Commentary Magazine


Topic: public morality

McDonnell Case Shows Character Counts

There are a number of unhappy conclusions to be drawn from the sad details of the indictment of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife on federal corruption charges yesterday. Whether you believed McDonnell was a legitimate contender for national office (as many of his backers did until yesterday’s revelations), he was an able governor and a talented politician who had every reason to look forward to other opportunities to serve his country even if he hadn’t sought the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. That’s over now, even in the unlikely event that he is acquitted of the numerous criminal charges of taking gifts from a wealthy contributor.

One of the facts of American political life exemplified by the McDonnell case is the dilemma faced by all politicians who are not independently wealthy. Lacking their own sources of riches they must raise vast sums of money almost continually and thus find themselves thrown together with unusually wealthy people whose lifestyles are very different from those of the middle class from which many politicians spring. If elected, their duties include entertaining on a scale that is difficult, if not impossible, to manage on the admittedly generous salaries they are paid for holding public office. The temptation to accept what at first may seem kindnesses from their rich friends—who often have a clear financial motive to ingratiate themselves with officials—can overwhelm their better judgment. Though Americans are deeply cynical about the ethics of their politicians, most in public office do manage to avoid trouble. But a certain percentage fall prey to the attraction of easy money and lavish gifts

But rather than merely demonstrating the McDonnells’ poor judgment or the advantages the wealthy enjoy when running for and staying in office, what this episode also illuminates is the importance of public morals and character in our politicians.

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There are a number of unhappy conclusions to be drawn from the sad details of the indictment of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife on federal corruption charges yesterday. Whether you believed McDonnell was a legitimate contender for national office (as many of his backers did until yesterday’s revelations), he was an able governor and a talented politician who had every reason to look forward to other opportunities to serve his country even if he hadn’t sought the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. That’s over now, even in the unlikely event that he is acquitted of the numerous criminal charges of taking gifts from a wealthy contributor.

One of the facts of American political life exemplified by the McDonnell case is the dilemma faced by all politicians who are not independently wealthy. Lacking their own sources of riches they must raise vast sums of money almost continually and thus find themselves thrown together with unusually wealthy people whose lifestyles are very different from those of the middle class from which many politicians spring. If elected, their duties include entertaining on a scale that is difficult, if not impossible, to manage on the admittedly generous salaries they are paid for holding public office. The temptation to accept what at first may seem kindnesses from their rich friends—who often have a clear financial motive to ingratiate themselves with officials—can overwhelm their better judgment. Though Americans are deeply cynical about the ethics of their politicians, most in public office do manage to avoid trouble. But a certain percentage fall prey to the attraction of easy money and lavish gifts

But rather than merely demonstrating the McDonnells’ poor judgment or the advantages the wealthy enjoy when running for and staying in office, what this episode also illuminates is the importance of public morals and character in our politicians.

While we are continually told by pundits and even much of the public that all they care about are results, the perils of modern democracy turn out to place greater emphasis than we might have thought on the need to recruit upstanding people to run for office.

Let’s dispense with the defense being offered by McDonnell and his lawyers that his hobnobbing with a wealthy contributor is no worse than what President Obama or other politicians do while raising money. McDonnell claims that if the government can’t prove that he actually traded some benefit for the gifts he received, he’s guilty of nothing other than poor judgment. But the line between fundraising and bribes is, in reality, a bright one. As much as we lament the influence of money on politics—something that no law or set of laws can ever prevent—or the complicated nature of many of the laws that limit gifts, the rules about what a politician can and cannot do are not complicated. Office-holders can take money for their campaigns but they can’t take personal compensation as a perk of the job. As Byron York writes in the Washington Examiner, the facts about the watches, the cash, and the stocks McDonnell and his wife took from a pharmaceutical mogul are sordid. So were their attempts to cover all this up.

