As we consume every salacious detail of the Spitzer story, there is a larger point to all of this.
But as much as we would wallow in the details, can we ask ourselves if there still is a line between the private lives of politicians and their public lives?
As much as that line ever existed, it was a 20th century invention.
Thomas Jefferson’s affair with Sally Hemings was frontpage material in the opposition newspapers. Andrew Jackson was accused of bigamy. When Grover Cleveland ran for president in 1884, his opponents chanted “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?” referring to Cleveland’s possible illegitimate child. Cleveland’s supporters had the last laugh when Cleveland won, “He’s gone all the way to Washington.”
Less than 30 years later Woodrow Wilson’s personal life was mostly off limits.
So it was until the Miami Herald photographed Sen. Gary Hart onboard a yacht conveniently named the “Monkey Business” in midpresidential campaign, um, relaxing.
Of course, we had the momentary backlash during the Clinton era, with Hillary Clinton standing by her man even as he committed perjury. But we forget that at the height of the scandal, Congressman Bob Livingston was forced to resign due to his extramarital affair rather than succeed Newt Gingrich as speaker of the House.
So what’s our standard for interest in politicians’ lives? Does it matter how many divorces Sen. Russ Feingold, former Sen. Fred Thompson, former Speaker Gingrich, Sen. John McCain and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani had collectively? Probably not, any more than it mattered President Ronald Reagan was once divorced and had strained relations with his children.
As long as we’re limited to mere mortals for candidates, we know that all will carry some flaw. Perhaps a reasonable standard should be if they yield to temptation we should let it remain a private matter unless it involves breaking the law, abusing the trust of their office or somehow impedes their job performance.
But we’re in a celebrity age, and insisting on a reasonable privacy standard is like the Dutch Boy with a finger in the dike. So long as politicians use their families as props and fodder for stock campaign photos, the temptation will be to probe for hypocrisy, or at least entertainment value. Politicians should be warned if they don’t want a Jerry Springer reputation, they should avoid a Jerry Springer lifestyle.