-based writer specializing in corporate social responsibility, women’s issues, and the environment.