While McDonnell and his wife don’t come off as sympathetic figures in the account presented by the government or even in their own defense, the path of politicians who don’t enter public office with private wealth is not an easy one. The demands on their private purses as well as the fact that they are obligated to spend a great deal of time in the homes of the rich can make many feel out of place. While, as York notes, they can easily cash in on their former status once they leave office, while they are in public harness they and their families must be satisfied with what they have. That is why many talented people who can earn far more in the private sector want no part of politics even without considering the scrutiny and abuse that comes with it.

But it also means those who place their desire for power and their potential to do good above their desire for money or privacy must be made of sterner stuff than the McDonnells. Moreover, the process of selecting candidates also requires voters and journalists who often treat the private failings of candidates as less important than their stands on issues to rethink that notion. As much as we should avoid prurient investigations into candidates’ private lives or treating minor peccadilloes as outweighing an individual’s potential to be an effective leader, public morals do matter. As much as our democracy needs men and women of intelligence and ability, it also needs people of good character. When we ignore that aspect of a candidate, focusing only on the resume, we can — and often do — wind up with scandals, both fiscal and moral, that debase our democracy, undermine the rule of law and decrease public respect for office-holders and thus government itself.

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The Ongoing Case for Public Morality

Back in September, I celebrated the defeats of Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer in Democratic primary elections in New York City and put forward the notion that perhaps the belated end of the political careers of these scandal-mired characters should cause us to not shy away from putting forward a case for public morality in the future. That’s a proposition most of our chattering classes reject since they tend to believe that when liberals mired in scandals are considered useful or popular (paging Bill Clinton), they tell us not to confuse private conduct with public duties. But it is all the more necessary to return to the topic today now that a Republican has become one of this week’s prime subjects for late-night comedy humor.

Rep. Trey Radel’s arrest in a drug sting for cocaine possession may seem like something straight out of House of Cards. Yet his apparent intention to stay in office requires both liberals and conservatives to come to grips with the question of whether Congress ought to tolerate having lawbreakers in their midst even when they are preemptively seeking to invoke a redemption storyline to gain sympathy. By claiming a leave of absence from Congress to go to rehab during which he will forgo pay, Radel is seeking to silence calls for his resignation. He’s not contesting the facts of the case against him and seemed to be thanking the police for giving him a “wake-up call” to get his life back together as a result of the arrest. “I’m struggling with this disease, but I can overcome it,” he vowed.

I hope he wins that fight. Drug addiction is a disease and those who suffer from it are faced with a lifelong battle for which they deserve our sympathy and encouragement. But that doesn’t entitle them to a seat in Congress. Rep. Radel needs to go home and members of the Republican caucus shouldn’t refrain from pointing this out to him.

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Back in September, I celebrated the defeats of Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer in Democratic primary elections in New York City and put forward the notion that perhaps the belated end of the political careers of these scandal-mired characters should cause us to not shy away from putting forward a case for public morality in the future. That’s a proposition most of our chattering classes reject since they tend to believe that when liberals mired in scandals are considered useful or popular (paging Bill Clinton), they tell us not to confuse private conduct with public duties. But it is all the more necessary to return to the topic today now that a Republican has become one of this week’s prime subjects for late-night comedy humor.

Rep. Trey Radel’s arrest in a drug sting for cocaine possession may seem like something straight out of House of Cards. Yet his apparent intention to stay in office requires both liberals and conservatives to come to grips with the question of whether Congress ought to tolerate having lawbreakers in their midst even when they are preemptively seeking to invoke a redemption storyline to gain sympathy. By claiming a leave of absence from Congress to go to rehab during which he will forgo pay, Radel is seeking to silence calls for his resignation. He’s not contesting the facts of the case against him and seemed to be thanking the police for giving him a “wake-up call” to get his life back together as a result of the arrest. “I’m struggling with this disease, but I can overcome it,” he vowed.

I hope he wins that fight. Drug addiction is a disease and those who suffer from it are faced with a lifelong battle for which they deserve our sympathy and encouragement. But that doesn’t entitle them to a seat in Congress. Rep. Radel needs to go home and members of the Republican caucus shouldn’t refrain from pointing this out to him.

