Commentary Magazine


Why Politicians Don’t Deserve Privacy

While most citizens of this blessed republic are pleased to know Anthony Weiner has, at least for the present, faded from the public eye, there appear to be some among the chattering classes who not only mourn his absence but consider the disgraced congressman to be a martyr to the digital age. The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen is one such scribe, and earlier this week, he devoted his column not only to bewailing the injustice done Weiner but also to the awful state of the media and the lack of due process and privacy accorded our elected representatives.

I share the general dismay about the low nature of much of our public discourse; I’m afraid I can’t share Cohen’s outrage about the obsessive scrutiny accorded politicians.

The issue, Cohen tells us, is bigger than the creepy Weiner. His point is the media has gotten out of hand, and Weiner’s privacy deserved to be defended even if he lied about it and made false accusations about the people who truthfully reported what he had done. In the end, Weiner had to apologize to Andrew Breitbart for those false accusations, but Cohen thinks he shouldn’t have. As far as the Post columnist is concerned, the guilty party is Breitbart for being the first one to publicly question Weiner about his aberrant behavior.

To Cohen, it is all part of the same problem of a newly transparent digital world in which WikiLeaks hacks the CIA and Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid minions violate everyone’s privacy. I agree these things are troubling, but they are a completely separate issue from the question of how closely we should monitor the lives of politicians. Cohen’s belief that it would be better if we reverted to an earlier era when journalists treated the private peccadilloes of public figures as off limits for reporting is bunk.

The problem with the good old days of Washington journalism, when the ruling classes and their pals among the chattering classes gave each other a pass on all forms of disgraceful conduct, is once you start covering up bad behavior, there’s no stopping. Not only that, ignoring “private” behavior from public figures inevitably means telling lies to the public.

For example, back in the early 1960s, the Washington press corps agreed President Kennedy’s serial infidelity was none of their, or the public’s, business.

Let’s assume merely for the sake of argument they were right. The problem is once you choose not to report about ordinary affairs, you wind up ignoring those that are not so ordinary. The president sharing a mistress with a crime boss (as Kennedy did), was more than an indiscretion, it was an invitation to all sorts of conflicts of interest, not to mention crimes. But having resolved to ignore sexual hijinks by the high and mighty, the Washington press couldn’t begin to deal with that scandal.

Just as bad in my opinion is the hypocrisy this policy enabled. The same journalists who were covering up or ignoring Kennedy’s bad behavior were also doing their part to God up the president as a moral exemplar and to give his family life the stained glass treatment. Respecting Kennedy’s “privacy” also produced the JFK Camelot myth.

If we have to choose between the hands off press of the Kennedy White House and our current dog-eat-dog world where anything and everything can be put in the public domain, I choose the latter, even if it means a bit less civility and the ordeal of being forced to view pictures of a congressman’s private parts.

Without an assertive media determined to scrutinize the behavior of politicians, we will inevitably revert to a situation where no one is accountable in Washington for anything they do. The Breitbarts of the world are just doing their job to keep tabs on leaders who shouldn’t be allowed to fly under the radar. We already know we can’t trust the politicians. If they operate under the old standards Cohen wishes to revive, we won’t be able to trust the media either.