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Character Check
The personal lives of politicians should be relevant to voter decisions.


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Jonah Goldberg

Okay, okay. So I’ve been tardy, tardy like a fat man who’s late for something. Let’s put this behind us.

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Last night, while Al Gore was no doubt doing plenty of push-ups — reportedly his preferred method for blowing off steam (Bill Clinton’s too, though a very, very different kind of push-up) — and George Bush was probably repeating “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers” over and over again so he doesn’t mispronounce something, yours truly was at Williams College for a debate of my own.

The debate itself was pretty uneventful. Sure, it was fun, and quite flattering, to be asked to do it. But the other side — led by former senator Dale Bumpers — was forced to advocate a position that was simply untenable. The question for this Oxford-style debate was: “Should voters consider the private lives of politicians at election time?” Or something like that. Now, Senator Bumpers, having given the coup de grace speech for the defense at the president’s impeachment trial, has a considerable investment in protecting the notion that “private” matters are minimally relevant to public life. And since the president’s behavior (fruit-of-the) looms large over the American political landscape, it should be no wonder that he became a central example to both sides of the debate.

Since I am neither a spoiled former White House intern with low-self esteem, nor Sid Blumenthal, I have little desire to root around in Bill Clinton’s knickers any more than I have to. But the fact remains that most of the president’s transgressions were not “private” or “personal.” (See “They Aren’t Personal”. Regardless, leaving the president’s metaphysical tackiness aside, the idea that the personal lives of politicians shouldn’t be relevant to voter decisions is, well, absurd. We take character into account in virtually every sphere of life. From baby-sitters to policemen, employers ask for references and candid appraisals from peers. Why should politicians — the people with the most influence over our lives — be exempt from these considerations?

Besides, character is an important consideration. The reason we take personal behavior into account in all of these spheres of life is that personal, private behavior is a helpful indicator of how someone will behave professionally. It’s certainly no guarantee, but if you know a guy who is a total octopus around women or who constantly cheats on his wife, it’s not insane to think he will treat women at work poorly too. And, if he constantly lies to cover up that kind of behavior, it’s likely he’ll lie about other things too. After all, Bill Clinton’s legal trouble with Monica Lewinsky was always about his lies, not the sex. Honesty and integrity aren’t characteristics we can turn off in one part of our lives and turn on in another.

Besides, it’s politicians who make the biggest deal out of their personal lives. Everyone running for dogcatcher on up — except, oddly, Ralph Nader — brags about his or her spouse, children, military records, hobbies, habits, and horseshoe-tossing scores as evidence of their good character.

Yet, whenever any of these bragging points turns out to be a political liability, the candidates cry foul. When Dan Quayle and Bill Clinton’s draft records were brought up in 1988 and 1992, respectively, both men claimed that scrutinizing their 20-year-old behavior was an unfair personal invasion. But why should their military records be out-of-bounds when John McCain’s service was central to his candidacy? Are such experiences only “relevant” when helpful to a candidate?

Or take family. In 1992 Bill Clinton claimed that if Americans voted for him they’d get a co-president in Hillary. “Two for the price of one,” he declared. Well, doesn’t that make his wife worth scrutinizing? And yet Bill Clinton regularly attacked critics who treated his wife as a political player in her own right.

But the most relevant example today is Al Gore. For years Gore has pimped his family across the political stage like a Bangkok night-club owner. At 1992′s Democratic convention, Gore weepily testified about his son’s hit-and-run injury. In 1996 Gore recounted how his sister died from cancer, inspiring him — he said — to “dedicate” himself to fighting tobacco companies with all his might. This, despite the fact that he bragged about being a tobacco grower for years after his sister’s death.

In this campaign he has used his family as high-profile props. His daughter Karenna is a campaign spokesman and adviser; his commercials boast of his marriage; on national television he kissed his wife so hard it looked as if he was trying to swallow her head.

This is all fine, except for the fact that Gore regularly reacts bitterly if anyone mentions his family in any context not of his own choosing. Gore is widely reported to have persuaded editors at the Washington Post to kill a story about his son’s alleged trouble with marijuana at an elite private school.

Just last February, during a primary debate staged in Harlem, Tamala Edwards of Time magazine asked the vice president about the fact that he sends his kids to private school, but opposes vouchers. “Why should the parents here have to keep their kids in public schools because they don’t have the financial resources that you do?” she asked. He angrily responded, “You can leave them out of this.”

Well, no, we can’t — and shouldn’t — if you keep bringing them into it.

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