Moral character should not be the big election issue

I’d like to believe that the decisions a person makes in public office are more important than what he or she does in private life inasmuch as the former, not the latter, have the potential to impact all of us. Unfortunately, this view would make me a pariah in Washington, D.C., where character evaluation miraculously outweighs past political performance. Whether it’s a question of John Kerry’s leadership or George W. Bush’s honesty, moral character, rather than meaningful actions, has become the fixation of the politicos and the punditry.

Casting a vote based predominately on the character of a candidate is largely a foolhardy approach. All people are inherently flawed. When a person ascends to a level of prominence, his or her flaws are amplified by the closer attention paid to them. This does not necessarily mean, however, that person is any more flawed than anyone else, but rather that we’re only more aware of those flaws.

Furthermore, people of high character are not always the best leaders. Kofi Annan’s impassioned dedication to peace and optimistic view of the United Nations’ role in the world, for example, has ultimately caused more harm than good. Similarly, Jimmy Carter has arguably the cleanest personal track record of any president in the past 50 years, but his administration is widely viewed as a failure.

Contrastingly, Winston Churchill was a notoriously heavy drinker (even while in office) but fared better as a wartime Prime Minister than his predecessor, Neville Chamberlain. Benjamin Franklin was a profoundly un-Christian orgy enthusiast and yet is remembered favorably in the annals of history.

Rather than learn from these examples, today’s politicians pride themselves on attacking the man, not the issue. Interestingly enough, when the standard they would hold their opponents to is applied to them, the results are less than favorable.

From the onset, it is clear that the Democratic Party is not the party of lofty morals. Bill Clinton is a shining example of this maxim for more reasons than meet the eye. Though apologists seem content to call him “a guy who had an affair,” Clinton’s history reveals the affairs to be multiple, as well as the lies to cover them up. Additionally, a number of Clinton affiliates and appointees have been implicated in a wealth of scams, including the destruction of government files and the falsification (or “fudging”) of federal data. Inasmuch as Clinton’s administration was one of the most media-hostile and secretive in recent memory, the full and actual extent of his duplicity may never be known.

Ironically, while president-elect in 1992, Clinton said, “Mine will be the most ethical administration in the history of the Republic!” Like so many other pledges he made, this was one he failed to keep.

The anointed Kennedy dynasty, often considered a beacon of Democratic politics, is likewise tainted by personal indiscretions. Joseph Kennedy, the erstwhile ambassador and Nazi appeaser, made a good chunk of money through shady stock practices and the distribution of alcohol during Prohibition.

As was widely confirmed in the years following his death, John F. Kennedy was a vigorous womanizer during his term in office. Ted Kennedy’s reckless drunk driving at Chappaquidick Island left one young woman dead. Even lesser-known Kennedys, such as Michael Skakel and Michael Kennedy, have been accused of a variety of offenses ranging from statutory rape to murder.

Alas, the trail of misconduct does not end there. Jesse Jackson’s manipulation of the Budweiser Boycott is tantamount to extortion. Gary Condit, Gary Hart, James Traficant, James McGreevey, Robert Torricelli and others have all been implicated in behavior that is immoral, illegal or both (and, in some cases, outrageously so).

The moral failures of Democratic leaders, however, do not exonerate Republicans for their own character flaws. If anything, the frequent attempts of the GOP to monopolize the “values” debate makes it seem all that more hypocritical in the context of the actions of its leaders.

Consider, for example, that one of Clinton’s chief detractors at the time of his impeachment was former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Though not quite the celebrated liar Clinton is, there are nonetheless many parallels in their personal conduct. Gingrich, like Clinton, is a repeat adulterer. At the time of the Lewinsky scandal, Gingrich was involved with a congressional aide 23 years his junior.

Gingrich, like Clinton, used a student deferment to escape service in Vietnam. Both men have confessed to smoking marijuana.

Also like Clinton, Gingrich was implicated in illegal or unethical governmental practices – he manipulated tax-exempt foundations for political purposes and later lied to the House ethics committee to cover it up.

Perhaps most tellingly, Gingrich reportedly requested a divorce from his first wife just after she had been diagnosed with cancer. Even Clinton, throughout his years of unforgivable philandering, was able to keep his marriage intact.

Given that Gingrich and fellow adulterer Henry Hyde were the ones leading the charge against Clinton, the question comes to mind – did Republicans at the time even care about the values they accused Clinton of desecrating or were values just a handy pretext for partisan politics?

Republicans also have their own equivalent of the Kennedys in the Bush dynasty. At roughly the same time Joseph Kennedy was appeasing the Nazis, Prescott Bush was involved in financing them via his connections to Brown Brothers Harriman and Fritz Thyssen.

Whereas John F. Kennedy’s vice was women, George W. Bush indulged in cocaine use in his youth and alcohol abuse up until nearly the age of 40. The driving under the influence arrest he generated in 1976 was the first for any person who would later be elected president.

Like Ted Kennedy, Laura Bush caused the death of another human being with reckless driving habits (though, in all fairness, she was only 17 at the time).

Peripheral members of the Bush clan have also faced legal difficulties. Barbara and Jenna Bush, the president’s daughters, were caught, respectively, engaging in underage drinking (a forgivable faux pas) and using a false identification card (considerably less forgivable).

Neil Bush, the president’s brother, has been linked to the Silverado Banking scam of the late 1980s. Noelle Bush, the president’s niece, was charged with trying to fill a fake prescription of Xanax.

All and all, despite the public face they put on, the Bushes are not value-oriented Christians any more than the Kennedys are good Catholics.

The illicit behavior of Republican leaders extends beyond even this. Alan Keyes, the right-wing talk show host who can barely get through a sentence without using the word “moral,” owed money from his failed 1988 Maryland senatorial campaign right up until 2004. Bill Frist, an outspoken opponent of abortion, profits from it via a share in a family-founded clinic. The House ethics committee has rebuked Majority Leader Tom DeLay on more than one occasion. Robert Livingston, Bob Barr, Bob Dole and Dan Burton, to name a few, have all been involved in affairs, scams, swindles, cheats or other manners of illegal, immoral or unethical behavior.

Unfortunately, both parties seem to subscribe to the view that the only way to get ahead in politics is to celebrate the depravity of your opponents while lauding your own piousness. Not only is this hypocritical, but it is fairly transparent as well. I would venture a guess that the American people can see right through it and are sick of all the petty back-and-forth “holier -than-thou” squabbling. Thus, I would recommend that anyone and everyone in politics adopt a new strategy: just let it go.

In a world filled with life, death, war and taxes, we should all have bigger things to worry about than who slept with whom.

Some would say we should expect more from our leaders (and, with regard to keeping within the law, I would certainly agree), but high character standards are almost always politicized (hence, the whole Clinton/Gingrich divide), rarely realistic (most of Congress was young and reckless once) and practically never universally upheld.

In closing, I am reminded of a quote by former Sen. Barry Goldwater: “If everybody in this town connected with politics had to leave town because of chasing women and drinking, you would have no government.” Pity that none of his supposed followers have come to grasp this.