Governor Clinton’s candidacy for President, plagued as it’s been by charges of marital infidelity and draft evasion, has brought to the fore once again the question of whether personal character is relevant to fitness for public office. There are those to whom it is obvious that private behavior is relevant to public office. Others contend that public officials should be measured by their public acts and their private lives left alone. The latter position may have had some validity in older and better days of the Republic, when private life and public affairs were distinct spheres of life. The fact that the bachelor Grover Cleveland had possibly, as a young man, fathered an illegitimate child did not affect his capacity to execute the duties of Chief Magistrate of the Union, because he did not aspire to be anything more than a chief magistrate. That is, he sought nothing more than to execute the laws in keeping with his office, just as he had done as sheriff of Buffalo, where his duties had included that of hangman, and as governor of New York.
But the case is very different now, because the separation of state and society has completely broken down. When the state has its hand in our pocket, tells us with whom we may associate, threatens to regulate our spiritual life, and generally superintends us from cradle to grave, the private virtues of public officials, or lack thereof, become significant to us. This is especially true of those who put themselves forward upon a politics of moralism. Martin Luther King’s lying and lechery might not invalidate his public position, but when his public position rests upon his role as a religious and moral leader whose chief business is to break down the barrier between private morality and public policy, then it does indeed become highly relevant. No one is entitled to be a saint until they have been examined by the devil’s advocate.
Imagine the misery the Republic would have been spared if the private defects of character of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson had been widely known. Certainly neither would have been elected had the public been aware of what is readily known now. We have had, since Kennedy, a politics in which public figures have tried to carry the day by the glamour of high moral purpose—in which case private character becomes extremely relevant. Since the Kennedys have prospered largely through celebration of their glamour and virtues, we are entitled to know the other side of the story. Think what would have been saved to the Treasury if the people had known in advance about Senator Cranston’s methods of campaign finance. But, of course, our great crusading media hid all these things from us, not considering them relevant. Imagine the barrage of sensationalism we would have received if poor Nixon, or Goldwater, or George Wallace had been guilty of I percent of the private malfeasance of Kennedy or Johnson. We can always count on the media to pursue their own agenda. Which is why we have seen a sudden rehabilitation of Dan Quayle, as the media have realized his usefulness in putting down a really “dangerous conservative like Pat Buchanan.
In the meantime, we must insist that we have complete information about those who put themselves forward for public trusts. We want to know if our. surgeon drinks or is a homosexual, if our accountant gambles, or our clergyman lives too well, and we are entitled to know what we need to know that is relevant to judging the character of those who seek to be entrusted with the fate of the Republic. It is reasonable to assume that the people are smart enough to distinguish between a youthful indiscretion, which few have escaped, and a real character problem, or whether a particular failing is relevant to public performance. When we judge Mr. Warren Beatty as an actor or Mr. Magic Johnson as an athlete, we should perhaps pay attention to their professional performance and not their private lives. But if they endorse a presidential candidate or are held up as a model for our youth, then we are entitled to enquire into questions of character.
In the old Republic private and public life were distinct, but it was also understood that a successful government of the people depended upon private virtue, in the people and the leaders. The office of the presidency, after all, was designed with George Washington in mind.