Let us concede that all of us are fallible and no one should expect moral perfection or the façade of it from public officials. But all too often politicians seem to forget that public office is a public trust, not an entitlement. In their egotism, they seem to think their power gives them the impunity to misbehave. And when they get in trouble, they slip into redemption mode and ask us to love them because they are reformed sinners. Sometimes this ploy works better than others (Mark Sanford as opposed to Anthony Weiner) but the main point of these pieces of cheap theater is to perpetuate their grip on power and position.

In the past, House Speaker John Boehner has taken a dim view of scandal-plagued Republicans and quickly shown them the door. It should be recalled that a few months before Anthony Weiner imploded on Twitter in 2011, Rep. Chris Lee, a New York Republican, got in trouble when the married congressman was found to be soliciting women on the Internet. With a firm push from his leadership, he quickly resigned. The question today is why was Lee’s transgression considered political poison but Radel’s lawbreaking is worthy of possible forgiveness? That’s the implication of Boehner’s decision to hold off on pressure on Radel to leave office.

Let’s remember that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has rightly called for “zero tolerance” of ethical issues. What’s changed?

Anyone who gets into hot water in Washington can always point to the pass President John F. Kennedy got from the press for his scandalous doings behind the scenes in the White House even as the public was fed a fairy story about the first family of Camelot. They can also cite the pass President Bill Clinton received from Democrats and the way he has become a political elder statesman whose past disgrace is never thrown in his face. That’s regrettable, but perhaps as a nation we have “evolved” to the point when we no longer consider the spectacle of a powerful middle-aged public official sexually exploiting an intern a big deal. But have we also gotten to the point where we are prepared to tolerate junkies in Congress?

Whatever your position about the utility of the war on drugs or legalization, their use is a plague on society and does enormous damage. Congress’s image may be so bad these days that no one considers them role models, but are we really prepared to normalize lawbreaking associated with their use to the point that we are prepared to “move on” (as Clinton’s defenders said) and welcome them back to Capitol Hill after they return from rehab or the courthouse? Not to mention the hypocrisy of his getting arrested for drugs days after voting for drug tests for people who get food stamps.

The wake-up call here is not just for Radel. It’s for a political class that has too often tolerated wrongdoers in their midst. The American people have a right to expect that those entrusted with high office behave as if it is a public trust. That involves, at a minimum, avoiding public misbehavior. Lawbreaking and drug use ought to be beyond the pale.

Radel holds a safe Republican seat in Florida and, as Sanford proved, Southern voters seem to love a reformed sinner. But Boehner and Cantor ought not even consider allowing Radel to hold on until November 2014. He needs to resign. Now.

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A Penalty for Polluting the Public Square?

In recent weeks there’s been a lot of self-congratulation on the part of some pundits who believe the relative acceptance of scandal-ridden politicians by the voters is a sign of maturity in the American body politic. If, we were told, men like Rep. Mark Sanford, Anthony Weiner, and Eliot Spitzer could be embraced by the public—Sanford won a special congressional election in South Carolina while the latter two have risen to the top in polls in this year’s New York City municipal elections—then it was taken as a sign that Americans were no longer interested in public morality and had left any Victorian inhibitions about public life behind. There was already plenty of evidence for this trend prior to this year. Former President Bill Clinton’s disgraceful carrying on with a White House intern is practically forgotten. Similarly, Louisiana voters seem to have forgiven Senator David Vitter for his patronage of prostitutes. But if Anthony Weiner survives the publication of more embarrassing evidence from the scandal that ended his congressional career, an entirely new boundary will have been crossed.

As he told us when he entered this year’s race to become the next mayor New York, there was more proof out there of his bizarre use of the Internet. But while New Yorkers may have been willing to support Weiner on the assumption that his aberrant behavior was in the past, the publication of sexually charged text exchanges between the former congressman and a woman who is not his wife may be a bridge too far for even the enlightened citizens of Gotham. Weiner’s initial admission that at least some of what has been made public by a gossip website is accurate, as well as the possibility that some of the exchanges took place after he was forced out of Congress, alters the political calculus of his comeback. Not only is Weiner compelled to relive the shame of the initial scandal, these revelations may show that his misbehavior continued even after he vowed to change his ways and affect the willingness of his wife to continue vouching for him as she has throughout the campaign. Given the deluge of ridicule that is about to land on his head again, I think it’s now even money as to whether Weiner’s candidacy survives this incident and highly doubtful that he can ever be elected mayor.

