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The Alternative to Scrutiny of Political Private Lives

The latest calamity to befall the campaign of Herman Cain came yesterday in the form of a claim made by a Georgia woman that he had engaged in a 13-year extramarital affair with her. Cain immediately went on CNN to deny he had done anything wrong. Interestingly, even before Cain spoke, his lawyer, L. Lin Wood, issued a statement drawing a clear distinction between the earlier charges which involve actions that were legally actionable and this accusation which is, “of private, alleged consensual conduct between adults — a subject matter which is not a proper subject of inquiry by the media or the public” but also pointedly not denying the matter.

One may argue that such things are, as Wood said, none of the public’s business. But do we really need to point out to Cain that when you run for president the rules are not the same as when you are a private individual? Such intrusions may not be fair and they may also, as many pointed out after Mitch Daniels chose not to run because of the scrutiny that would be given to his family, discourage the best people from running for high office. But while many fair-minded observers spend the next few days disparaging the prurient interest in this business shown by the media and a public always eager for gossip and scandal, it is also fair to ask what would be the implications if the press adopted a blanket policy of ignoring such accusations? That’s not a hypothetical question. Half a century ago, that was exactly what the press would have done. Indeed, it was what they did when John F. Kennedy was in the White House.

Kennedy’s conduct established a precedent that should remind those of us now inclined to believe that the media should back off of Cain or any other politician who might be caught doing something embarrassing that we pay a different kind of price when such things are covered up. JFK’s shenanigans may be the exception that proves the rule, but he also showed that when journalists treat a president like a buddy whose indiscretions must be covered up, it could lead to serious complications. Those members of the White House press corps who didn’t think it was their business to report about the president’s affairs eventually had to explain why they said nothing when the leader of the free world was sharing a mistress with a Mafia kingpin. His example shows that such concerns are not so much a desire to enforce a puritanical code as a matter of public safety.

You may say this has nothing to do with Cain’s life or that of any contemporary office holder or candidate, but the answer is that when politicians are not held accountable for their behavior, we can’t be surprised when they, like most people given similar impunity, run wild. As brutal as this is for their families, I, for one, would rather live in a country where the press doesn’t protect politicians from the consequences of their behavior than one in which the JFK precedent is repeated.

As for Cain, all we can say is the last time America was confronted with a politician who was faced with allegations of both affairs and sexual harassment, his own party gave him a pass. Which means that the talking point for Cain’s partisans must now switch from complaints about him being subjected to the same unfair attacks as Clarence Thomas to a demand that he be given the Bill Clinton treatment. If the same party that impeached Clinton agrees to this, then the least we can say of them is they are hypocrites.