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In recent weeks there’s been a lot of self-congratulation on the part of some pundits who believe the relative acceptance of scandal-ridden politicians by the voters is a sign of maturity in the American body politic. If, we were told, men like Rep. Mark Sanford, Anthony Weiner, and Eliot Spitzer could be embraced by the public—Sanford won a special congressional election in South Carolina while the latter two have risen to the top in polls in this year’s New York City municipal elections—then it was taken as a sign that Americans were no longer interested in public morality and had left any Victorian inhibitions about public life behind. There was already plenty of evidence for this trend prior to this year. Former President Bill Clinton’s disgraceful carrying on with a White House intern is practically forgotten. Similarly, Louisiana voters seem to have forgiven Senator David Vitter for his patronage of prostitutes. But if Anthony Weiner survives the publication of more embarrassing evidence from the scandal that ended his congressional career, an entirely new boundary will have been crossed.

As he told us when he entered this year’s race to become the next mayor New York, there was more proof out there of his bizarre use of the Internet. But while New Yorkers may have been willing to support Weiner on the assumption that his aberrant behavior was in the past, the publication of sexually charged text exchanges between the former congressman and a woman who is not his wife may be a bridge too far for even the enlightened citizens of Gotham. Weiner’s initial admission that at least some of what has been made public by a gossip website is accurate, as well as the possibility that some of the exchanges took place after he was forced out of Congress, alters the political calculus of his comeback. Not only is Weiner compelled to relive the shame of the initial scandal, these revelations may show that his misbehavior continued even after he vowed to change his ways and affect the willingness of his wife to continue vouching for him as she has throughout the campaign. Given the deluge of ridicule that is about to land on his head again, I think it’s now even money as to whether Weiner’s candidacy survives this incident and highly doubtful that he can ever be elected mayor.

For redemption to work there must be closure, and it’s almost certain that this ridiculous discussion will continue. Moreover, given Weiner’s initial lies about his behavior two years ago, any denials issued today about the dating of this exchanges must be taken with a shovelful of salt.

Americans love comeback stories and seem willing to give people second chances. But even if this episodes dies down, Weiner must now ask New Yorkers for a third chance, and that seems a stretch even if you consider the weakness of his competition.

It’s also an interesting question to see if Weiner’s decline either helps or hurts Spitzer. It may be that the collapse of Weiner will make it easier for Spitzer to win the post of controller, but it’s also entirely possible that some of the disgust of the voters for Weiner’s continuing antics will attach to Spitzer. It remains to be seen if the “ick” factor of Weiner’s Internet fetish will ultimately be considered less forgivable than Spitzer’s more traditional employment of call girls.

But however this shakes out in New York, the spectacle of voters being asked to give politicians a pass for this kind of misbehavior is also an argument for reverting to a moral code that might require them to stay out of public life once they’ve transgressed. None of us are perfect and we all require forgiveness at times. But the notion that it is too much to ask those given the honor and the responsibility of power to behave themselves is one that can sink under the weight of ridicule.

If Anthony Weiner accomplishes anything this year, it might be to remind us that there is a case to be made for probity and decorum in the public square and that Americans prefer not to be led by sexual scoundrels. If that makes us prudes who want to preserve supposedly antiquated ideas about public morality, then so be it. Let’s have an end to faux campaigns of redemption and fake apologies. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with requiring politicians who can’t avoid personal scandal that brings dishonor on their offices and their families to simply go away. It’s time for Weiner or anyone like him to stop bothering us with their addictions to power and sexual misconduct and find peace out of the public eye. There ought to be a penalty for polluting the public square in this manner, and Weiner should pay it.

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